Since 2008 I’ve been digging through the virtual crates to uncover unappreciated or unjustly forgotten albums, songs, and artists. You have shared your own thoughts about my selections and have suggested other artists worth a listen. While it has been a blast exploring music and engaging in discussions with you, I have decided to end the “Cutout Bin” column. Other commitments and a desire to embark on a new adventure led to this choice. Therefore, to conclude this series, I’m coming full-circle and spotlighting an album that first turned me on to music as a child: Carole King’s Really Rosie.
The album derives from an unlikely collaboration with Maurice Sendak, the writer and illustrator of children’s literature classics such as Where the Wild Things Are. He approached King to cowrite a musical based on his books Chicken Soup with Rice, Pierre, One was Johnny, Alligators All Around (all part of 1962′s The Nutshell Library), and The Sign on Rosie’s Door (1960). The quirky stories of the Nutshell Kids, comprised of Rosie and her neighborhood friends, became a 1975 animated television special; Sendak and King expanded the story and songs to adapt the story for the stage. Subsequently Really Rosie became a mainstay of children’s theater in the late ’70s and early ’80s, with an Off-Broadway production debuting in 1980.
Unlike much children’s music, Really Rosie never talks down to kids; instead, Sendak’s witty lyrics appeal to their sense of humor and love of a good story. King turned out to be the perfect partner in the project; her expressive, wry voice exactly matched the bravado and absurdity present in the characters. Even her piano becomes part of the narration—strident one moment, soft the next, it emulates the children’s various emotions. The album at once entertains and educates, both exposes and gently corrects kids’ behavior.
The album kicks off with the title character’s big entrance, where Rosie imagines herself as a star: “I’m a star from afar/ Off the golden coast/ Beat the drum! Make that toast!” After King announces that “No star shines as bright as me,” the spotlight shines on Johnny, as in “One Was Johnny.” A semi-R&B, rhythmic track, it describes how Johnny managed to scare off animals who were crowding his house. “One was Johnny who lived by himself/ And liked it like that!” King concludes. “Alligators All Around,” one of the best-known tunes from Really Rosie, features a charming retelling of the alphabet. With King playing piano with classical overtones, her chipper voice encourages listeners to sing along. “Pierre” has darker themes but has a happy if eccentric ending. All Pierre repeats is “I don’t care,” annoying his parents. After his parents leave, a lion breaks into the house and eats Pierre, who chants “I don’t care!” the entire time. The parents return, discover Pierre inside the lion, and magically eject him from the animal. No hard feelings, though—they invite the lion “as a weekend guest,” and King delivers the moral: “Care!” The music is amazingly sophisticated for a children’s song, sounding as if it would have fit in quite comfortably on King’s masterpiece Tapestry. Indeed, it is a song that adults could play even without their kids around.
Other standouts include “Screaming and Yelling,” where King lets her expressive voice once again assume the voice of Rosie. Bragging that she’s “the enchanted one,” she can instantly stop anyone from throwing a tantrum. “It takes personality/ A lot of personality” to have such as calming effect. When King leads up to the conclusion by acting out the words “screaming and yelling,” it makes for a humorous listen. Rosie returns in “Avenue P,” where she describes how she will turn her story into a movie. Through her rhythmic piano, she captures Rosie’s wild imagination and confidence. “You don’t have to sit/ With your face in a droop/ On the stoop,” she sings. “’Cause your mama the boss/ Says you better not cross/ That old Avenue P.” Through vivid images of King Kong and the jungle, Rosie envisions her neighborhood “as it ought to be.” King’s voice takes on a dreamy quality here, encouraging young listeners to let their imaginations run wild. By the “Really Rosie (Reprise),” King has taken listeners on a lively musical journey that appeals to kids yet retains her talent for memorable melodies.
In Jason Ankeny’s review of Really Rosie for AllMusic, he points out that her skill transforms “even the most deliberately silly songs into catchy, piano-driven pop confections. In fact, it’s in many ways her most fully realized record since Tapestry, with a sparkling charm and heartfelt sincerity that interim releases lacked.” One can agree that Really Rosie approaches Tapestry’s greatness in a different sense—while the latter address mature issues, the former touches on turbulent emotions common in a child’s life. Even more, it provides an introduction to intelligent, well-crafted music that transcends specific genres.
For me, Really Rosie opened my eyes to the possibilities of music; it can engage the mind as well as the body. Sendak’s lyrics painted the pictures, while King’s soothing voice and melodic piano made the pictures come to life. Obviously I eventually graduated from children’s music to explore rock, soul, jazz, and more, but Really Rosie represents the launching pad for my musical education. For that reason, I still hold this special album dear, and hope that future generations will continue to enjoy Sendak’s and King’s work.
Thank you for accompanying me on this adventure, and I wish you good fortune in hunting for more musical treasures.