With his great love of country, blues, ragtime, folk and Broadway show tunes, Randy Kaplan has successfully taken these genres and made them kid friendly. Originally an actor, Kaplan enjoyed some success in sitcoms and theater productions until playing music became his prime interest. He found his niche playing for the younger set quite by accident, and hasn’t looked back since.
Kaplan tours the country playing his unique brand of traditional and original music, has released a dozen CDs, and has been awarded for being tops in his field. Kaplan's work has received top honors from NAPPA, voted a Top Five CD in the Nickelodeon Parents' Picks Awards, been featured in magazines and family websites, and has appeared on the top 10 lists of NPR, People
magazine, Time Out New York Kids
, Fids & Kamilies
, Family Man Online
, and many others. You can find out more about Kaplan and his recordings and tours on his website
I spoke recently with Kaplan about his life and his love for the career that seemed to have found him.
What music did you listen to growing up?
We had a lot of my father’s and mother’s old records. So I listened to a bunch of ‘50s music like Elvis Presley, Bobby Darin and stuff. My mother was obsessed with Harry Chapin and she took us to his concerts out on Long Island a lot. We listened to Billy Joel, a lot of the singer-songwriters. Pop radio mostly. I’m from Long Island so we got taken to Broadway shows, which I didn’t appreciate until much later. But I saw a lot of classic Broadway shows and listened to Broadway music a lot.
When did you start making music?
I started at age 10. I remember I was at my friend’s apartment and he started playing guitar, and I said, “That’s what I want to do.” So we got his guitar teacher to come to my house and “Stickshift” was the first song I learned.
So you went to Los Angeles in 1987 and planned to be an actor.
Yeah, I transferred schools to UCLA from Michigan because I wanted to be an actor and recreate myself where no one knew me. So I did a lot of theater and commercials and I started getting [roles on] TV shows. I did little guest spots on shows like Different World
and Beauty and the Beast
and Growing Pains
. I kept doing theater but I was playing music on the side. I started writing songs, eventually had a rock band and switched to music full time. I said, “Enough with this auditioning stuff. I’m just going to do what I do.”
Did you originally gear your music for kids or did it simply evolve?
I tried consciously not to do kids music. I guess people saw that proclivity in me before I did. All my friends had kids way before I did. I started late but now I have a little kid. They always said, “You wanna play at my kid’s birthday party?” I always scoffed at that and said, “Listen, if you want to have a salon late night at your house, after the kids go to bed, I’ll come entertain your friends. But I’m not playing for kids. I’m not playing kids music.” Eventually I landed a job at a preschool in Brooklyn and immediately loved it and found my niche. I had like five different people telling me, “We told you this years ago. Why didn’t you listen to us?” But I was always with kids. I was a camp counselor. I just never thought of it in terms of music.
I never thought it could be so rewarding because you’re also singing to adults. Their parents are there, their teachers. So I write my stuff to entertain on both levels. And it’s totally informed my non-kid music. When I do a non-kid show I can’t go back to being a narcissist and writing confessional songs or at least performing them only. It has to be entertaining.
Stylistically, you’re all over the map with your music. You’re introducing kids to American Roots, music, rap and blues and even show tunes.
I have nothing against the classic kids songs like “Itsy Bitsy Spider”. My 2 1/2 year old’s favorite song is “Old McDonald”. But whenever I’m backed into a corner and forced to do that stuff, I have my own versions. I just started thinking that I can play these once in a while but what else can I do? I just started adapting old folk and blues songs. My favorite stuff is ragtime and old time country blues from the ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s. I found it was so fun to play on guitar, and it’s not really a job if I go and play three hours a day to kids and I’m playing this music [to them]. Then I realized I can’t really sing these songs, so I’ve got to change the lyrics. Stuff like that started developing. Then I would make up funny songs, just interacting with the kids. Those songs would get written over a period of weeks or months at a certain classroom. Like one class would say, “Do that one about the shark you made up last week.” I wouldn’t have even remembered it but they reminded me. In that one class, the song got written over time and became one of my story songs.
