A list of kid-friendly holy grails, including two of the most sought-after LPs of all time: Stark Reality Discovers Hoagy Carmichael’s Music Shop and The Langley Schools Music Project.
Children’s albums, by definition, are mostly produced to entertain kids. Still, some composers have found freedom in that musical playground, making experimental choices they wouldn’t otherwise when composing with more mature audiences in mind. Records created by children, on the other hand, offer the opposite. There’s no need to hide experimentation because, well, that’s all they’re doing. It is pure, innocent music absent of many conscious choices or technical constraints. Kids convey honesty, amateurism and emotion, and on a few magical occasions, they’ve captured some wholly unique and beautifully inimitable music.
Whether produced for or by children, here a few rare favorites that fall under the guise of the “Children’s Album.”
Stark Reality – Discovers Hoagy Carmichael’s Music Shop (1970)
The Stark Reality. As far as “holy grails” go, most collectors would consider this one to be the epitome, the very definition. This legendary cult funk artifact was recorded by a Boston quartet of fuzz-prone and free-thinking jazz heads. All of whom were schooled at Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music and assembled by bandleader and vibesman Monty Stark. The whole Stark Reality crew is stellar, but one standout from the exceptionally talented lineup would be the future ECM guitarist John Abercrombie, who would release his debut Timeless a few years later.
Discovers is their lone release and is an entirely improvisational reading of a 1958 Hoagy Carmichael children’s album, the original of which was commissioned by Hoagy himself to be showcased on his 1969 PBS kid’s program “Hoagy Carmichael’s Music Shop.” The playful melodies of the original compositions are still intact but steeped in the frazzled stony influence of 70s outsiders like Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart and rooted in the electric rhythms of Bitches Brew-era Miles Davis. Initially released on Ahmad Jamal’s boutique label AJP records, it was only a matter of time until it caught the ears of the heavy Jamal fans and sample diggers Madlib and J Dilla. Once they touched it, it became an underground hip-hop phenomenon that expanded exponentially, finding fans in hip-hop heads and jazz collectors alike. Since that 2000s wave of rediscovery, it has become a sought-after classic.
Here is the only existing live footage, The Stark Reality on the Say Brother public access program sometime in the late ‘60s.
And finally, the original Hoagy Carmichael program that featured snippets from the album.
The Langley Schools Music Project (1976/1977)
The outsider music bible ‘Songs in the Key of Z’ also leads us to this haunting gem: The author Irwin Chusid was responsible for introducing the world to the Langley School and making these recordings commercially available. The Langley Schools Music Project was a sixty-voice children’s choir of rural school children from western Canada covering the day’s pop hits. The kids came from four different elementary schools and were all untrained, but full of melodic magic and childhood wonder. The project was led by Canadian musician Hans Fergur, who arranged for some children to provide minimal musical backing. Arrangements included sparse guitar, drums, as well as gamelan chimes, and Orff-like percussion. It was recorded in 1976-1977 and captured in a large school gymnasium on a 2-track cassette recorder live with no overdubs. The recordings were pressed on two 12-inches and solely distributed to the children, parents, and teachers to keep. It wasn’t until it was discovered at a thrift store 25 years later that these recordings were heard outside of the people involved.
Here’s what Hans Fergur has to say of the album:
“I knew virtually nothing about conventional music education and didn’t know how to teach singing. Above all, I knew nothing of what children’s music was supposed to be. But the kids had a grasp of what they liked: emotion, drama, and making music as a group. Whether the results were good, bad, in tune, or out, was no big deal — they had élan. This was not the way music was traditionally taught. But then, I never liked conventional ‘children’s music,’ which is condescending and ignores the reality of children’s lives, which can be dark and scary. These children hated ‘cute.’ They cherished songs that evoked loneliness and sadness.”
“What was captured is in the title: innocence and despair. The album is brimming with emotion, a collection of haunting, beautiful and unadulterated covers that only a gymnasium full of starry-eyed children could emulate. David Bowie himself said of the cover of ‘ Space Oddity, “The backing arrangement is astounding. A piece of art that I couldn’t conceive of, even with half of Columbia’s finest export products in me.” One other quote worth sharing was the review from Spin magazine when the explosive 2001 CD reissue came out. “It seems to sum up all the reasons why music is holy.”
Lotte Kærså & Græsrødderne – Jeg Har Set Det Selv (1971)
Lotte Kærså was a 70s Danish composer who planned to pursue a career with the Royal Danish Conservatory of Music but instead shifted into childhood education and became a local kindergarten teacher. Throughout the ‘70s, she implemented her musical background in novel ways, using rhythmic music and dance as educational tools. After years of combining music and elementary education, she decided to form the group Græsrødderne with her three young children and began releasing a series of out-there records. The Danish family band clung to their homeland’s uptempo cheerfulness but musically drew from warm faraway sounds, composing music rooted in samba, afrobeat, jazz-funk, dub and reggae. The group’s records were recently rediscovered, became a Discogs gem, and were compiled and reissued by Tartelet Records early last year.
