When Red Grammer caught wind that a local 4-H club wanted him to perform at one of their meetings, he figured it was one of the kids’ mothers who’d sent e-mail after e-mail to get him there, up-close and personal.
But when Grammer, a vocalist popular among children and families, turned up for the meeting, he found himself face-to-face with the 12-year-old girl who’d made all the arrangements. It turned out she and her 4-H friends were long-time fans and he was their dream come true in flesh-and-blood. “These girls grew up with this stuff and they were so excited to have me there,” explained Grammer.
This ‘stuff’ is Grammer’s music — a host of catchy, intelligent songs with subject matter unlike anything you might find while playing, say, Grand Theft Auto, or listening to pretty much any kind of mainstream music.
Singing about topics like peace and responsibility, being the best you can be and listening to your heart sets Grammer apart from most of the musical community. As an artist who sings primarily to children, he manages to impart time-honored messages without being campy or sappy, and without hitting his audience over the head to drive his point home.
“Underneath all our music are really powerful ideas, and they’re built on the idea that kids are intelligent and entertained by things that add to their comprehension and awareness of what’s going on around them — so long as it’s fun,” said Grammer, a 53-year-old Ojai resident who has co-written songs over the years with his wife, Kathy.
His most recent effort, Be Bop Your Best!, an album recorded in Ojai that highlights 12 positive attributes — such as perseverance and integrity — was co-written by Pamela Philips Oland and is nominated for a Grammy Award.
“It sort of qualifies things in a way that’s very useful in the industry,” Grammer said of the nomination. “I’ve won a lot of awards and have been doing this for a long time — but it’s very helpful because it does qualify you in the industry.” On Feb. 8, Grammer and the rest of the world will discover if his upbeat messages have earned him that Grammy.
“When you’re a kid, you’re trying to figure out how all this stuff works,” Grammer said over coffee at a local café. “My wife and I have gone with the assumption that it’s got to be fun and it’s got to be playful — so why not make it useful?”
Grammer, who was reared in New Jersey, is a life-long musician who began playing drums in the fourth-grade and his brother’s guitar in the fifth-grade. No one in his family knew anything about music and he had no aspirations of being a rock star. “There was no context for it, so I thought maybe I’d grow up and be a doctor.”
Still, he knew fairly early on that his voice could move people. As a ‘singing drummer’ in the eighth-grade, he performed a rendition of “Get Together,” by the Youngbloods, that had a surprising affect on his classmates. “When I finished, I looked up and they were crying,” he said. “I said, ‘Oh my gosh.’ I tucked it away and didn’t think about it. It added to the sense that I had a big heart and a beautiful voice — and that they could go together.”
Grammer met his wife in Wisconsin, where he finished up the college education he started at Rutgers University. The pair started a family and began writing songs to sing for their two sons, who are now 22 and 25. The family relocated to San Diego in the late ’70s and Grammer replaced Glenn Yarborough, the lead tenor in the folk trio The Limeliters, in 1981. He remained with the Limeliters for eight years. “They were kind of highbrow humor and the arrangements were great,” Grammer said, “but it was old-style to me.”
In 1983, the Grammers found success with their first kids’ album, Can You Sound Just Like Me?, which was featured on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered. They later released Teaching Peace, named “one of the top five children’s recordings of all time” by the All Music Guide.
Teaching Peace led to a Disney concert special and an appearance on Nickelodeon, and the successful record was followed by the award-winning recordings Down the Do Re Mi, Red Grammer’s Favorite Sing Along Songs and Hello World.
But even Grammer admits he may have outdone himself with Be Bop Your Best!, on which he sings his heart out in several different musical styles. The title track is a jazzy number that doesn’t dumb it down for the younger set (“There are 11 and 12 year olds who listen to my music,” Grammer noted) and instead brings the realm of children’s music to a whole new level. We aren’t talking about Barney here.
Grammer sings: “Inside of you there’s burning/A special shining star/And there’s nobody as good as you/At being who you are/You’re gonna find your own way/So don’t you worry ‘bout the rest/Just live life like you mean it/And bibbity-Be Bop Your Best!
It may look saccharine-sweet on the page, but the song has a surprisingly adult undertone. Children are, after all, small adults, and Grammer’s messages are about helping them become adults with healthy values and self-esteem. And it doesn’t hurt for adults to hear the upbeat affirmations, either.
“We get the idea that, to be decent, it’s a goodie-two-shoes thing, and it means you’re not fun or interesting,” he said. “We’ve gone out of our way to engage people, and yet so much of entertainment is about disengaging rather than engaging.”
“’Be Bop Your Best!’ is intelligently constructed, and written to make a positive impact without coming off as preachy. “It was terrifying to do this recording because the thought of picking 12 virtues to write about — how do you write about that in a way that’s interesting and engaging?”
Grammer succeeds with songs like “Truthfulness,” which has a decidedly country and western undertone, and “Responsibility,” which is a bit like a classic march.
The opening lines from “Truthfulness” are enough to make any grown-up wish more adults would take its message to heart: “If I like truth I’ve got you to thank/Your word’s worth more than money in the bank/You say what you mean and mean what you say/Sometimes I don’t like it but that’s OK”
Grammer similarly sings about “Fairness,” “Trustworthiness,” “Gratitude” and “Citizenship.” On “Say Hi!” from Teaching Peace, Grammer sings of overcoming shyness and learning how to present yourself — another lesson that could benefit plenty of grown ups. “You’ve gotta stand up tall/Gather up a smile/Take a deep breath/Look ‘em in the eye and say ‘Hi!’”
The bottom line, Grammer said, is that kids are looking to adults for cues about how to behave and how to relate to the world. The first thing we need to admit is that we’re all still works in progress. “The best we can do is aim a little higher and, as adults, not stop doing our work,” said Grammer. “If kids can see we’re not finished — that we’re still in progress — that’s cool.”