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"Sesame Street" Turns 50: Remembering The Series' Greatest Musical Parodies

Feist on "Sesame Street" in 2008

Photo courtesy of PBS

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"Sesame Street" Turns 50: Remembering The Series' Greatest Musical Parodies

From Feist's "1234" to Norah Jones' "Don't Know Y," here are 10 parodies of other people’s songs that the fantastic songwriting crew at "Sesame Street" have lovingly made their own through the years

GRAMMYs/Nov 16, 2019 - 12:04 am

The two most enduring and unshakable attributes of "Sesame Street"'s 50 years on the air have been multicultural unity and education in the creative arts. And it was music that’s proven to be the quintessential conduit connecting these two primary factors in the program's half-century of success throughout its entire run on television. 

Whether it was the creative use of analog synthesizers at the beginning of the very first episode aired on Nov. 9, 1969 to the Pointer Sisters’ pinball song to the guest appearances from such superstars as Stevie Wonder, Tony Bennett, Cher, Cab Calloway, Chaka Khan, Linda Ronstadt and so many more on through to the numerous GRAMMY Awards the show's music department has won over the decades, music has always been the nucleus that keeps the power charged at 1234 Sesame Street. 

But perhaps the most appealing aspects of the show’s lifelong love affair with recorded sound has been the virtual songbook that’s been created through the years of Sesame’s world famous song parodies—utilized to put a child-friendly and educational spin on a current hit song of the day. 

Here are 10 parodies of other people’s songs that the fantastic songwriting crew at "Sesame Street" have lovingly made their own through the years.

"Two Princes" by The Spin Doctors

"I happened to be watching television one day and as I flipped through the channels I saw Peter Sellers on 'Sesame Street,'” recalls Spin Doctors frontman Chris Barron to the Recording Academy about the band’s appearance on Episode 3450 in Feb. 1996. "'Classic,' I thought, and I watched the rest of the segment. Peter Sellers was followed by Aretha Franklin, Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts and Bruce Springsteen. I called my agent and asked her to call them and see if they wanted Spin Doctors. They got right back and said they'd love to have us.

"Standing on my mark with Telly, the Muppet, I confided to him that I had never worked with puppets before. He put his paw on my forearm, leaned it conspiratorially, and said, 'To tell the truth, neither have I.'"

The show has an amazing creative department who came up with the 'cooperation' version 'Two Princes.' When we arrived on the set, I tweaked a few of the lines to make them sing a little bit better. Standing on my mark with Telly, the Muppet, I confided to him that I had never worked with puppets before. He put his paw on my forearm, leaned it conspiratorially, and said, 'To tell the truth, neither have I.' 

You can see that I’m laughing at the beginning of the clip as I walk on camera. I’m very proud to have been a part of that show. Not only because of the great people who have also made appearances, but to be a part of some of the greatest educational programming ever, not to mention, 'Sesame Street' was a big part of my childhood."

"Happy, Furry Monsters" by R.E.M.

It’s hard to really pinpoint what makes this "Sesame Street" version of what many R.E.M. fans consider the group's biggest sonic faux pas so wonderful upon its premiere on Episode 3829 in 1998. Maybe "Daysleeper" from their then-new album Up didn’t jibe with the Muppets. Perhaps it was all centered around that Muppet version of Kate Pierson of the B-52's. When we asked the men themselves, however, this even shinier, happier version of their 1991 hit single had always made sense as a "Sesame" song.

"We might not have done other songs with the Muppets but that one fitted," Mike Mills told the Sun in 2016. "They had already rewritten it as 'Furry Happy Monsters' and we said, ‘All right, why not?’ It’s not as if we were tarnishing its legacy.” That same year, Michael Stipe told NBC's Willie Geist, "It was a song written for children, and it’s still enjoyed in elementary schools around the world as far as I know.

"1234" by Feist

In the Aug. 22, 2019 edition of the New York Times, Leslie Feist spoke at length with writer Melena Ryzik about how her 2007 indie-pop smash "1234" has become more renowned among preschoolers than hipsters in the decade since the tune received its Muppet makeover in 2008 on Episode 4161, the first episode of the show's 39th season that year.

