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'Sesame Street' composer Stephen Lawrence has died at 82

Composer Stephen J. Lawrence
Courtesy of Cathy Lawrence
Composer Stephen J. Lawrence

If you were a kid in the 1970s and your parents let you watch TV, you heard the music of Stephen Lawrence. From Muppets to major stars, Lawrence composed the music for hundreds of Sesame Street songs. He also served as music director for Free to Be... You and Me, the beloved children's music album conceived 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, N.J. He was 82. His wife, Cathy Lawrence, tells NPR that he suffered "puzzling symptoms for years that got sharply worse in the last few months."

Stephen J. Lawrence was tremendously proud to have provided the melodies and harmonies to songs performed by vocalists 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 selling record and/or Emmy winning special, 'Free to Be...You and Me.' I was the Music Director and composed the title song and four others for the landmark project and I am going to tell you, from the beginning, how we created the music."

"He was adorable and fun, but he was very serious about the music," Marlo Thomas tells NPR. Free to Be... You and Me was "a project for children that was non-sexist and non-racist, and would give them a feeling of power, both boys and girls," Thomas explains.

She remembers when Lawrence and Hart first played her the title track. "They had called it 'Free to be you and me, Gymboree'—you know, lyricists love those little triplets," Thomas remembers, "And I didn't like the gymboree part, but I loved it right away. I loved the lyric. I love the idea of the horses running free, but the music was so perfect."

Stephen Lawrence grew up in Great Neck, N.Y. His father worked at a glue factory. His wife, Cathy Lawrence, a New York cantor, says 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 elaborates, but could pick up just about anything by ear.

His father, who also was a musician, "loved to show Stephen off," she says. When friends were over, "he would have Stephen sit under the piano and his father would play a chord and Stephen would call out the notes," she says. Cathy says one of Stephen's closest friends growing up was Joe Frank, who would later become a cult favorite on KCRW and public radio nationwide. She says Stephen and Joe shared a "goofy and mischievous" sense of humor. On their wedding day, Cathy says, Lawrence serenaded her with "If I Were," 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 talked about the process of writing the title track with WNYC Soundcheck host John Schaefer for a 40th-anniversary tribute to the album. "Banjo was perfect" for the intro, he said, "It is sort of timeless. It says joy," Lawrence continued, "It says 'Listen-up, this is an unusual instrument you don't hear every day.'"

Lawrence went on to say the record company figured the album would sell about 15,000 copies. It went on to sell well over a million and counting.

"It's a phenomenon. It doesn't go away," Lawrence told Schaefer. Much like the composer's work itself.

For his 82nd birthday, Stephen Lawrence posted a seven minute YouTube video of some of the music for which he was most proud: "Free to Be... You and Me," Rex Smith singing "You Take My Breath Away" from the TV movie Sooner Or Later, Mama Cass' "One Way Ticket," Olivia Newton John's "Who Are You Now," Sesame Street numbers "If Moon Was Cookie," "If I Were," and "Fuzzy & Blue," and music for the Robert DeNiro film Bang the Drum Slowly and the horror flick Alice Sweet Alice.

In a statement, Sesame Street alum Sonia Monzano wrote of Lawrence, "He wrote music that was accessible to the young 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 being recognized for his work...and would be "so happy" with what people are saying now.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.