When Kid Songs Grow Up to Be Hits
When children like a song, they won’t let it go. (Just ask any parent who took their offspring to see the movie Frozen.)
The economic potential for this unbridled, youthful enthusiasm hasn’t gone unnoticed by the music industry. In fact, children’s music is such a force that Billboard magazine has multiple charts dedicated to tracking it.
But it’s not just tots and tweens who enjoy upbeat tunes and simple, easily understood lyrics. Mainstream artists have been performing traditional children’s songs for decades, and some “grown-up” acts (such as Johnny Cash, Andre 3000, and They Might Be Giants) have dedicated entire albums to music for young audiences.
Here are five “kids” tracks that resonated equally with older audiences.
“There’s a Hole in the Bucket”
“There’s a Hole in the Bucket” has been enjoyed by children for generations. Both humorous and educational, the song introduces kids to the idea of paradox — Henry and Liza are unable to patch a leaky bucket with straw, which they cannot cut with an unsharpened axe, that needs to be sharpened on a moistened stone (which, in turn, requires a bucket of water).
Despite (or perhaps because of) its simple premise, the song has been performed and recorded countless times over the years. In 1960, singers Harry Belafonte and Odetta recorded their interpretation live at a Carnegie Hall show. The contrast between the song’s silliness and the venue’s no-nonsense reputation wasn’t lost on the audience, and the performance was warmly received. The following year, the recording was released as a single and garnered significant airplay — ultimately peaking at #32 on the U.K. pop charts.
“Tra La La (One Banana, Two Banana)”
Comprised of four anthropomorphic animals, The Banana Splits were a fictitious pop-rock act, and stars of the cult favorite live action kids show, The Banana Splits Adventure Hour. The “band” even enjoyed some success in real life. In February 1969, the show’s theme, “Tra La La (One Banana, Two Banana),” which served as the show’s theme song, reached #96 on Billboard‘s Hot 100 chart.
But the song’s modest popularity in the U.S. paled in comparison to its success in the U.K. In 1979, Los Angeles-based punk band The Dickies released a frantic cover version of the song (retitled “Banana Splits”), which ultimately climbed to #7 on the British pop charts.
Ten years removed from The Banana Splits Adventure Hour, its viewers had grown up — and this edgier version of a childhood favorite drove the young punks, well…bananas.
“Nellie the Elephant”
The Dickies weren’t the only punk band to crack the top 10 with a children’s song. Formed the same year “Banana Splits” made the charts, Sunderland, England’s Toy Dolls quickly established a reputation for playing funny, energetic songs. But their first (and only) hit came in 1984, with a reworking of a little ditty about an escaped circus pachyderm.
“Nellie the Elephant” was first recorded in 1956 — an attempt to spark a music career for child actress, Mandy Miller. Produced by the legendary George Martin, the song was a mainstay of children’s radio programs, but never a bona fide hit.
Nearly three decades later, The Toy Dolls replaced the original’s lush string arrangements with a rumbling group vocal (“whooooooa…”) and plenty of punk energy. In the musical landscape of the mid-1980s, it easily stood out—and wound up reaching #4 on the U.K. pop charts.
In the fall of 1970, one lucky Sesame Street character became a pop star. During the show’s first season (more specifically, episode 0078), beloved bachelor (and Bert’s BFF) Ernie sang an ode to his favorite bath time toy. Although the episode first aired in February, “Rubber Duckie” really made a splash the following summer — appearing on The Sesame Street Book and Record, while also being released as a single.
The song (credited to Ernie and his creator, Jim Henson) was popular on Adult Contemporary stations, and eventually peaked at #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 in late September. The single was nominated for a Grammy for Best Recording for Children, though it lost to the very same album it appeared on.
“Rubber Duckie” has helped make bath time fun for nearly 50 years, thanks in part to cover versions that have helped keep it in the public eye. Little Richard, Bob McGrath, and Jane Krakowski are among the many who’ve put their spin on the now classic song.
“Can We Fix It?”
Originally written by Paul K. Joyce for the British children’s show, Bob the Builder, “Can We Fix It?” garnered previously unimagined crossover appeal. The song’s danceable beat and chant-filled chorus excited kids, while also appealing to university students and football fans. Despite limited airplay, it not only topped the U.K. singles charts, but was also the country’s highest selling single in the year 2000.
“Can We Fix It” even topped the Christmas week singles chart — a major feat in the U.K. — and prevented Irish pop act Westlife from tying The Beatles’ record of eight consecutive number-one singles. But, lest anyone think the song’s success was a fluke, a second Bob the Builder single (a reworked version of Lou Bega’s “Mambo No. 5″) topped the U.K. charts the following year.