Stephen Lawrence, whose music enriched “Sesame Street”, dies at 82

Stephen Lawrence, who provided some sort of soundtrack to countless childhoods as musical director for the album and TV special “Free to Be… You and Me” and as a longtime songwriter for “Sesame Street,” died Dec. 30 at a medical center in Belleville, NJ He was 82 years old.

His wife, Cathy (Merritt) Lawrence, said the cause was multiple organ failure.

Mr. Lawrence had a knack for catchy tunes and songwriting that would appeal to young minds.

“One of the most effective devices, and one of the most important for children, is rehearsal,” he wrote in “How to compose music for children,” an essay on his blog. “Did you write a first line that you like?” Why not repeat it? “

The essay then showed how composers from Beethoven to John Lennon had done just that, and Mr. Lawrence often used the device on “Sesame Street” classics like “Fuzzy and Blue (and Orange),” a number offhand from 1981 with lyrics by David Axelrod.

One of Mr. Lawrence’s most captivating songs was also one of his first for the children’s market: the title track of “Free to Be… You and Me”, the star-studded 1972 album and book designed. by Marlo Thomas. The record, full of songs and stories celebrating tolerance and shattering gender stereotypes, became a lasting success and was recently selected for inclusion in the Library of Congress’s National Register of Culturally Significant Works.

Mr. Lawrence, together with lyricist Bruce Hart, was commissioned to come up with the opening number. Memorable folk melody recorded by the New Seekers, it begins with a banjo, an instrument little heard in the pop and rock music of the time.

“Banjo was perfect for the introduction to this song,” Mr. Lawrence said on the “Soundcheck” radio show in an interview marking the album’s 40th anniversary. “It’s a bit timeless. He says joy. He says non-sophistication – although part of the album is quite sophisticated. He said, ‘Listen. It’s an unusual instrument that you don’t hear every day. This will create a song that you will love.

Ms. Thomas had recruited a formidable roster of stars to perform on the record. In addition to writing the music for several songs, Mr. Lawrence, as musical director of the project, had the task of supervising the recording sessions. That meant working with a quirky array of performers, some of them professional singers and others, like Mel Brooks and footballer Rosey Grier, no.

Mr. Lawrence was an unknown relative at the time. Recording Diana Ross singing “When We Grow Up” (another “Free to Be” song he wrote the music for) at Motown Studios in Los Angeles gave him a pinching moment.

“I arrived at Motown Studios and thought of the many famous artists who had recorded there, none more famous than Diana Ross,” he wrote on his blog. “I realized that the whole ‘Free to Be’ project was taking my career to new heights. “

The album was a dazzling bestseller and Mr. Lawrence composed over 300 songs for “Sesame Street”. Beginning in 1989, he was nominated several times, along with the series’ other composers and lyricists, for the Daytime Emmy Awards for Music Direction and Composition. He won three times.

Mr. Lawrence did not work only on material for children. He composed the music for the 1973 baseball drama “Bang the Drum Slowly”, the 1976 horror film “Alice, Sweet Alice” and other films, and collaborated on several musicals.

Ms Thomas, however, said he was the perfect choice for reaching young audiences.

“’Free to Be… You and Me’ was first and foremost a children’s project,” she said via email, “so it needed a songwriter and a musical director who could create songs that awaken. imagination and touch the hearts of girls and boys all over the world. Stephen was that person. I loved him and loved working with him.

Stephen James Lawrence was born September 5, 1939 in Manhattan. Her father, Allan, ran a manufacturing company and her mother, Helen (Kupfer) Lawrence, was a housewife.

He grew up in Great Neck, Long Island. He started taking piano lessons at age 5, and at age 17, he won a New York radio station jazz piano competition; the prize was lessons with pianist Mary Lou Williams.

While majoring in music at Hofstra College (now Hofstra University), where he graduated in 1961, he composed music for student shows and other entertainment. One was a musical, “The Delicate Touch”; the book and the lyrics were written by another student, Francis Ford Coppola.

Mr. Lawrence came to the “Free to Be” project through Mr. Hart, with whom he had written a few songs and whose wife, Carole Hart, produced the project with Ms. Thomas. The two women asked Mr. Hart and Mr. Lawrence to come up with a song that would introduce the album and explain what it was about. It was Mr. Hart who came up with the phrase “Free to be you and me” and incorporated this idea into the lyrics of a complete song, which he presented to Mr. Lawrence.

“As sometimes happens,” Mr. Lawrence recalled on his blog, “I had an idea right away and I finished the song in a day.”

The label, Bell Records, told the group to expect to sell around 15,000 copies. Instead, sales topped the million mark. A 1974 television version, with Mr. Lawrence as musical director, added to the phenomenon.

Les Hart (he died in 2006, she in 2018) and Mr. Lawrence worked together on other projects, including the 1979 TV movie “Sooner or Later”, which gave Rex Smith the hit “You Take My Breath”. Away, ”written by Mr. Hart and Mr. Lawrence.

Mr. Lawrence began writing for “Sesame Street” in the early 1980s and continued to do so for years. The work has allowed him to indulge in a wide range of musical styles. One of his first compositions for the show was “Kermit’s Minstrel Song” (1981, lyrics by Mr. Axelrod), which recalled Renaissance tunes. Ms. Lawrence said one of her favorites was “Gina’s Dream” (lyrics by Jon Stone), in which Mr. Lawrence did a very good job of imitating Puccini.

Mr. Lawrence lived in Bloomfield, NJ. His marriage to Christine Jones ended in divorce in 2000. In addition to his wife, he is survived by a daughter from his first marriage, Hannah Jones Anderson; Mrs. Lawrence’s sons, Sam and Nicholas Kline; and a grandson.

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