For those who grew up in the 1980s, the names Sharon, Lois & Bram have a special meaning. The trio, which first rose to fame in their home country of Canada and then later in the United States, created the acclaimed television program The Elephant Show, which featured the three, and an unnamed person inside an elephant costume, playing music and learning life lessons. Think Mr. Rogers with more settings and songs. Thanks to the show, which became a hit in reruns in the U.S. on Nickelodeon after its five seasons aired up north, the three were later made members of the Order of Canada, the country’s highest civilian honor. (Sadly, Lois Lilienstein died in 2015.) Fans of the trio, both young and old, can now climb into a time machine and enjoy live versions of their biggest hits on the new LP, Sharon, Lois & Bram Best of the Best Live, which is out today (November 19).
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“Bram likes to say that it’s the reflection of pirated recordings,” says Sharon Hampson of the new release. “But we were the pirates.”
Indeed, Sharon is right. All the songs from the new live record are taken—plucked—from recordings made from shows the trio played from 1989 to 1995. At the moment, the trio had no idea they were setting themselves up for a live album some 30 years later, but that’s how the band has always worked. The live songs for the new LP were recorded in real-time and saved on cassette by the trio’s bandleader and keyboard player. Realizing the stockpile of what they had, Sharon and Bram decided to have the songs digitized.
“Right off the board,” says Bram Morrison.
“The thing he didn’t have to do was pretty thrilling for us,” says Sharon. “He didn’t do any corrections, he didn’t fix our voices, it didn’t need it. When we got down to the final list [of songs], we were excited with how we sounded.”
In total, the new album comprises 17 different venues and 22 songs. Yet, it’s coherent in the way a live concert is coherent. They’re connected, seamless. Perhaps that’s a testament to the close-knit bond the trio had together. The type of honest-to-goodness connection that came through on television to thousands of children across North America. But those bonds were buoyed by a plush pachyderm costume that arrived to the three, not by test marking and diabolical planning, instead, the idea came by happenstance and a bit of luck.
“It came from a song,” Sharon says. “’One Elephant, Deux Elephants.’”
That song was on the trio’s debut 1978 album and was the name of the album, itself. As such, the trio decided for its first-ever concert that it would be fun to bring an elephant costume up on stage. Nearby, just by chance, another troupe was putting on a production of the French children’s story, Babar the Elephant. So, the trio just borrowed the costume and from then on it was part of their show. That’s the history of the elephant. But the history of The Elephant Show is a bit more meandering.
“We had done specials before The Elephant Show,” Sharon says. “But many people had come to us saying, ‘Let’s make a TV series.’ We said, ‘Great! Have you got any money?’ And they said no and they would go away.”
Sharon laughs when she tells the story. Eventually, though, two people approached them, and given the mutual interest, they raised some money and made a special together. And before that special was finished, the group had even more financial backers and the rest progressed, making history. Since those fateful days, the trio created five seasons of the show and did so while learning on the job, an especially important task when it came to the difference between performing on stage and performing in front of a camera.
“When you do a live concert, you’re singing to the back row,” Sharon says. “You have to really project. When you’re doing a television show, you’re singing to one kid in the front row. That was the big learning curve for us. So, when we didn’t get it right, he’d say to us, ‘You’re playing to Australia.’”
“And we’d pull back,” Bram says.
One of the most charming aspects of The Elephant Show was its ending credits, which always featured the Sharon, Lois & Bram song, “Skinnamarink.” It incorporated a dance where kids and parents would wave each hand, make the shape of the moon with their hands, and other lovely moves. The song became synonymous with the group.
“When we were first planning our recording One Elephant, Deux Elephants in 1978,” Bram says, “We needed to raise some money. So, we went to our family and friends and asked each of them to kick in $500-$1,000 each as an investment. We planned to repay them all with profits if there were any.”
“They didn’t expect any money back,” Sharon says, with a laugh. “They were surprised.”
“Lois is originally from Chicago,” Bram says. “So, she went back home to Chicago and put the elbow to some of her family there and while doing that, she asked her young cousin, Lisa, who was a girl at the time and had been at summer camp, if she had learned anything good at camp to sing? And she sang her ‘Skinnamarink’ and Lois liked it and learned it and brought it back to Toronto.”
The song helped cement the trio’s status as go-to kids entertainers. Both Sharon and Bram found music for themselves at a young age, too. For Sharon, music was around in childhood all the time. People sang together, she grew up on folk tunes. She idolized Pete Seeger. In middle school, she was the one called to the kindergarten class to entertain the kids if the teacher needed to step out for a moment. For Bram, he enjoyed the music his parents didn’t listen to. The first song he ever learned on guitar was “Don’t Be Cruel,” by Elvis Presley. But when he found music, he was hooked. In it, he heard a place for himself to flourish.
“It was music I could become involved in,” Bram says. “And I did. And it was a wonderful feeling, being able to sing to 20 people in a coffee house and for them to actually listen and clap.”
As adults, Sharon and Bram knew each other casually. Lois, originally from Chicago, moved to Toronto when her husband got a gig teaching in the sprawling city. The three, meeting in a school music program, later bonded both over their love of music and performing for children, but also their mutual appreciation of a diversity of genres, from folk to rock and beyond. The trio’s debut album was immensely successful and when their television show hit the airwaves, they became stars to kids and families, alike, with parents doing the “Skinnamarink” dance with their kids.
“We very much liked children and performing for children,” Sharon says. “But we always believed from the beginning of our career that what we were doing was for children and the family.”
“We even realized that bald-headed fathers like me could let their hair down,” Bram says, adding a laugh.
Today, as Sharon and Bram reflect on their friendship, their music, and the history of their trio, they continue to come around to the idea of luck. While of course there was hard work for each along the way; in essence, the members followed their instincts and just did what they thought was best for each song, each performance, and each episode. It worked out.
“I feel like a very, very lucky ordinary guy,” Bram says.
“We were the right people at the right time with the right response,” Sharon says. “We were very fortunate but we’re ordinary people, regular people. I go home and do the laundry and wash the dishes.”
“I absolutely do too!” Bram says, before adding, “I love the notion that music is international. And that depending on what you’re listening to, whether it’s Greek music or Spanish flamenco or Russian Orthodox Liturgical, it’s all expressive in its own way. But it’s all rooted together. It’s variety and unity, all at the same time. It represents humanity at its best.”
Photo courtesy Waldmania PR