Raymond Scott – Soothing Sounds For Baby (1964)
Soothing Sounds for Baby is a three-part series of proto-ambient music by the jazz great turned electronic pioneer Raymond Scott. Scott may be most known for his jazz compositions, including the standard “Powerhouse,” one of many of his early big band compositions that found a new audience when Warner Bros.’ Looney Tunes cartoons licensed them for use.
Scott started experimenting with electronic music as early as 1946, and his company Manhattan Research was crucial in the development of synthesizers. Bob Moog was his friend, peer and, eventually, competitor. (Scott claimed to have invented the polyphonic sequencer, though that’s not altogether accurate; a number of inventors around the world made simultaneous breakthroughs.)
In 1962 with support of the Gesell Institute of Human Development, Scott created these conceptual electronic pieces designed to lull infants to bed and stimulate their minds as they slept. Marketed as an aural “toy,” each release came with a booklet from the Gesell Institute with specific instructions on how and when to play it for your baby. The volumes were split into three age groups: 1 to 6 months; 6 to 12 months; and 12 to 18 months. The set was thoroughly ignored upon release but eventually found admirers who understood how sonically innovative it was. The forward-thinking, meditative electronic music could easily be compared to the ambient works of Brian Eno, Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk. Except it was recorded in 1962!
Foster Sylvers – Foster Sylvers (1973)
Foster Sylvers recorded his debut album when he was just 11 and was projected to be a superstar. He was supposed to sign to Motown records and become the face and future of the label, but rumor is at the last minute Barry Gordy Jr. went with a certain Jackson family member, and it quickly became a case of ‘the other kid beat me to it.’ While that other kid became a global phenomenon, Foster released his debut with the second-tier MGM offshoot label Pride.
The album’s single “Misdemeanor,” which was written by his older brother — and Sylvers bandmate — Leon, did find some success in the summer of ‘73. It has since become a collectible soul tune that suggests early hip-hop — a funky head-bob groove that’s sweetly carried by Foster’s charming falsetto and lyrics that are so endearing to hear coming from an 11-year-old. Foster touches on mature love troubles like jealousy and heartbreak. “Misdemeanor” has been sampled a lot, most prominently by Dr. Dre for D.O.C.’s “It’s Funky Enough.”
Chandra – Teleportation (1980)
As a teen, Chandra was already a veteran of the late ‘70s NY underground. She was the daughter of conceptual artist Dennis Oppenheim and born into the New York art world. By 12, she had opened up for Laurie Anderson, frequented CBGBs and hung out with Madonna and the New York Dolls while also organizing her own performances at the experimental music hub The Kitchen. Her 1980 EP Teleportation is her debut. It features a set of dissonant no-wave songs with the help of backing group the Dance, featuring former members of the band Model Citizens. Recorded when she was 12, she wrote all the lyrics; they capture the emotional spirit of teenage adolescence. Full of complexity, self-awareness and defiance, the record recently landed on radars after the Avalanches sampled her track ‘Subway’ on their 2016 album Wildflower.
The Shaggs – Philosophy of the World (1969)
For the past 50 years, the Shaggs’ debut release Philosophy of the World has mystified music collectors. For most of that time, it had an uncontextualized story. All that could be discerned from the record’s sleeve and the music packaged within was an amateur sister band who tried to make a pop record and failed. Or didn’t?
Philosophy, in essence, is three teenage sisters creating a completely incohesive musical black hole. Where time and key don’t exist and the standards of music are entirely disregarded. Vocals are off-key, drums are off-beat, instruments out of tune and not even played correctly. Nothing seems strung together in any sensical way.
But some have found beauty in its madness and wondered, was it all intended? Is this the big bang of free-form rock/punk/no wave? The record, which found an early fan in Frank Zappa, was rediscovered in the mid-70s, became a collectible sensation and evolved into one of biggest enigmas in the record world.
Eventually the truth became public when Dot revealed in ‘Songs in the Key of Z’ that their father pushed the sisters to become pop sensations. He forced them to practice daily without any proper training, hoping that his kids would figure out chords and song structures all by themselves and that somehow his prophecy would come true. He had so much faith in that belief that he tapped his savings to make an album. In 1969, he drove them to a local fly-by-night record company and made a deal. they recorded the album in a single day. Needless to say, “Philosophy of the World” didn’t meet his expectations, and it’s heartbreaking to know the details of how it all came to be, but they did manage to create a record made from raw innocence and bottled a symphony of pure amateurism.
Bibi-bo, Gino Cudsi – Bibi-bo Οι Άγγελοι Του Κρις – Η Χωροχρονομηχανή (1985)
LA-based Naya Beat Records cofounder and Pleasure of Love contributor Ragz recently discovered this freaky cosmic children’s record. Not much information is known, but Pleasure of Love founder Raghav did find some details on this curious greek record: “A cosmic disco banger from an illustrated Greek children’s science fantasy music album (with songbook) about space exploration. One of two children’s albums produced and arranged by Greek funk, soul, and disco icon Gino Cudsi (of Gino & Lucille fame) featuring his son Kris and in partnership with Bibi-bo – a Barbie-like doll company from Greece.”