Kieran Moore – It might seem odd to start a piece about Sesame Street’s longest serving Muppet performer with a Fraggle Rock quote, but here goes: “You can never leave the magic”. Although not expressly mentioning Caroll Spinney, I’m sure The Trash Heap had him in mind when she uttered that immortal phrase 30 years ago.
Over the last week or so since Caroll’s retirement was announced, I’ve been struck by many things (I really must ask Lew to stop throwing those fish). Firstly, the amount of love the world has for Mr. Spinney and his characters. I knew he was admired, but the strength of feeling has been immense. I can only imagine how it must feel to be the subject of all that adoration. It’s hugely deserved so it’s been lovely to see. Secondly, how well this has been handled by everyone. There was no drawn out goodbye, no bitterness, no staying on too long or going too early. Everything was pitch perfect. From the classy way the show handled his departure (with a video that was made for the explanation “there’s something in my eye”) to the social media posts of fellow cast members, this was exactly the right way to say goodbye to the elder statesman of the Muppet fraternity. In an industry where high-profile people tend to leave with a grumble or feet first, this feels like a breath of fresh air.
Today I’m paying tribute to Caroll by sharing the top 10 chart I wrote for him four years ago. Every song is a classic and I can’t think of a better way to say goodbye than with musical moments.
10. I Love Trash! – Oscar the Grouch
I guess this could be considered Oscar’s signature song. It was certainly the first one I thought of for Oscar when I was compiling this list (actually that’s not strictly true, but it was certainly the second). Having appeared in the first season of the show it’s also the perfect way to start. I really enjoy Caroll’s performance here – the way Oscar gets so animated and, dare I say it, excited is great fun. Caroll’s vocals totally convey Oscar’s feelings towards the assorted pieces of junk he lists. I have the Steven Tyler version from the album Elmopalooza and even he can’t sing it as well as Caroll does.
9. Sing – Big Bird & Snuffy
(Sadly, a good quality version of this clip is no longer available online.) I guess this song is included for its cultural significance if nothing else. The fact that this song only makes number 9 is testament to the quality of what’s still to come. One of Big Bird’s great character strengths is that he’s so bright and breezy and his vocals here epitomise this. This is a real lazy Sunday afternoon performance. Find a sunny meadow, lie down under a tree, pull your hat over your eyes and drift away to this. Sheer perfection!
8. The Christmas Song – Big Bird and Swedish Chef
Anyone who’s read my other top 10 lists will know that A Muppet Family Christmas holds a special place in my heart. It’s my one holiday tradition that’s non-negotiable. I’m already excited about watching it again soon! When Swedish Chef sees Big Bird at Emily Bear’s house he thinks he’s hit the Christmas meal mother load, but this sweet rendition of a Christmas classic makes him see otherwise. It’s interesting to note that Big Bird, who often notices his own differences, spots that Chef might be missing his family. Big Bird’s good natured spirit really shines through here.
7. I Don’t Wanna/I’ll Give You a Song – Oscar the Grouch
I really wanted to include “I’ll Give You a Song” on this list, but it’s so short it had to become a double A-side (Hey kids, ask your Grandparents!) with “I Don’t Wanna.” “I’ll Give You a Song” kind of sums Oscar up in a neat 13 seconds. It’s grouchy, yet funny; moany, yet playful. I’ll say it again: all in a neat 13 seconds! “I Don’t Wanna” is also comedy gold. The music is possibly one of Sesame Street’s happiest tunes and yet the lyrics include “I don’t wanna smile, I don’t wanna laugh”–brilliant. I love how sophisticated Sesame Street can be in its humor. I also love Caroll’s performance. Oscar is extra New Yorkish here, did they tone his accent down over the years or am I imagining it?
6. A Little Grouch Music – Oscar the Grouch
A parody of the Phantom of The Opera song “The Music of the Night,” this couldn’t be more different from Oscar’s last entry. This song is soft and lyrical, a love song to all of the things that might annoyingly keep you from sleeping. It really shows another dimension to Oscar, and Grouches in general. The fact that Oscar finds these things comforting lets the listener know that it’s ok to be different. “One man’s meat is another man’s poison” as the saying goes. This is a tender moment from everyone’s favorite misery. It’s also a pitch perfect performance by Caroll.