"Do you mind, my 3-year-old has watched it 7,000 times," Feist told the Times in regards to the countless instances she’s been stopped by parents for an autograph. "And I say yes, but I always joke: You notice me because you’re a grown-up—the 3-year-olds are really only interested in the puppets. And without fail, the kids are just sort of looking at me like, who is this weird lady in the airport?’" 

But the proof is in the viewer numbers on YouTube. As it stands at press time, the "Sesame" version of "1234" has 281,064,113 views, while the original is capped at 13 million.

"Wrong" by Waylon Jennings



"Sesame"'s first foray into movie theaters with 1985's "Follow That Bird" indeed teemed with heavyweight cameos by such comedy legends as Chevy Chase, John Candy and Sandra Bernhardt. But for young music heads, it was the appearance of the late, great Waylon Jennings as a truck driver who picks up Big Bird along the way, and the two sing a duet together on a song called "Ain’t No Road Too Long" written by the songwrtiting team of Jeff Pennig, Jeff Harrington, and Steve Pippin with additional vocals by Gordon, Grover, Olivia and the Count.

But it was in 1990 when Jennings made his official debut on the Street, appearing on episode 2850 to perform "Wrong," a song from the country great’s then-new album The Eagle, retooled to encourage Big Bird to build a properly standing block tower. Waylon and Big Bird puppeteer Carroll Spinney became pals, with Spinney going on tour with Jennings in the early '90s, where he'd make a cameo as Oscar the Grouch, the other main character he controlled. "It was more like rock 'n' roll than country," Spinney told the Muppets-based blog Tough Pigs. "And when we were in Nashville, he asked me to have Oscar ask him, 'Hey Waylon, what's the best thing about Garth Brooks?’ And then I’d answer him, 'He ain't here!'"

"Just The Way You Are" by Billy Joel

"You hear the song and then you get the piano," Billy Joel assures Oscar the Grouch when he guest starred on Episode 2533 alongside actress Marlee Matlin, mere months removed from her role as a member of the cast for Alex Cox's 1987 Joe Strummer-soundtracked masterpiece Walker. That was the deal the Piano Man set for the Grouch in order to let the beloved garbage monster keep the keys, and Oscar then begrudgingly sat through Joel serenading him with a sweet version of his 1977 hit ballad "Just The Way You Are" as Matlin translated the lyrics in American Sign Language.

Joel's appearance in 1988 came at a time when he had installed a bit of a moratorium on "Just The Way You Are," following his 1982 divorce from first wife Elizabeth Weber. But given he had a little three-year-old Alexa Ray Joel was undoubtedly an avid viewer of the show must have surely cajoled him into changing his tune.  

"Don’t Know Y" by Norah Jones

“You came!” smiled Norah Jones to the Letter Y after leading a chorus of all the surviving members of the original "Sesame Street" cast through a welcome song that brought in HBO's 50th Anniversary special on Veteran's Day weekend 2019. It was the perfect little cherry on top of an already impossibly endearing segment that lovingly harkens back to her first appearance on the show on Episode 4081 in May 2004 when she serenaded Elmo with a vowel-friendly version of the song rewritten by longtime "Sesame Street" songwriter Christine Ferraro. "I was supposed to meet my friend today, the Letter of the Day," she told Elmo before breaking into the song. "But Y never showed up." Then they start reflecting on all the "Y" words they know until the penultimate letter in the alphabet finally showed up.

"Hold My Hand" by Hootie & The Blowfish

Even the most ardent Hootie hater cannot help but get the feels for this insanely sweet reworking of their biggest hit, effortlessly rewiring it into a song about—what else?—practicing safety when crossing the street. "I don't know how that came together, but it was really fun," recalls guitarist Mark Bryan, speaking to the Recording Academy. "And they re-wrote the lyrics, not us. We were working off of an instrumental track so we had to re-sing everything, backgrounds and all. On set, I got to pop up through Oscar's trash can, and sit in Big Bird's nest. Literally felt like a little kid."

