“Joe Raposo, the first musical director, decided very early there would not be one music style. We wanted kids to hear all different music: R&B, opera, show tunes, folk, world music,” Christopher Cerf, a composer-songwriter on the show from 1973-1999, told Billboard.
There were pop superstars like Beyonce with Destiny’s Child, who in a 2002 episode sang “A New Way to Walk,” a song composed by Raposo in 1985.
And an entire 1973 episode was devoted to Stevie Wonder. He opened the show with a little ditty he wrote called “1-2-3 Sesame Street,” using a vocoder to alter his voice. He gave Grover a lesson in scat singing. Finally, Wonder, then 22, played his heart out on his funky No. 1 hit “Superstition” to an enthusiastic audience of kids and adults.
Sonia Manzano, who played the role of Maria, told NPR that Wonder’s visit to “Sesame Street” and his performance of “Superstition” was a special moment that stood out for her in her 44 years on the show.
“The whole studio rocked out and it was great because, white people, black people, young people, old people — everybody was on the same page for that two minutes that he sang and that really stands out. …
“It was a moment of clarity, I think that you know, we started this show, we thought we were going to end racism, we were going to close the education gap. … We had big dreams! And moments like Stevie being on the show gave us a glimpse of the way things could be.”
And here’s a special moment from the 1972 season that reflects what makes “Sesame Street”’s musical legacy so unique and inspiring. It’s Nina Simone singing her song “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.” The title comes an autobiographical play based on the writings of her late friend Lorraine Hansberry, who wrote the groundbreaking play “A Raisin in the Sun.”
“Sesame Street” premiered on PBS on Nov. 10, 1969. Its producers made two inspired hires. The first was someone everyone is familiar with—puppeteer Jim Henson, who brought his Muppets to the show: Kermit the Frog, Elmo, Grover, Oscar the Grouch, Cookie Monster, and company.
The second is less familiar: Raposo, a Harvard-educated, classically trained composer and jazz pianist who became the show’s first musical director. Raposo composed the theme song “Can You Tell Me How to Get to Sesame Street?” He would go on to write 3,000 pieces of varying lengths for the show before his untimely death of lymphoma at age 51 in 1989.
Raposo’s son Nick told southeast Massachusetts newspaper The Standard-Times: “My father always said that children are not stupid people—they’re just little people. I believe it’s this respect for kids, and the music certainly reflects this, that resonated with so many people and continues to resonate to this day.”
Here’s Gladys Knight & the Pips singing a jazzed-up version of the theme song for a 1988 PBS pledge-drive “Sesame Street” special.
Two of Raposo’s songs would go far beyond “Sesame Street” to become American songbook standards covered by many other singers. “Sing,” composed by Raposo in 1971, became the show’s signature song. It was also covered by Barbra Streisand and The Carpenters, whose rather saccharine version peaked at No. 3 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart in 1973.
Chance the Rapper, who has appeared on “Sesame Street,” told The New York Times that he heard “Sing” as a young child and it still inspires him. He said “Sing” “felt like it was a song telling me not only to just be confident and keep going in all ways, but specifically as an artist to this day, it makes me feel like I should be creating.”
And for its 50th anniversary in 2019, the show’s producer, Sesame Workshop, put together a mashup of cast members, Muppets, and celebrities performing “Sing” over the decades, offering a glimpse of just how many different styles of music have been featured.
And then there’s “Bein’ Green,” which Raposo composed in one night during the show’s first season because head writer and producer Jon Stone needed a song for Kermit the Frog. The song was first sung by Henson, the voice of Kermit, who poignantly expressed the difficulty of feeling too uninteresting and not standing out because of his ordinary color.
But the song’s message about getting and being comfortable in your own skin whatever the color took on a whole new meaning about race when the incomparable Lena Horne performed it with Kermit on a 1974 episode.
Raposo was particularly thrilled when his idol Frank Sinatra recorded “Bein’ Green” for his 1971 album “Sinatra & Company.” Sinatra was so impressed with the “Sesame Street” composer that he asked Raposo to write four songs for his 1973 comeback album “Ol’ Blue Eyes Is Back,” which ended the singer’s brief retirement.
And then in 1975, Ray Charles turned the song into an anthem of Black pride when he included it on his album “Renaissance” and made it part of his concert repertoire, titling it “It Ain’t Easy Being Green.”
Raposo also composed a memorable tune for another Muppet character. “C Is For Cookie” had its debut in 1971, opening with Cookie Monster standing behind a giant letter C against a black background. But then in 1994, a new over-the-top “Aida”-themed operatic version aired featuring the legendary mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne in an Egyptian setting with a pyramid made of cookies in the background.
“Sesame Street” never had any problems booking celebrities for the show after Wonder provided that iconic musical performance in 1973, Cerf told The New York Times. “You really could approach almost anyone and have a shot at getting them to come on,” said Cerf. “And people started to call us, especially celebrities who had just had kids.”
And Cerf composed “The Letter B Song” for the King of the Blues, during the 2001 season.
The big lure for celebrity parents and kids was the chance to hang out on the set with their favorite Muppets. Johnny Cash brought his three-year-old son along for the taping of his first-appearance in 1973. In the 1990s, he came back with his daughter Rosanne Cash and granddaughter.
On that first appearance, Cash performed a song that was much to the liking of Oscar the Grouch, “Nasty Dan,” written by Jeff Moss, “Sesame Street”’s head writer, composer, and lyricist.
Moss also composed another “Sesame Street” classic, “Rubber Duckie,” which made quite a splash when performed by Little Richard.
It’s hard to gauge just how many artists were inspired by what they heard on “Sesame Street” as a child over the decades. Questlove of The Roots told Billboard: “The only two shows my parents let me watch growing up were `Soul Train’ and `Sesame Street.’ It’s one of the pop-culture references I use every day, much to the chagrin of anyone born after 1981.”
And “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, interviewed by The New York Times, said “Sesame Street” is “one of the earliest examples of a musical I experienced. I learned from ‘Sesame Street’ that music is not only incredibly fun, but also an extremely effective narrative and teaching tool,” he added. “On top of that, their songs are the closest thing we have to a shared childhood songbook.”
Miranda had just won a Tony Award in 2008 for the musical “In the Heights” when he was invited a year later to play the role of a villainous bird real estate agent on “Sesame Street.” He would go on to write several Latin-flavored tunes for the show.
In 2010, Bill Sherman, Miranda’s Tony-winning collaborator on “In the Heights,” became the show’s musical director. The first song he composed with lyricist Chris Jackson for a celebrity guest was “What I Am” for rapper will.i.am. The song about being proud and believing in oneself won a 2011 Daytime Emmy.
And “Sesame Street” kept up with the times featuring guest appearances by Janelle Monáe, Sia, Ed Sheeran, Katy Perry, Bruno Mars, and Kacey Musgraves. More recently, Billie Eilish’s song “Happier Than Ever” was transformed into a song about counting with The Count.
Sherman says he feels a responsibility to continue on the musical trail blazed by Raposo and his team back in 1969. “A legacy means that it’s over and it’s not over,” he told NBC News. “And I feel that I’m responsible for keeping it moving … and I want to be part of it.”
And now let’s get to “Sesame Street” to sweep the clouds away and brighten the day with some more musical highlights from the past half century. And you can add your favorites in the comments section.
Folk singer Pete Seeger was the first musical guest ever to appear on the show in 1970:
Patti LaBelle sang the alphabet gospel-style. She told The New York Times that she considered it one of the most memorable performances of her career. “I love that so many kids and younger people know me from this—and my own grandchildren get a real kick out of seeing me sing with all the characters!”