In 1969, Sesame Street debuted and introduced America’s children—growing up in the midst of intense disputes over integration—to its urban sensibilities and multicultural cast, all driven by the latest in childhood development research and Jim Henson wizardry. Despite the racially fractious times of its origin, the show was a success (although the state of Mississippi briefly banned it in 1970), and its list of celebrity guests from every conceivable domain reflected the diversity of its cast and hipness of its tone. With certain exceptions (particularly in later permutations), it’s always been a show that knew how to gauge the tenor of the times and appeal broadly to both children and their weary, captive guardians.
Being one of those weary captives, I can’t say enough how grateful I’ve been when a recognizable face interrupts Elmo’s babbling to sing a song or do a little comedy bit, winking at the parents all the while. These moments are fewer and farther between in the later ages of the show, but in the seventies, Sesame Street had musical routines worthy of Saturday Night Live. Take, for example, the 1973 appearance of Stevie Wonder on the show. While I was born too late to catch this when it aired, there’s no doubt that the child me would find Wonder and his band as funky as the grown-up parent does. Check them out above doing “Superstition.”
Like most musical artists who visit the show, Stevie also cooked something especially for the kids. In the clip above, watch him do a little number called “123 Sesame Street.” Wonder breaks out the talk box, a favorite gadget of his (he turned Frampton on to it). The band gets so into it, you’d think this was a cut off their latest album, and the kids (the show never used child actors) rock out like only seventies kids can. The show’s original theme song had its charm, but why the producers didn’t immediately change it to this is beyond me. I’d pay vintage vinyl prices to get it on record.
Finally, in our last clip from Stevie’s wonderful guest spot, he takes a break from full-on funk and roll to give Grover a little scat lesson and show off his pipes. The great Frank Oz as the voice of Grover is, as always, a perfect comic foil.