"There was a palpable magic being on the set of 'Sesame Street' that morning, even as an adult," adds Hootie's chief songwriter, multi-instrumentalist Jim Sonefeld. "It was only slightly dulled by the physical state I was in after another late night in Manhattan. This was a big stretch to have someone change our lyrics this drastically, especially after three self-penned platinum albums. The only reason we did it was the special place in our hearts we all still held for 'Sesame Street.' I remember the producers being grateful for our willingness and ability to adjust to the new lyrics so quickly. They did not have the same level of thanks after seeing our acting skills."

"Barn In The U.S.A." by Bruce Stringbean And The S Street Band

This farm animal singalong from Episode 2991 in 1991 highlights the talents of "Sesame Street"'s longtime in-house lyricist Emily Perl Kingsley, who worked on the show from 1970 to 2015 when she retired having one 21 Emmy Awards for her efforts through the years. As one YouTube viewer commented, this version of the Bruce Springsteen anti-war anthem has a little darkness on the edge of its town in this version led by "Bruce Stringbean And The S Street Band" featuring performances by such Sesame power players as show songwriter Christopher Cerf, the Voice of Elmo himself Kevin Clash, Elmo's World creator Jim Martin and Avenue Q puppeteer Rick Lyons, among others. The song would also be featured on the Children’s Television Workshop album Sesame Street: Born To Add

"Letter B" By The Beetles

Many "Sesame Street" viewers might not immediately know the name Richard Hunt without Googling. But they will most certainly know many of the beloved Muppets he had voiced in his all-too-short life after succumbing to an AIDS-related illness in 1992. Scooter, Janice, Statler, Beaker and Junior Gorg from "Fraggle Rock" were just some of the characters he portrayed through the years. But one of his truly best works just turned 40 this year when he captained an insect beat group called The Beetles through a rewiring of the title track to the Fabs' 1970 swan song to celebrate everyone's favorite first consonant in the alphabet. You can really hear the Harry Nilsson influence in Hunt’s voice as he sings as well, allowing the song to seamlessly survive ear appeal beyond the visual aspect, giving light to his immense talent taken from us far too soon.

"Don't Take Your Ones To Town" by Johnny Cash

One of the more harrowing gunfighter ballads in the Johnny Cash canon is the cautionary tale "Don't Take Your Guns To Town" from the Man in Black's 1958 LP The Fabulous Johnny Cash. But in 1991, Cash saw his classic tune retold on Episode 2982 into "Don't Take Your Ones To Town," penned by in-house lyricist Christopher Cerf. The "Sesame Street" version finds Big Bird playing "Birdie-Big," a cowpoke who counts to 1 all over town in lieu of Cash's warning until he meets the Count and the Countess, who teach him to count higher.

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Rotimi On Performing At ESSENCE Fest, Growing Up African-American & More

Rotimi

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Rotimi On Performing At ESSENCE Fest, Growing Up African-American & More

The Nigerian-American singer and actor sat down with the Recording Academy to talk about what inspired his latest album, 'Walk With Me'

GRAMMYs/Jul 8, 2019 - 10:04 pm

In 2015, Rotimi stepped into the New Orleans Superdome for the first time to experience the magic of ESSENCE Fest. Four years later, in 2019, the "Love Riddim" singer returned to the celebration as a performer, something he said was spoken into existence.

"Last year me and my manager had a conversation and I said, 'Listen, I'm going to be on the [ESSENCE] mainstage this year. 365 days later, we did it," Rotimi told the Recording Academy at the 25th annual ESSENCE Fest.

Rotimi, also an actor on Starz' "Power," has evolved since his last album, 2017's Jeep Music, Vol.1. The singer said he really hit home with its follow-up, the recently released Walk With Me, a project he worked hard for, putting in hours in the studio after filming on set.

"Walk With Me is the first time I actually felt like I was giving myself as an artist, and personally I feel like with everything else I have going on I wanted to show people that this is really what I do," he said. "I wanted people to understand who Rotimi is, who Rotimi was before, who I want to be and just understand my growth and the journey and my passion for what I do."

Part of why the album felt like such a representation of him is because it embodies beats of his African roots, something he said was very present growing up Nigerian-American. 

"I grew up with a lot of Fela Kuti and I grew up with Bob Marley," he said of his musical roots. "But I also grew up with Carl Thomas and Genuine and Usher, so there was a genuine mixture of who I am and what I've grown up to listen to. The actual Walk With Me project was a mixture of influences of Akon and Craig David."

