Courtesy of Cathy Lawrence
If you were a kid in the 1970s and your parents let you watch TV, you would hear the music of Stephen Lawrence. From Muppets to big stars, Lawrence has composed the music of hundreds of Sesame Street Songs. He was also musical director of Free to be you and me, the beloved children’s music album designed and produced by actress Marlo Thomas, and composed songs for the project, including the title track, with the late lyricist Bruce Hart.
Lawrence died on December 30 at Clara Maass Medical Center in Belleville, NJ. He was 82 years old. His wife, Cathy Lawrence, told NPR he suffered from “puzzling symptoms for years which have worsened sharply in recent months.”
Stephen J. Lawrence was extremely proud to have provided the melodies and harmonies to the songs performed by singers he admired.
“What do Marlo Thomas, Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Roberta Flack, Dionne Warwick, Mel Brooks, Rosey Grier and Harry Belafonte have in common?” he wrote on his website. “They all performed on the million-sales record and / or the Emmy-winning special, ‘Free to Be … You and Me’. ‘ I was the Music Director and I composed the title song and four others for the flagship project and I’m going to tell you, from the start, how we created the music. “
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“He was adorable and fun, but he was very serious about music,” Marlo Thomas told NPR. Free to be you and me was “a project for children that was non-sexist and non-racist, and would make them feel empowered, boys and girls,” says Thomas.
She remembers when Lawrence and Hart first played the title song to her. “They called it ‘Free to be you and me, Gymboree’ – you know lyricists love these little triplets,” Thomas recalls, “And I didn’t like the gymboree part, but I immediately loved it. I loved the lyrics. I love the idea of the horses running free, but the music was so perfect. “
Stephen Lawrence grew up in Great Neck, NY His father worked in a glue factory. His wife, Cathy Lawrence, a New York cantor, said Stephen “was one of those five-year-olds who could walk to the piano and play anything.” He wasn’t much of a sight reader, she says, but could hear just about anything by ear.
Her father, who was also a musician, “loved to show Stephen,” she says. When the friends were over, “he would make Stephen sit under the piano and his dad would play a chord and Stephen would call out the notes,” she said. Cathy says one of Stephen’s closest friends growing up was Joe Frank, who would later become a cult favorite on KCRW and nationwide public radio. She says Stephen and Joe shared a “goofy and mischievous” sense of humor. On their wedding day, Cathy says, Lawrence sang “If I Were” to her, the song he originally wrote for Kermit.
It was Sesame Street colleague Carole Hart who recommended her husband Bruce and Stephen Lawrence for Free to be you and me. Lawrence spoke about the title song writing process with WNYC Soundcheck host John Schaefer for a 40e-anniversary tribute to the album. “The banjo was perfect” for the intro, he said, “It’s sort of timeless. That says joy,” Lawrence continued, “That said,“ Look, it’s an instrument. unusual that you don’t hear every day. “”
Lawrence added that the record company believed the album would sell around 15,000 copies. It has sold over a million and it continues.
“It’s a phenomenon. It doesn’t go away,” Lawrence told Schaefer. Just like the work of the composer himself.
For his 82sd birthday, Stephen Lawrence posted a seven minute YouTube video of some of the music he was most proud of: “Free to Be … You and Me”, Rex Smith singing “You Take My Breath Away” from the TV movie Sooner or later, “One Way Ticket” by Mama Cass, “Who Are You Now” by Olivia Newton John Sesame Street the numbers “If Moon Was Cookie”, “If I Were” and “Fuzzy & Blue”, and the music for the film by Robert DeNiro Slowly hit the drum and the horror movie Alice Sweet Alice.
In a report, Sesame Street Sonia Monzano wrote of Lawrence: “He wrote music that was accessible to young people and yet sophisticated enough to engage adults. »Sesame Workshop tweeted, “Thank you for bringing smiles, laughter and the gift of music to our neighborhood.” Cathy Lawrence says her husband loved to be recognized for his work … and would be “so happy” with what people are saying now.