Broadway show music was pop music, like Top 40 stuff in the ‘40s and ‘50s. Now it kind of sounds quaint and obscure to people. But the musicians! Richard Rodgers was a better musician than anyone I’ve ever heard. No one in our time appreciates it like it was appreciated back then. Actually not no one. I certainly do, so I thought the kids would too.
Were you influenced at all by artists like Pete Seeger and Ella Jenkins?
They based their music on real classic American folk music, which I love. When you listen to people like Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly, they did kids concerts too. That stuff wouldn’t fly with the censors these days. They didn’t change the lyrics. They did songs about death and jail and train crashes. I’m changing lyrics to fit in with the politic climate of today.
What was the most rewarding moment you can recall from your performing and recording career?
Living in Brooklyn, I used to play in hospitals all the time. For both kids and adults. I used to play in a psych ward for adults. That I found rewarding. Also, I’ve had students of mine in preschool who got sick. One mom in Brooklyn asked if I could come to the hospital and sing for her son. I’m lucky in that he had a full recovery from a really bad illness. It was very satisfying to have his mother tell me that my playing made him happy in the midst of his struggle and treatment. To give them a half-hour of anything they want...it feels good. They can’t believe I came to the hospital to play for them.
Kids learn a lot from your songs. Do you find you learn from the kids as well?
Oh, yeah. I always say that if an adult said half the stuff a kid said to me I’d be offended. But I can never be offended by a kid. They’re the best hecklers and they’re totally honest. The other day I got an encore and I heard a kid in the front say, “I don’t wanna hear another one.” If an adult said that, the adult would be considered a jerk. When the kid said that I said, “I don’t really want to do one either but you guys called me back!” There’s always an opportunity for fun and banter. I definitely learn a lot about human interaction from kids. They’re just fully honest. It’s like I have a direct line into the human psyche with a little kid, rather than an adult who has all the subterfuge and multi-levels going on. Kids? They’re just honest.
These days, kids grow up so fast. The world is a complex place. Do you feel a certain responsibility to teach kids that simplicity is a good thing?
Yeah, I do acoustic shows, a one-man show. A lot of my colleagues have rock bands with them or they play with bands. Some of them are great and I love it. I record with a full band because it makes up for the live energy that’s not there when I’m recording. But I love doing live shows with my acoustic guitar. If it’s a small enough room there’s not even microphones or speakers. It really is simple. As simple as can be. It’s me and my guitar. I’m looking directly into their eyes. It’s alarming that people, even adults, are not getting that one on one experience anymore. For kids to learn that one on one interaction with a human and banter back and forth, listening and being an audience and participating in singing is great.
Who are some kids performers, past or present, you admire?
The Okee Dokee Brothers are great. They’re from Minnesota. They won the Grammy, I think, last year and they just had their second kids record come out. They’re terrific. They’re very bluegrassy and folk and roots.
Do you test out your music on your son?
Yes, he’s very into playing drums lately. Sometimes all he wants to do is play “Old McDonald”. It’s so loud that sometimes I’ll sit there and he thinks I’m playing along but I’ll be practicing new songs. Yeah, I definitely play songs for him and he participates.
If someone is interested in your music, what album of yours would you recommend they start with?
Musicians usually want people to hear their new album because that’s the one they’re into now. But for little kids I would start with my first record, which is called Five Cent Piece
. It’s very accessible. It has a lot of cover songs on it. I didn’t know what I was doing and just did whatever I wanted and wasn’t worried about the licensing. Later I realized this was cost prohibitive. Now I have cut down the number of covers I do on each record. But that album has a lot of recognizable songs. It has everything on it: there’s blues, there’s my comedic story songs, a couple of Broadway tunes. It’s really simple and acoustic and for younger kids. It has everything.
If someone particularly likes blues and ragtime, they have to get Mr. Diddie Wah Diddie
, the record that Universal put out for me (my only record deal). I did all covers and adaptations of ragtime blues from the old days. It has a 20-page booklet about American music, roots history and blues history. I’m very proud of it. I love that record.