After watching the excellent documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, about US children’s television producer and presenter, Fred Rogers, I’ve felt compelled to reshare a mini memoir I wrote for the website Stereo Stories a few years ago. It’s an ode to Sesame Street, in particular, the musical genius of Walt Kraemer.
Sesame Street’s Pinball Number Count
The electronic babysitter had fulltime employment at our place. Married in 1971 at the age of 17 – with the shotgun firing behind her – my mother was the one who needed the babysitting. She’d gone from a household of six to the solitary confines of a flat, so the box acted as a constantly yammering family of a different kind, even if she wasn’t paying attention to it most of the time.
As the progeny of this pop-cultural upbringing, I followed my mother’s lead and took up a cross-legged position approximately three feet away from the television most afternoons. The routine went something like this: Playschool (for the sake of it), Doctor Who (for the love it) and then, scheduled in-between those two programmes, Sesame Street.
I adored Sesame Street. Rather than gravitate to the familiar, I was romanced by its differentness to my suburban Australian reality – the urban decay of its ‘70s New York City setting; the ethnicity of the regulars with their Hispanic names, flares and large ‘fros; and the cast of misfits including a misanthrope, Oscar the Grouch, who lived in a rubbish bin (or ‘trash can’ as Sesame Street taught me, not to forget the pronunciation of the letter ‘zee’ that earned me a slap on the wrist from my primary school teacher – “But Miss, if I say ‘zed’ then it doesn’t rhyme with the rest of the ABC song!”).
And then there was the music.
Rather than suckle at the teat of The Wiggles or Hi-5, I was nourished with a steady diet of ‘adult music’ from day dot. I recall referring to Gerry Rafferty’s ‘Baker Street’ as ‘my morning song’ and singing ABBA’s ‘Dancing Queen’ into the connector points of an extension cord (my older cousin bagged the less pointy/more microphone-like end).
The only music specifically for children that I regularly consumed came from Sesame Street; the lyrics and melodies of which have been indelibly etched into my memory. Sesame Street taught me about ‘cooperation’. Sesame Street taught me about losing my cookies at the disco. And, most importantly, Sesame Street taught me – a mathematically dyslexic child – to count to 12 with the ‘Pinball Number Count’ song.
‘Pinball Number Count’ – or ‘12’ as I always knew it – debuted on Sesame Street in 1977, which made me five years old at the time. It was written by Walt Kraemer, arranged by Ed Bogas and performed by The Pointer Sisters (yes, THE Pointer Sisters). Few people realise that Sesame Street was the first US children’s programme to use music as a teaching aid. Heavyweights of the music industry – such as Nile Rodgers who was responsible for co-writing, producing and playing guitar on one of 2013’s biggest singles, Daft Punk’s Get Lucky – got their start touring with the Sesame Street band.
While riding a wave of nostalgia recently, I decided to revisit ‘Pinball Number Count’ and listen to it with grown-up ears; such is my fondness for this enduring, yet largely forgotten, classic. And, in doing so, I had my mind well and truly blown.
‘Pinball Number Count’ is as much a song as an animation music video (before the advent of MTV) featuring the insides of a pinball machine. We see a metal ball zooming around ramps and bumpers to what is effectively funk and jazz syncopation. As the ball zips through the pinball game, it sets off a barrage of numbers – one through to 12 – which The Pointer Sisters vocalise into song. One, two, three, FOUR, five… six, seven, eight, NINE, ten… eleven, twelve.
Most impressively to my now more sophisticated ear, the piece moves through a number of time signatures, some rarely utilised in music. According to Wikipedia, the first two measures are in a slowed down 7/8, with subsequent time signatures the likes of 11/8 and 3/8 giving the track an improvisational jazz feel. It also features a number of solos – soprano saxophone, electric guitar and even Caribbean kettledrum.
I needed to remind myself at this point: this is music for children. This kind of almost avant-garde compositional material – that would give the Herbie Hancocks and Frank Zappas of this world a run for their money – was actually created to appeal to children. Call me gob-smacked.
As an adult, ‘Pinball Number Count’ speaks to me on an entirely different level but, as a child, the appeal was definitely no less – just different. It was as catchy then as it is now, which says a lot for the capacity of youngsters, even wide-eyed five year-olds, to understand and enjoy more complex art forms.
A scout around the Internet confirms I’m not the only one who has a soft spot for this tune. One fan even contacted Walt Kraemer in his search for a pristine recording and further information about the song, only to hear from the man himself “there is nothing left of either the animation cells nor audio elements for any of that beautiful work.” A sad end to an underrated work of genius.
I wonder if I’d been fed The Wiggles rather than Sesame Street’s ‘Pinball Number Count’ song would my own appreciation for music be somehow diminished? I’m pleased I’ve never got to find out because that song has been a welcome companion on much of my life’s journey. And, on any given day, I can successfully count to 12, so I guess it did a good job of that too.