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For Joe

June 3, 2008

I guess I’m just in the mood these days to pay tribute to the artists who have influenced my tastes. Friday I said good-bye to Harvey Korman. Today, I want to pay tribute to a musical genius who would hate to be called a genius.

A trip to Fall River Massachusetts would probably find you on your way to the Battleship Cove War Museum. But this South-Eastern Massachusetts community is famous for more than just a war museum. This is the birthplace of a musician whose music can be heard nearly every day either on PBS, or at the beginning of an episode of THREE’S COMPANY. I’m talking about the legendary Joe Raposo.

Joe’s music has been a part of my and every 30 to 40-something’s entire life. In the early days of SESAME STREET, Joe was cranking out the tunes left, right, and six ways from Sunday. The funny thing is that Joe never actually set out to be the classic TV show’s most prolific tune smith. Like every serious musician, Joe wanted to write the next great musical. Truth be told, Joe already HAD a great deal of experience as musical director and collaborator on a few Broadway shows in the late 1960’s. Then came the newly formed Children’s Television Workshop, and their breakthrough show that is still on the air to this day. I can’t remember a time when SESAME STREET wasn’t on the air. I will say, however, with no small degree of frustration that SESAME STREET pales in comparison now to its former free-wheeling, fun-filled glory, but that’s another article. Getting back to Joe, I do remember clearly the first song that Joe wrote for STREET that I flipped over. That song was “J-Jump”, and it was my first look at the way Joe tried to look at the world.

You see, readers, Joe was possibly the least cynical personal the good Lord ever breathed life into. I only discovered in recent years that the first thing Joe would do every time he met someone was give that person a bear hug. I would be willing to bet that 30 seconds later, you had a new best friend. This genuine good humor found its way into many of the songs Joe wrote. There are times when Joe’s lyrics remind me of an Andy Rooney commentary. His “Fruit Song” is a perfect example of what I mean. In this song, Joe muses on the origins of the nectarine, explains why he doesn’t trust grapefruits, and complains about the difficulty of preparing a pineapple properly. If that doesn’t sound like Andy Rooney, I don’t know what does.

While we’re on the subject of Joe and food, I’m tempted to say that these were the songs that Joe enjoyed writing the most. The song he wrote for The Greedy in RAGGEDY ANN AND ANDY is a catalog of desserts and sweet treats. And don’t even get Joe started on his love affair with cookies. I think he worked in a cookie reference every chance he got.

But Joe was more than just a laugh and a smile. Sometimes Joe’s lyrics were just simply beautiful. “I Believe in Little Things”, for example reminds us of just how important it is to stop and notice the world around you, because sometimes the littlest thing is very important. “I was Young Once, Too”, which he wrote for THE ELECTRIC COMPANY is a sweetly sad and sentimental look back at an old man’s younger days. Still, the song that got The Academy Awards committee looking in Joe’s direction was “The First Time it Happens” from THE GREAT MUPPET CAPER. In this song, we learn that falling in love just happens, and can occasionally take you by surprise. Unfortunately for Joe and his fans, he had to compete against “Arthur’s Theme”. I wonder what a difference one year would have made in releasing these movies?

I mentioned in my opening paragraph that Joe never wanted to be called a genius. I learned this while reading about his contributions to RAGGEDY ANN AND ANDY. Joe always believed that he was just meant to be a composer, that sitting at his piano and banging out a great song was just as natural as breathing. Well, Joe, I hate to tell you this, but you were and are a genius. And I’m not just talking about the variety and scope of your lyrics. I’m also talking about the ease in which you went from one style to another, sometimes within the same project. One minute, Joe is rocking out with his buzz guitars and brass section, the next he’s pulled out his collection of toy instruments and sound effects (rivaled only by one of Joe’s idols Spike Jones), and he’s composed a crazy cartoon-style concoction that would have made Spike wave the white flag of surrender (watch the Dark House attack sequence from the animated GRINCH GRINCHES THE CAT IN THE HAT if you don’t believe me, I think he used them ALL in that minute of animation). In my book, to be able to accomplish these extremes IS genius.

I’m sad to say that Joe never lived to receive the thanks and appreciation he deserved. Joe was stricken with lymphoma, and died in Bronxville New York in February of 1989. I didn’t learn of this until I watched the PBS tribute. His death reminded me at the time how little I knew about him. It would be another 10 to 15 years before I would really start to learn about him, and what a class act he was. Now that I’ve learned a lot about this great man, the more I wish I could have thanked him personally for teaching me about the different types of music that are out there, and how you shouldn’t box yourself into preferring only one style. I’d also like to thank him for teaching me that life was meant to be observed, noticed, and appreciated. So here’s to you, Joe Raposo. You made us smile, laugh, cry, and think, and I will be forever grateful to you for that.

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5 comments

  1. Very nice tribute. Yep, Joe Raposo was indeed a genius! He’s a big influence on my own music, for sure. Too bad relatively few people know who he is — even though just about everybody knows at least a few of his songs.


  2. Hi, Jeff!

    it is indeed sad that most people don’t know the man behind the music. I have to say that until I got my hands on the Jim Henson tribute book, I didn’t even have a clue as to what Joe looked like. Best of luck with your own music. I just listened to some samples. Really good stuff!


  3. Wow. That’s beautiful. You touched me right in the heart again. I don’t think I have ever read a better-written tribute to him, and I agree on all points. I know Joe is looking down from heaven with a fond smile and has whispered you a soft “thank you.”

    I’m cheered too to hear Jeff Boller is composing in Joe’s style also. That light must be carried on, and as another fan I want to thank Jeff for his work as well.

    Andy, you might be tickled to know there is now, of all things, a Sunshine Again coloring book now in the works. Joe is in it. See below for details!

    We are rehearsing for the next round of episodes and have a fantastic Portuguese-American vocalist and actor who will be playing an of course completely unrelated “Joe” on the program. Things are going great.

    I’d love to show share a page or two from the coloring book with you! It’s based on an upcoming episode, and is basically, “Joe’s Crabby Day”. I’ll email you a couple of pages from it and see what you think 🙂

    P.S.: drawing him was a lot of fun!


  4. Thanks, Andy and Heather!


  5. You are most welcome, Jeff, and please keep us posted on how you’re doing!



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