Keiran Moore – After Jim Henson, has any other performer had as much impact in the Muppet world as Jerry Nelson? Altogether Jerry appeared in Henson productions for a total of 45 years over 6 decades! To put that into context Jim himself only managed 35 years. In fact, Jerry’s vocal is so prevalent that to me he really feels like the voice of the Muppets. His characters are some of the most beloved in the Muppet canon and I doubt a day goes by when fans don’t miss him. As soon as I started writing these top 10 lists a Jerry Nelson chart has been requested on an almost weekly basis. And I couldn’t put off this mammoth task forever so here in glorious internet pixels is my Jerry Nelson countdown, I’ve listened to over 120 songs in a 48 hour period and I now have a list I’m happy to put my name to!
Before we start, I want to give a shout out to a song that isn’t represented here and that’s “In the Good Old Summertime” sung by Pearl Bailey and Floyd Pepper. It actually scored high enough to make the top 10, but I deemed it ineligible at the last minute due to Pearl singing the majority of the song. In my humble opinion, this song is one of the finest moments in all 5 seasons of “The Muppet Show”. It’s a meeting of two accomplished musicians simply doing what they do best. You can view it here
Finally, I don’t usually do this, but I’m going to quickly list the songs that made positions 20-11, partly so you can see how awesome Jerry is, but also to jog your memory a bit as well as I really want to hear what you would have in your top 10 and this might help (all are viewable on YouTube):
20 – Love the Ocean – Sesame Street – Frankie Monster
19 – I’m So Happy – The Muppet Show – Gloomy Whatnot
18 – Gone Fishin’ – Rocky Mountain Holiday – Sgt. Floyd Pepper
17 – Forty Blocks from My Home – Sesame Street – Farley
16 – The First Day of School – Sesame Street – Count von Count
15 – The Woodchuck Song – Sesame Street – Count von Count
14 – Bless Us All – Muppet Christmas Carol – Robin the Frog
13 – It Feels Like Christmas – Muppet Christmas Carol – The Ghost of Christmas Present
12 – The Song of The Count – Sesame Street – Count von Count
11 – Shine On, Shine On Me – Fraggle Rock – Gobo Fraggle
This is a song that admittedly could have had a similar fate as “In the Good Old Summertime”. Jerry (as Fred the Wonder Horse) is definitely not the lead singer here, but this is much more of a duet than the other track. The mouth bow is such an intriguing instrument and gives this song a unique folksy sound that I find captivating. Jerry and Buffy sound great together and as much as he’s mostly just providing harmonies, they are pin sharp and beautifully executed. Jerry has a great folk voice and performed this type of music all through his Muppet career, but this really is something special.
For years I remembered this song being performed by Shakey Sanchez and every time I come across it I surprise myself all over again that it wasn’t actually him. Due to its appearance on the home video release “Rowlf’s Rhapsodies with The Muppets” this is a song from The Muppet Show that I always remembered fondly (even if I couldn’t remember the actual character). In any incarnation I think that “The Windmills of Your Mind” is a pretty song, but this spin on it (pardon the pun) takes it in a whole different direction. It’s actually a fairly standard vocal from Jerry (which is still a cut above most) until it gets faster and faster and at that point I just have to take my hat off to him. There is no way this was easy to do either in terms of vocals or puppetry. Bravo, Mr Nelson!
This song gives me the opportunity to mention the Jerry Nelson/ Richard Hunt partnership. They worked together often, not just as Floyd and Janice, but also as characters such as the Two-Headed Monster and Pa and Junior Gorg. Together they had the same kind of chemistry as Jim and Frank Oz in that they seemed to instinctively know how to get the best from each other. Even some of the more unusual pairings such as Floyd and Scooter in “Mr Bassman” have become classic Muppet moments. In terms of its appearance on this chart this song kind of sneaked up on me as although I was familiar with it, it wasn’t one that I first thought of when starting my research. Jerry and Richard sound sublime on this track and their harmonies are as good as you’d expect from two of the best Muppeteer singers.
As you’ll see from the 11-20 list above, Count von Count had a lot of songs that just missed out on places within the top 10. For what it’s worth, he was also in position 21 with “8 Beautiful Notes”. I love the eastern European/Romany feel that the majority of his songs have, but what sets this one apart for me is its riff on “Danse Macabre” by Camille Saint- Saëns. It’s a great piece of music in its own right and is perfect for The Count. Jerry’s performances have seen The Count become one of Sesame Street’s best known characters and songs such as “Hands” have transcended their origins on the show and have become known in their own right. This is purely down to Jerry’s expertise as far as I’m concerned. He has a great vocal range and with The Count, Jerry gets to explore parts of his voice that don’t always appear elsewhere.
“Shine On, Shine On Me” at number 11 was one of the first songs I considered for this list and it killed me to knock it down as it appeared in the top 10 for a very long time. However as an example of a Fraggle Rock track this song (from the last ever episode) takes some beating. It really is a thing of beauty. When I heard this song years ago (sometime after its original broadcast which I’m sure I watched at the time) I thought it was unnecessarily gloomy and without any kind of redemptive happy ending. However, in researching this article I happened to be listening to Fraggle songs on the anniversary of my sister’s death and then the words started to click into place. It’s sad and melancholic, but it’s honest and doesn’t pull any punches. It deals with big, grown up emotions and that makes it so, so special. Jerry’s voice is breathtaking here and every word is felt. What more can I say?