5. ABC-DEF-GHI Song – Big Bird
This fun song was selected by my nephew Jared and he nailed it! Its performance in the first season takes full advantage of Big Bird’s early goofball characterization. One of the things I like about this song is that most of the younger viewers would have had some exposure to the alphabet before they hear this song so they get one up on Big Bird too. And if they don’t know the alphabet they can learn right along with him. It’s win/win. This is Sesame Street’s “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” and Caroll did a great job with it. Also, how cool is it that my spell check knows “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”?
4. Bein’ Green – Oscar the Grouch
When I wrote the top 10 Jim Henson songs, I mentioned in the write up for Kermit’s version of “Bein’ Green” that whilst I liked the song, it had never really touched me as it does others. Bizarrely, I think this version actually resonates more with me than Kermit’s does. While I appreciate Kermit’s morose moments it makes more sense to me that Oscar might lament being what he considers an attractive color. While Kermit sings that he blends in, Oscar complains that he stands out and would rather be more dingy. Grouches always seem comfortable in their own skin so a brief wobble from Oscar seems unusual and therefore more meaningful. This is a great soulful performance from Caroll that gets very close to Jim’s version for me. It’s definitely better than the Ray Charles version!
3. I’m So Blue – Big Bird
I’ll admit that I have a soft spot for Follow That Bird. I was 7 when it was released and a few years later we owned the movie on VHS where it got watched a lot. I’ll admit that I used to shed a tear at several points in this movie and you’d have to have a heart of stone not to find this moving, especially when you consider that Big Bird is written as a 6-year-old. The music box accompaniment is perfect at the start of the song before the orchestra comes in. Ignoring the fact that this is a weird song for “The Bluebird of Happiness” to sing, Caroll does a great job with this number. The way Big Bird’s voice cracks at the end is so sad. Though maybe not as sad as those pants.
2. Easy Goin’ Day – Big Bird, Ruthie & Floyd
As I said above, I’m a huge Follow That Bird fan and this is my favorite Big Bird song. I’ve loved this for years and quite often find myself singing it without realizing! It does skirt dangerously close to annoying kid territory, but Alyson Court as Ruthie in particular is a great singer (boy, I hope she’s not dubbed) so it gets away with it. In a movie where Big Bird has a lot to deal with (see above) this number is a great chance for him to make friends and have a lighter moment. Caroll’s laid back performance is casual and humorous and brilliantly sung. The last chorus is the ultimate chillout anthem!
1. The Grouch Anthem – Oscar the Grouch
I’ll admit it, as soon as I decided to write this chart I knew this would be number 1! I love this song so much! I am also unapologetic about having three Follow That Bird songs as the top three. I did try to split them up, but just couldn’t do it. I guess that fact proves what a tour de force Follow That Bird is for Caroll. I can’t find anything negative to say about this song which I’m sure would annoy Oscar, but since he would enjoy that I guess I’m good. As a singer I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve used the line “Brace yourselves, I’m gonna sing!” But it’s not just that line, this song is eminently quotable. It’s full of one line gems like “Something is wrong with everything, except the way I sing” or “You know what’s right with this world? Nothing!” I want to put my hand on my heart when I hear this song. This is Oscar and Caroll at their best. I remember my Mother writing the words to this song down for us so my brother and sister and I could learn it. I don’t think we did that for any other song.
There are lots of people who have earned the title of Sesame Street Legend: Jim Henson, Joan Ganz Cooney and Joe Raposo to name a few. Caroll very rightly belongs on that list – more so than any other Muppet performer.
And so after 50 years as part of the most influential kids’ TV show ever (yes, I went there), Caroll is having his final birdseed milkshake, hitching a lift with Bruno the Trashman and taking a well-earned rest. Whatever he does next we can be sure of one thing: he definitely is not leaving the magic.
Before I go I have to finish with probably the biggest Thank You I’ve ever given. Caroll, you are a true TV talent and a huge star; but more importantly you are a part of what makes childhood wonderful and joyous and special. You certainly were for me. Thank You.