Long before The Simpsons, an unspoken benchmark in terms of whether a celebrity had made it or not was whether or not they had scored an invite to perform on Sesame Street. Since its founding in 1969, the acclaimed children’s television series has had its share of memorable musical guests, many of them reworking some of their best-known songs as a means of slyly getting an educational message across to its young viewers.
Here are a few of the more notable folks who’ve shown up over the years.
Before the Athens, GA, outfit hung it up in 2011, Michael Stipe, Peter Buck and Mike Mills brought their 1991 hit “Shiny Happy People” and transformed it into “Furry Happy Monsters.” With Buck on banjo and Mills singing harmonies and playing stand-up bass, the Children’s Television Workshop crew even provided a Muppet version of The B-52’s Kate Pierson, who appeared on the original song.
Big of voice and personality, diva extraordinaire Patti LaBelle gave a gospel-fueled version of “The Alphabet Song” that was another level and taken home with the help of a full Muppet backup choir made up of the likes of Elmo, Ernie and Cookie Monster.
By 1972, word had spread about this new kid’s show. Along came Rhymin’ Simon, who sang and played an acoustic version of “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard,” the second single off his self-titled solo debut that came out that year. Despite this being an abbreviated version, a little girl that was part of this bit chose to sing her own lyrics.
In 1997, Tony Bennett made another appearance on Sesame Street. This time, joining Big Bird on a rooftop, where he paid tribute to Oscar the Grouch’s pet worm, who had hopped on a rocket for an outer space adventure. Bennett’s homage was a reworking of a well-known standard that came out as “Slimey to the Moon.”
In 1987, Smokey Robinson appeared to sing a twist on his 1962 hit single “You Really Got a Hold on Me” that became ”U Really Got a Hold on Me.” An amorous giant letter U showed its appreciation as the Motown legend name-checked a number of words starting with the letter ‘u’ including uptight, unappealing and understanding.
In 1973, Stevie Wonder came on Sesame Street and cranked out a seven-minute version of “Superstition” that was played live with nary a hint of lip-synching or pre-recorded tape. In the same episode, he also found time to help Grover work on learning how to scat.
Apparently, the Piano Man and his buddy Marlee Matlin were big Oscar the Grouch groupies back in 1987. In donating a used piano to the green curmudgeon, Joel sang “Just the Way You Are” as Matlin signed along. As Joel croons about Oscar’s rude behavior, the garbage can-dwelling Muppet voiced his disgust over the whole affair.
The Man in Black showed up on Sesame Street to serenade Oscar with “Nasty Dan,” a song about a character with a rotten disposition who is quite the curmudgeon. Capping off the delight this green grouch had with the subject matter, he compounded matters by asking the country singer, “Aren’t you Johnny Trash?,” which resulted in Oscar’s garbage can getting whacked by Cash’s guitar.
When Nina Simone originally recorded “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” in 1969 as a tribute to her late friend/playwright Lorraine Hansberry, little did she know that in 1972, she’d be appearing on stoop with a group of children reprising this stirring anthem.
When the late Ray Charles appeared in 1996, he taught Elmo and the show’s young viewers about being blind, reading Braille and believing in yourself.
The Canadian chanteuse used her 2007 Top 10 hit “1234” as a lesson in learning how to count four. Helping out the Broken Social Scene frontwoman with some of the musical heavy lifting was a flock of feathered Muppets.
The legendary vocalist reprised her version of “Bein’ Green” that originally appeared on her 1971 album Nature’s Baby. For this 1974 Sesame Street appearance, Ms. Horne got an assist from Kermit the Frog in a song that encouraged that he embrace the color of his skin.
Sitting in a tub full of “water and nice fluffy suds,” the inimitable Richard Penniman pounded away on his piano as he sang a pounding version of “Rubber Duckie” that easily holds its own along the likes of “Tutti Frutti.”
Yo Yo Ma
A frequent Sesame Street guest, world-renowned cellist Yo Yo Ma got into a jam session with Hoot, a jazz-loving, saxophone-playing owl who threw shade at the classical music icon by saying, “Can’t that overgrown ukulele of yours play anything more upbeat?”