Stephen Lawrence, whose music enriched 'Sesame Street,' dies at 82
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Stephen Lawrence, whose music enriched 'Sesame Street,' dies at 82
He composed the title song of the landmark album “Free to Be … You and Me.” He then moved on to Big Bird and friends.

by Neil Genzlinger

NEW YORK, NY.- Stephen Lawrence, who provided a soundtrack of sorts for countless childhoods as music director for the landmark “Free to Be ... You and Me” album and television special and as a longtime composer for “Sesame Street,” died Dec. 30 at a medical center in Belleville, New Jersey. He was 82.

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

Lawrence had a gift for catchy tunes and song constructions that would appeal to young minds.

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

The essay went on to show how composers from Beethoven to John Lennon had done just that, and Lawrence employed the device often on “Sesame Street” classics such as “Fuzzy and Blue (and Orange),” a jaunty 1981 number with lyrics by David Axelrod.

One of Lawrence’s most captivating tunes 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 conceived by Marlo Thomas. The record, full of songs and stories celebrating tolerance and challenging gender stereotypes, became an enduring hit and was recently selected for inclusion in the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry of culturally significant works.

Lawrence, working with lyricist Bruce Hart, was given the task of coming up with the opening number. A memorable folk melody recorded by the New Seekers, it begins with a banjo, an instrument not often heard in the pop and rock music of that time.

“Banjo was perfect for the introduction of this song,” Lawrence said on the radio program “Soundcheck” in an interview marking the 40th anniversary of the album. “It is sort of timeless. It says joy. It says non-sophistication — although some of the album is quite sophisticated. It says: ‘Listen up. This is an unusual instrument you don’t hear every day. It’s going to set up a song you’re going to like.’”

Thomas had recruited a formidable roster of stars to perform on the record. In addition to writing the music for several of the songs, Lawrence, as the project’s music director, had the task of overseeing recording sessions. That meant working with a quirky array of performers, some of them professional singers and some of them, like Mel Brooks and football player Rosey Grier, not.

Lawrence was a relative unknown at the time. Recording Diana Ross singing “When We Grow Up” (another “Free to Be” song for which he wrote the music) at Motown’s studios in Los Angeles provided him with a pinch-myself moment.

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

The album was a runaway bestseller, and Lawrence went on to compose more than 300 songs for “Sesame Street.” Beginning in 1989, he was nominated repeatedly, along with the show’s other composers and lyricists, for Daytime Emmy Awards for music direction and composition. He won three times.

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

Thomas, though, said he was the perfect choice to reach young audiences.

“‘Free to Be ... You and Me’ was first and always a children’s project,” she said by email, “so it required a composer and musical director who could create songs that sparked the imaginations and touched the hearts of girls and boys everywhere. Stephen was that person. I loved him and I loved working with him.”

Stephen James Lawrence was born Sept. 5, 1939, in Manhattan. His father, Allan, was head of a manufacturing company, and his mother, Helen (Kupfer) Lawrence, was a homemaker.

He grew up in Great Neck, on Long Island. He started taking piano lessons at 5, and at 17 he won a New York radio station’s jazz piano contest; 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 lyrics were by a fellow student, Francis Ford Coppola.

Lawrence came to the “Free to Be” project through Hart, with whom he had written some songs and whose wife, Carole Hart, was producing the project with Thomas. The two women asked Hart and Lawrence to come up with a song that would introduce the album and convey what it was about. Hart came up with the phrase “free to be you and me” and built that idea into a full song lyric, which he presented to Lawrence.

“As sometimes happens,” Lawrence recalled in his blog, “I got an idea right away and completed the song in one day.”

The label, Bell Records, told the group to expect to sell about 15,000 copies. Instead sales soared past the million mark. A 1974 television version, with Lawrence as music director, added to the phenomenon.

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

Lawrence began writing for “Sesame Street” in the early 1980s and continued to do so for years. The job gave him a chance to indulge in a wide assortment of musical styles. One of his earliest compositions for the show was “Kermit’s Minstrel Song” (1981, lyrics by Axelrod), which called to mind Renaissance-era tunes. Lawrence said one of her favorites was “Gina’s Dream” (lyrics by Jon Stone), in which Lawrence did a pretty good job of imitating Puccini.

Lawrence lived in Bloomfield, New Jersey. 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; Cathy Lawrence’s sons, Sam and Nicholas Kline; and a grandson.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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