Charette grew up in Westbrook. When he graduated from Cheverus High School in 1965, music was already a big part of his life.
“Pete Seeger was my hero in terms of what he could do to have the whole audience in the palm of his hand, singing along,” Charette said over a cup of coffee at his kitchen table in Windham.
He also admired Bob Dylan’s songwriting.
While earning a degree in English at the University of Southern Maine, Charette found moderate local success as a folksinger, wielding an acoustic guitar, dulcimers and the occasional banjo. He played the bar and coffeehouse circuit — and opened for better-known acts such as Tom Rush.
He wasn’t always happy, though.
“Playing for adults, I was a nervous wreck,” Charette said. “It was painful. Then, I played a little bit for kids, and it was a whole different vibe. I seemed to relax and be comfortable.”
He knew he’d found his niche.
Singing with kids meant he did not have to play in smoky bars anymore where the music was secondary to drinking and gabbing. Kids didn’t yell requests for Neil Young all night, either.
“I liked the hours a lot better,” Charette said.
“Bubble Gum” was the first children’s song he wrote. Kids immediately latched on to its gentle, bouncing cadence and quirky lyrics: “I don’t like frog legs ’cause they smell like feet. You can take away the liver. Give me something sweet … Bubble gum, bubble gum. Lots of fun with my bubble gum.”
By 1983, Charette had recorded an album’s worth of original material. He also scored a distribution deal with Activity Records.
“When the record came out, it gave me credibility as a performer for kids,” he said.
The company passed on his second batch of songs in 1985. They thought Charette’s tunes weren’t educational enough. They wanted more colors and numbers.
At that juncture, Charette and Roy Clark, his piano player and arranger, hatched a plan. They both mortgaged their homes and started their own company,
Pine Point Records. Their first release was the album “Alligator in the Elevator.”
“That went on to sell several hundred thousand copies,” Clark said.
Charette’s best-known song,
“I Love Mud,” appeared on that record.
“All I have to do is sing, ‘Mud, mud, I love mud,’ and everyone finishes the rest of the chorus,” Charette said. “And it’s usually the grown-ups singing loudest.”
Clark said it’s Charette’s ability to listen to kids, to take their interests seriously, that makes him a good songwriter. Instead of deciding what a child should be singing, he finds out what kids want to sing about.
“That’s special. That’s unique,” Clark said.
All told, Pine Point Records released 11 albums by Charette. The latest came in 2016.
With a hit children’s record, Charette was soon playing concerts and teaching school songwriting workshops across the country. Many of Charette’s his best-loved songs include hand motions or sign language to help keep wee ones engaged. Skunk, bear and alligator puppets also played prominent roles in his performances.
“It’s beautiful pandemonium,” said bassist Mike Burd of Industry. Burd’s played in the Bubblegum Band for about three years. “Rick is a totally humble, gentle, self-effacing, completely transparent, honest guy. The kids fall all over him and follow him all around. The parents do the same thing and, in many cases, the parents’ parents did the same thing. He has this multigenerational audience. Everybody knows all the words to every song.”
Charette has always shied away from politics or broad moralizing in his songs, focusing instead on warmth, fun and singability.
“I just want it to be a happy time for them,” he said. “I think it makes a difference for kids, later in life — just knowing someone cares for them — giving them that time to play.”
It’s been a good life for Charette. He’s a happily married father of three and grandfather of two. He’s a longtime resident of Windham, living in an immaculate condo with access to Sebago Lake. Recently, however, he’s started to feel his age.
“My 60s were good,” Charette said. “But it seems like when I hit 70, I hit a wall.”
That’s when he had a bicycle accident. Charette broke his collarbone and a few ribs, going down hard on a hidden curb.
The bones healed, but his shoulder has never been the same, making it hard to play the guitar. Charette also has arthritis and Parkinson’s disease — which he’s opening up about for the first time.
“I’ve been reluctant to put that out there in public,” he said. “It’s just the beginning stages and sometimes, when people know something like that about you, they start treating you differently.”
He doesn’t want that. Charette’s early symptoms are manifesting mostly in tight muscles. They make it hard to move around. His feet often feel leaden, immobile.
“I wouldn’t want to present that onstage. You want kids dancing around,” he said. “In my mind, in my head, I’m still right there. But physically, it’s just too difficult.”
Credit: Courtesy John McLaughlin
Looking ahead, Charette dreams of hiking when the weather gets nice again. He also imagines days when he might feel well enough to volunteer singing with children, stuck in the hospital. He’s still thinking up songs, too. Charette recently wrote one about Windham and gave it to a local schoolteacher.
“Some days are better than others, and when they are, I try to make the most of them,” Charette said.
He thinks about his musical legacy, pondering what it’s meant to himself and the thousands of children he’s sung songs with.
“That’s something I’ve wondered,” Charette said. “Will this just be time that was taken up? Will they really remember any of it?”
As news of his retirement spreads, he’s getting his answer.
Cards, letters and
Facebook messages are starting to pour in. People tell him about the impact his music had on their lives — and now on their children’s lives.
“He performed at my school all the time. I had Rick’s records on my Christmas list in the ’80s when I was a kid,” said Heather Hilton, who grew up in Limington. “Last year his downloads were on my son’s wish list.”
Hilton said her 5-year-old son especially likes Charette’s epic song “Where Do My Sneakers Go at Night?” Hilton’s mother, an elementary school teacher, still plays Charette’s songs in her classroom and said her pre-K students still love them.
One card Charette received this month reads: “From my birthday party in kindergarten, to Baxter’s first concert, you’ve made us smile throughout the years. Thank you for your wonderful gift of music. Your songs will live on. You will be missed.”
It came with a smiling family portrait and was signed, “Allyson, Baxter and Tristan.”
After his final concert, one little girl waited in line to meet Charette. When it was her turn, she handed him a crinkled drawing of a snowman. It was signed, in pencil, “From Athena.”
“I don’t think it’s sunk in, yet,” Charette said, looking at the drawing and the card. “Sometimes, I beat myself up. I wish I could do more. Then, I have to remind myself to feel good about the things I’ve already done.”
Clark thinks Charette’s music will be around long after both of them are gone. He points out that “I Love Mud” and “Alligator in the Elevator” are so familiar in the kid world, that many people mistake them for traditional folk songs in the public domain.
That seems to suit Charette just fine.
“If I had to sum up the whole thing, I’m just so gratified that I’ve had this run, this experience,” Charette said. “It’s always been the words and the music and the kids.”