Farewell on their own terms

Sharon and Bram savour their re­tire­ment tour

The Sudbury Star - - ENTERTAINMENT - DAVID FRIEND

TORONTO — When chil­dren’s en­ter­tain­ment duo Sharon and Bram an­nounced it was head­ing down the road to re­tire­ment, mem­bers Sharon Hamp­son and Bram Mor­ri­son ex­pected to draw in­ter­est with a se­ries of farewell con­certs.

But the pair say af­ter 40 years of per­form­ing to­gether — half of that as trio Sharon, Lois & Bram — they’re sur­prised at the sheer num­ber of grown-ups who want to re­cap­ture their child­hoods, a time when The Ele­phant Show reg­u­larly aired on CBC.

Some of them have their kids in tow, while oth­ers ar­rive in groups of adults ready to par­tic­i­pate in the colour­ful sing-along songs.

And it’s not just the life­long fans show­ing in­ter­est, Hamp­son says. Con­cert venues and event or­ga­niz­ers are try­ing to book the duo be­fore they of­fi­cially wind down their sched­ules next year.

“We never an­tic­i­pated the kind of re­sponse we’ve had — it’s huge,” Hamp­son says with her fa­mously wel­com­ing smile. “The in­ter­est has come from far and wide.”

Hamp­son is sit­ting along­side Mor­ri­son in his Toronto liv­ing room, which is lay­ered with colour­ful folk art col­lected from his trav­els around the world. Many pieces are shaped like ele­phants, the group’s of­fi­cial mas­cot that danced along­side them for years on tele­vi­sion.

Sharon, Lois & Bram wasn’t ex­actly what you’d call a hit-mak­ing group, but for a gen­er­a­tion of kids, songs like Skin­na­marink, The Muf­fin Man and One Ele­phant, seemed big­ger than any­thing from Michael Jack­son, Madonna or Prince.

Af­ter the con­certs, Hamp­son says par­ents of­ten con­fess they were once the pint-sized fans in their au­di­ence. Some­times the con­ver­sa­tions turn deeply emo­tional as peo­ple tear­fully re­flect on how Sharon, Lois & Bram was a wel­come dis­trac­tion in dif­fi­cult child­hoods. Other fans say the group’s mu­sic helped in­spire ca­reers in the arts.

Hear­ing those sto­ries would prob­a­bly be enough to mo­ti­vate Hamp­son and Mor­ri­son to con­tinue travers­ing across the coun­try for years to come, but like ev­ery­one else, they too are get­ting older.

“The road gets a lit­tle harder each year that goes by,” says Mor­ri­son, who turns 78 in De­cem­ber.

Hamp­son, who is three years younger, agrees with a nod.

“We’re not go­ing to hit the road like we did years ago,” she says. “We’re too old and we don’t want to work like that. We want to do a lit­tle bit here, a lit­tle bit there.”

So they’re clos­ing out with a leisurely run of dates across Canada be­fore fin­ish­ing off the tour next year.

Sharon and Bram will play West­ern Canada through­out No­vem­ber, in­clud­ing in Win­nipeg (Nov. 11), Sher­wood Park, Alta. (Nov. 16), two back-to-back shows in Cal­gary (both on Nov. 18) and Fort Nel­son, B.C. (Nov. 22) be­fore tak­ing a break un­til the new year.

Next May, they’ll tackle the East Coast, though more con­certs will prob­a­bly be added be­tween now and then.

Four new sin­gles will be re­leased over the next year as the pa­rade marches on­ward. The Colour Song de­buted Fri­day and will be fol­lowed by two oth­ers be­fore the grand fi­nale — a new ver­sion of Skin­na­marink that in­cludes a verse about wel­com­ing di­ver­sity, writ­ten by Hamp­son’s daugh­ter.

A pic­ture book called Skin­na­marink closes out the cel­e­bra­tion next Septem­ber.

All this fan­fare seems ap­pro­pri­ate for a group that’s at the heart of 1980s chil­dren’s mu­sic canon — a fruit­ful era when Cana­dian mu­si­cians like Fred Pen­ner graced TV screens as of­ten as Sesame Street, and Raffi spun on the record player in many house­holds.

Sharon, Lois & Bram sold more than three mil­lion al­bums world­wide; the group played the White House when Bill Clin­ton was pres­i­dent and was ap­pointed to the Or­der of Canada. The Ele­phant Show aired in re­peats for years af­ter it wrapped and saw a resur­gence in pop­u­lar­ity on Nick­elodeon.

While most of their fans grew out of their mu­sic decades ago — leav­ing the kids’ mar­ket to a gen­er­a­tion of new­com­ers — the trio con­tin­ued play­ing shows across North Amer­ica.

When Lois Lilien­stein left the group af­ter her hus­band’s death in 1998, Hamp­son and Mor­ri­son re­set as a duo. Their au­di­ences started to evolve as well.

“We see par­ents and grand­par­ents come with lit­tle kids who don’t re­ally know us be­cause we’re not on tele­vi­sion any­more,” Mor­ri­son says. “They may know our voices, but they don’t know who we are — the par­ents do.”

It’s put Hamp­son and Mor­ri­son in a unique role as chil­dren’s en­ter­tain­ers duo who largely ap­peal to adults. Their con­certs of­fer a door­way to a sim­pler time for peo­ple hop­ing to for­get their mort­gage pay­ments and nine-to-five jobs, if only for a cou­ple of hours.

Many also fondly re­mem­ber Sharon, Lois & Bram as a trio, which tech­ni­cally hasn’t ex­isted for nearly 20 years. Lilien­stein ap­peared on a few TV spe­cials af­ter her exit from show busi­ness, but re­mained mostly ab­sent from the group’s per­for­mances un­til she died of cancer in 2015.

Her loss sparked a re­newed in­ter­est in their mu­sic and led some fans to re­visit old al­bums.

To pay trib­ute, Hamp­son says most shows be­gin with video footage of the group’s hey­day orig­i­nally shown at Lilien­stein’s memo­rial ser­vice.

“We know they miss her,” she says. “Peo­ple tell us that all the time.”

Hamp­son and Mor­ri­son don’t in­tend to leave the stage en­tirely once they’re re­tired.

They say it’s likely a char­i­ta­ble cause will draw them back into play­ing a few shows here and there. But they in­sist this good­bye tour isn’t a lark to drum up ticket sales, like Cher’s seem­ingly end­less run of farewell shows or El­ton John’s cur­rent three-year in­ter­na­tional fi­nale.

Hamp­son has other plans in mind.

She wants to spend more time with her grown fam­ily, take yoga classes and travel the world. Mor­ri­son says he’s ded­i­cated to cook­ing his way through a list of tra­di­tional fam­ily recipes passed down by his mother.

To­gether they’ll also re­flect on the warmth of fans who have re­turned once again af­ter all th­ese years.

“It’s a way of telling us that what we did re­ally worked for them and was sig­nif­i­cant,” she says. “You couldn’t ask for more than that.”

CHRIS YOUNG/THE CANA­DIAN PRESS

Chil­dren’s en­ter­tain­ers Sharon Hamp­son and Bramwell “Bram” Mor­ri­son are pic­tured in Bram’s Toronto home last month.

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