When I told my wife I was interviewing Rick Charette, she immediately leaped off the couch and began singing “Alligator in the Elevator” and dancing, making chomping jaws with her arms, grabbing her face in mock fright, and cupping her hands to make eyes at me.
At 30, she’s 13 years younger than me, so when Charette began his career in 1983, I’d just missed out on that childhood magic. For more than 30 years and with 10 studio albums, the Maine native has forged a legendary career as a children’s singer/songwriter.
And on Feb. 9, he’ll appear with his Bubblegum Band at the Brewer Performing Arts Center.
His common, everyday themes resonate with children: spilling your juice, having a messy room, eating popcorn. But so do his more outlandish yarns, such as the mixed-up Alfredo Potato, sneakers running away by themselves, and chickens taking airplane vacations.
During performances, Charette involves children and parents alike in the singing and dancing. In school appearances, he gets the teachers involved — much to the students’ excitement.
“Sometimes it takes a little coaxing to get teachers on stage but, once they are up there, they usually can ham things up and put on quite the show for their students,” Charette said. “I usually get them to join me on my ‘Bubble Gum’ song; it’s so much fun to have them sing along with me. I love watching them having fun moving and dancing to the song.”
Charette, who holds undergraduate degrees in English and music education from the University of Southern Maine, began his career as a student teacher. When assigned to teach songs to his class, he gave them two: a folk song and one of his own. They preferred the latter, “Bubble Gum.” His professors encouraged him to pursue his gift.
Then one day, when Charette told his 2½-year-old son that they had to go into the elevator, the lad misunderstood and began crying that he didn’t want to go into the alligator. Once Charette calmed him down by explaining it wasn’t an alligator but an elevator, he began considering the amusing contrast of the two words. A song was soon born, along with Charette’s first album, “Alligator in the Elevator,” in 1983.
“He finds it quite humorous, because I continue to mention [that story],” Charette said of his son, who is now 31. “I think he has an appreciation at this point. I think at one point in his teen years, he probably wasn’t too excited about me mentioning it.”
But it’s a great story, Charette says, because of the simple meaning: “There’s inspiration all around you; you never know where it will come from,” he said.
By the 1990s, there was hardly any kid in Maine who didn’t know him and his songs — like his personal favorite to perform, “I Love Mud.”
“That’s the one that all I have to do, especially in Maine, is to just start it — and then that’s it,” he said. “It just kind of takes off. The audience will sing… It’s amazing how it’s such a special moment — especially for them, for the parents. I like to think it’s for their children too, but it definitely really pulls the family together.”
Despite countless children loving his music, they haven’t always found his name easy to say.
“Kids seem to know me not as Mr. Charette but as one word — Rickcharette,” he said. “Some variations include Gingerette, Sick Charette, Rick Corvette, and my favorite, Chic-a-wreck.”
He’s even been a Halloween costume of choice for kids, complete with a fake mustache. And one parent once told him they’d planned to name their second child Rick Charette, but the baby turned out to be a girl.
Although he’d done shows outside Maine into the 1990s, Charette’s big career break came following his participation in three- to four-day Vermont Teachers Applying Whole Language conferences from 1986 until 1995 at Johnson State College in Vermont. Hundreds of teachers from across the country also attended these conferences.
At the time, the concept of “whole language” learning was becoming popular, focusing on children learning using many methods, including singing. Each morning, Charette woke the audience up prior to the day’s keynote speaker by playing children’s songs. He was extremely popular, and schools nationwide began requesting that he perform for them. Today, many use his songs as educational tools in fun, entertaining ways.
Charette says he’s very happy with the impact his music has made on so many.
“I always wondered, when I was just starting, after the first few recordings came out, would the music still be significant years later?” he said. “And now I’m looking at it, and I’m finding that the people who know about me continue to share the music with their offspring.”
Charette says his view is summed up by his favorite quote form the poet Kenneth Koch: “You aren’t just the age you are; you are all the ages you ever have been.”
For a kid at heart like Charette, that says it all. And after 30 years, he isn’t ready to quit yet.
“I guess I’ll know when it’s time to stop; it’s still a lot of fun, and I still have a lot of energy,” he said. “People say, ‘Well, you’re always going to have an audience, because there’s always going to be kids.’ As long as the music still continues to sound good, and it’s believable in singing it, I want to keep doing it.”
Rick Charette will appear at the Brewer Performing Arts Center this Saturday, Feb. 9 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $12 for adults and $8 for children, students, military service members, and seniors, and are available at www.BrewerPerformingArts.com.