This is another song that stayed with me as a child through its appearance on a Muppet anthology video. It’s an incredibly powerful moment that wasn’t lost on me even as a youngster. Quite often when you mention the Muppets to a layman they think of the craziness of some of the gang’s more marketed characters; rabid drummers, Scandinavian cooks and unfortunate lab assistants. When I talk to such people this is the clip I urge them to watch. The Muppet Show was packed full of great music, had moments of high-culture and every now and again a real message to share with the world. Jerry’s soft, understated vocal here is perfect for the song and the staccato chorus provides a great counterpoint to the more flowing verses. The puppetry from everyone involved and the amazing set decoration only serve to lift this even higher.
Ok, I know this song is punching above its weight here as there are some classic Gobo tracks that aren’t on this list such as “Fraggle Rock Rock” and “Catch the Tail by the Tiger”, but I’ve found myself really taken by this tune. On the face of it, it seems like something I’d pick to be controversial, but I can assure you that’s not the case – I simply love this song! It’s written by Balsam and Lee and I adore everything they did on Fraggle Rock so there’s obviously that, but also this bluesy number allows Jerry to really let loose and infuse the lyrics with some strong emotions. I would wager that kids often feel the way Gobo does here and it’s great that they can see those feelings explored by their favorite characters and know that it’s all ok. I often think Gobo’s a bit of a jerk, but this song perhaps offers some explanation and rounds out his character a bit. Either way, something stands out about this track even amongst the diverse and musically sophisticated songs that Fraggle Rock featured and I’m sure Jerry is a big part of the reason why.
This was the first song I thought of when I embarked on the mammoth task of writing this list. My acapella group is currently working on a very different arrangement, but I love Floyd’s quieter, more soulful take on this classic Beatles track. He’s often sarcastic and glib, but in songs such as this or “Blackbird” (another Beatles song) he shows a much deeper side of his character. Of all the Muppets Floyd is the man who takes his music the most seriously and I think the same goes for his performer. Jerry is a virtuoso singer. I urge everybody reading this to seek out his exceptional album “Truro Daydreams” – it’s the best unofficial Muppet album you’ll ever listen to. While My Guitar Gently Weeps is a song I’ve always loved and I think this interpretation is probably the reason why. When Jerry performs songs like this he has a way of piercing your heart and reaching onto your soul. My only complaint? I just wish this track was longer.
I’ve been known to ask the following question of people in the past: “Jerry Nelson appeared in every episode of a hit TV show in the 1970/80s, appeared on a number 1 album and had a top 10 hit in 1977 and yet his name is hardly known, why?” Halfway Down the Stairs is the song that got Jerry (and the Muppets) into the UK top 10 so it’s only fitting it placed so highly here. (By the way fact hunters, “The Muppet Show” album knocked The Beatles off the number one spot in the UK so that’s not too shabby either!) While I was researching this article I found a video of “Jerry’s Singing Reel” from the Museum of Moving Image on YouTube (I won’t link to it in case it shouldn’t be there) and lots of the songs got a laugh or two from the crowd, but this was the only one to get a round of applause. I’ve used the phrase already, but this really is a bona fide Muppet classic. It’s so beloved it’s almost hallowed. Jim had a real fondness for A.A. Milne and it’s easy to see why this song about growing up and being caught between flights of fancy and real world problems might appeal to him. For years I hadn’t really taken the time examine the lyrics properly and thought of it as a fairly sweet nonsense song, but somewhere between listening to the Rowlf and Amy Lee covers it started to make sense. There’s such purity and innocence to Jerry’s vocal, it’s incredibly poignant. This is probably the most simply staged Muppet Show moment and Robin is not a technically advanced puppet by any stretch, but the way Jerry performs it with such elegance makes it a tough one to beat. That said…
Although Jerry has performed this song several times (including as different characters) and I’ve credited it to Emmet Otter’s Jug-band Christmas. However, the version I’ve linked to is Jerry and Louise Gold singing it at Jim’s memorial service in New York. A big part of me feels there is nothing I can write that can add to the beauty of this performance and that watching the video really would be enough to explain why this is number 1, but there are a few things I’d like to mention. First, how amazing is Louise Gold? As with Richard Hunt, she is a phenomenal singer and was often paired with Jerry because of this. The top 10 I wrote for her some months ago was littered with duets between the two of them. I’ve listened to this track plenty of times and I’m still not convinced that Louise’s solo isn’t longer than it was supposed to be because Jerry was struggling to sing. His voice definitely cracks just before. There are several points where you aren’t just listening to raw emotion – you’re feeling it too. This performance is heartbreaking and yet the song and its lyrics are reassuring at the same time. I don’t suppose there’s much more to say that the song itself doesn’t convey more eloquently so I urge you, even if you watch no other, please watch this video. With a tissue.
As you’ll see in this chart, from song number 6 onwards there’s not a lot of that trademark zany humor that the Muppets are so known for, but there’s heart to spare. Maybe it’s me and my musical preferences that have made this so or maybe, just maybe it’s that Jerry poured his heart and soul into every performance. Perhaps that’s why his emotional fare stands out more than his chicken songs – his performances allow us as the audience to make sense of our own feelings. I know that for the millions of kids who’ve grown up with Sesame Street or Fraggle Rock that’s been so important. So thank you Jerry. Personally, you undoubtedly shaped my musical tastes and are one of my biggest influences when singing. Your voice gives me hope and reassurance and just feels like a big old cuddly hug (even when you are being a chicken!) On a worldwide scale your legacy is immeasurable. So thank you once again for being part of the Muppets and, by extension, me. Thank you.