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A Tribute In Black To Johnny Cash

A star-studded roster of GRAMMY-winning talent celebrates the music and 80th birthday of Johnny Cash in Austin, Texas

GRAMMYs/Dec 3, 2014 - 05:06 am

Though Johnny Cash passed away in 2003, he's having a very good year in 2012. The latest in a series of events honoring the man in black — an 80th-birthday tribute titled We Walk The Line: A Celebration Of The Music Of Johnny Cash — drew a slew of GRAMMY-winning performers to Austin, Texas, for a lively Friday-night show on April 20 at Austin City Limits Live at the Moody Theater.

Top billing went to Cash's surviving Highwaymen brethren, GRAMMY winners Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson, who teamed with Shooter Jennings (son of late GRAMMY-winning Highwayman Waylon Jennings) and Jamey Johnson in a reunion of sorts on the song "Highwayman." Under a large banner bearing an image of Cash strumming a guitar, flanked by two silhouettes, Nelson also teamed with GRAMMY winner Sheryl Crow on "If I Were A Carpenter."

Crow sounded almost as if she were addressing Cash when she joked to Nelson, "I would definitely have your baby — if I could. If I didn't have two others of my own. And if you weren't married. And if I wasn't friends with your wife." 

Audience members cheered lustily in approval, as they did throughout most of the show, a taped-for-DVD benefit for the childhood muscular dystrophy foundation Charley's Fund. Just hours earlier, many of them had watched as Nelson helped unveil his new statue in front of the theater, which sits on a street also named after him.

The event was produced by Keith Wortman with GRAMMY-winning producer Don Was serving as musical director. Was recruited Buddy Miller, Greg Leisz, Kenny Aronoff, and new Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Ian McLagan of the Faces as the house band. The handpicked all-star roster of performers ranged from Iron & Wine's Sam Beam, Brandi Carlile, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Andy Grammer, Amy Lee of Evanescence, and Pat Monahan of Train to Ronnie Dunn, Shelby Lynne, Old 97's lead singer Rhett Miller, Lucinda Williams, and even Austin-based actor Matthew McConaughey, who, in addition to emceeing, sang "The Man Comes Around."

"We wanted a real broad, diverse group of artists," Wortman said backstage. "With Cash, you're as likely to find his music in a punk rock music fan, a heavy metal fan and a Nashville music fan, so he's not just a country music guy." 

GRAMMY winner Monahan, who sang Kristofferson's "Help Me Make It Through The Night," commented before the show, "I think of Johnny Cash as a style, as you would think of clothing, or music or whatever. He was his own thing. No can can really describe Johnny Cash entirely. 

"And no one could deliver a song quite like him," continued Monahan. "He sang hundreds of other songwriters' songs and he made those songwriters important because of the way he delivered what they were saying. There's not much that I don't respect about him, and I told his son [John Carter Cash] earlier that I'm almost more inspired by the love for his family than his music."

Lynne, who won the Best New Artist GRAMMY in 2000, sang "Why Me Lord," another song penned by Kristofferson, and delivered a spirited duet with Monahan on "It Ain't Me Babe," said Cash has influenced "all of us."

"We appreciate the majestic rebellion that Johnny gave us all in the music business. And he's also one of the great American icons of all time," she added.

Among the acts who earned the loudest applause in a night full of high-volume appreciation was the GRAMMY-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops, the bluegrass quartet re-exposing the genre's African-American roots. Their rendition of "Jackson" was among many highlights. Earlier, co-founder Dom Flemons revealed the personal inspiration of Cash's catalog.

"Johnny Cash's music has had an impact on me as a rock and roll singer, a country singer, as a folk music performer and great interpreter of song. I just love everything that he's done," said Flemons.

Bandmate Hubby Jenkins added, "Johnny Cash was really great about putting emotional investment into every song that he sang."

Co-founder Rhiannon Giddens said Cash’s core was his voice and his subject matter, and no matter how much production was added, it never diluted his message. 

Miller, who named his band after "Wreck Of The Old '97," a song popularized by Cash, said their intent was to sound like "Johnny Cash meets the Clash." He also recalled always picking "Ring Of Fire," a classic inducted into the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame in 1999, on the tabletop jukebox during childhood visits to a Dallas diner. 

"I didn't know what it was about, but I knew that the guy who was singing it was singing it with everything he had," said Miller, dressed in black in homage to "one of my all-time heroes." "And there was so much heart behind it, and so much conviction. And nobody could sell a song like Johnny Cash. He meant every word he said, and if he didn't mean it, he made it sound like he meant it."

(Austin-based journalist Lynne Margolis currently contributes to American Songwriter, NPR's Song of the Day and newspapers nationwide, as well as several regional magazines and NPR-affiliate KUT-FM's "Texas Music Matters." A contributing editor to The Ties That Bind: Bruce Springsteen from A To E To Z, she has also previously written for Rollingstone.com and Paste magazine.)

Lady Legends And Newcomers Join Mercury Rev On Bobbie Gentry Tribute Album

Bobbie Gentry

Photo: NBCU Photo Bank/Getty Images

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Lady Legends And Newcomers Join Mercury Rev On Bobbie Gentry Tribute Album

Mercury Rev revisits Gentry's classic sophomore album with female guest vocalists who shine. Catch the album out Feb. 8

GRAMMYs/Nov 15, 2018 - 05:34 am

Indie band Mercury Rev have announced their next album, a tribute to Bobbie Gentry's The Delta Sweete Revisited, will be available on Feb. 8.

The album features an array of guest voices. Mercury Rev's incredible selection of guest vocalists on the tracks kicks off with Norah Jones performing "Okolona River Bottom Band." Others lending their voices to the effort are Phoebe Bridgers, Vashti Bunyan, Rachel Goswell, Marissa Nadler, Beth Orton, Lætitia Sadier, Hope Sandoval, Kaela Sinclair, Susanne Sundfør, Carice van Houten, and Lucinda Williams, whose rendition of "Ode To Billie Joe" was added to the original album's tracklist.

"Bobbie is iconic, original, eloquent and timeless," said singer Margo Price, whose guest vocals are featured on "Sermon." "She has remained a strong voice and an eternal spirit of the delta, wrapped in mystery, yet forever here."

The Delta Sweete was Gentry's 1968 follow up to her debut Ode To Billie Joe, for which she won three GRAMMYs at the 10th GRAMMY Awards.

For the full track list and additional details see Bella Union's announcement and Pitchfork. Mercury Rev recently concluded their 2018 U.S. tour and will be playing across Britain in Dec.

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Norah Jones, Anoushka Shankar, Philip Glass & More To Pay Tribute To Late Ravi Shankar For 100th Birthday

Ravi Shankar 

Photo: Courtesy of the Ravi Shankar Foundation

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Norah Jones, Anoushka Shankar, Philip Glass & More To Pay Tribute To Late Ravi Shankar For 100th Birthday

To celebrate the Indian classical GRAMMY winner's birthday, family, friends and those Shankar influenced will remember him through a series of concerts

GRAMMYs/Jan 10, 2020 - 06:06 am

Many might immediately associate the sitar, a plucked string instrument originating from India, with late GRAMMY-winning musician Ravi Shankar. Known as a virtuoso of Indian classical music, Shankar created a range of recordings including concertos and film scores heard all around the world. 

This year marks 100 years since his birthday on April 7, 1920. In celebration, family, friends and additional "foremost disciples" will remember Shankar through a series of concerts called Ravi Shankar Centennial Concerts.

Among the performers are daughters Norah Jones and Anoushka Shankar, Philip Glass, Dhani Harrison (whose father is late Beatles member George Harrison, who memorably collaborated with Shankar), Nitin Sawhney and an orchestra of the late musician's "foremost disciples." The special guests will perform at selected concerts in San Diego, Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, London and New Delhi.

London shows will run January through November at the Southbank Centre. No date for New Delhi has been announced. 

Jones and Shankar will perform in London on April 7 with Nitin Sawhney and with Harrison on May 19 at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in L.A. Shankar and Harrison will play at San Diego's Civic Theatre on May 16. Shankar to perform at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on May 22 and at Carnegie Hall with Philip Glass on May 29 in New York. 

Tickets for the Los Angeles show can be found here

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