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Berkeley: From rap to reggae to rock,
entertainer has kids’ beat covered

Annie Nakao, San Francisco Chronicle Staff Writer
Friday, September 2, 2005

Around these parts, Gary Lapow is a household word, if you’re a kid.

Last year, Lapow, a Berkeley songwriter and singer and one of the premier children’s entertainers in the Bay Area, sang to 47,000 kids. “I know because I wrote a grant,” he says. And that’s just one year in the more than quarter-century that Lapow’s music has been engaging youngsters and teaching them how to live in the world.

“The Bay Area music world doesn’t know me,” says Lapow (pronounced La- poh). “It’s my fate. It keeps me humble. But the world of schools and parents and children knows me. It feels so sweet to be doing this. What a blessing.” Now Lapow sees youngsters whose parents grew up with his songs. “I guess I really am 61,” he says.

Lapow appears Sunday afternoon at Berkeley’s Ashkenaz Music and Dance Community Center. It’s the latest of his events on stage and at schools, gyms, libraries and any place kids are.

“Gary’s one of the Bay Area’s real stars and one of the few children’s entertainers who can make a living at it,” says Scott Gelfand, founder and owner of the Bay Area’s Buddy Club Children’s Shows that often books Lapow for its many events. “He stands above the rest.” What makes today’s media-steeped kids sit up and notice Lapow? He’s funny for one -- his songs have names like, “Supermarket Shuffle” and “Oooga, Booga Booga.” But Lapow’s catchy lyrics about issues kids deal with every day are also set to a hip-swiveling, finger-snapping beat, from rap to reggae to rock.

Like his song, “Read” :
“It’s R to the E, A to the D,
Life is good when you love to read,
B-O-R-E-D, no way
When you R-E-A-D every day.” Or “Veggie Rap” :
“Did you ever find yourself
walkin’ down the street,
You start to feelin’ hungry,
Wonderin’ what am I gonna eat
Your mama gave you money
To buy yourself a snack
’Junk food, Junk food’
your brain is havin’ a snack attack.”

Lapow, a small, energetic man with a lush head of silver hair and a smile that never quits, is best caught in action. One morning at the James Kenney Recreation Center in southwest Berkeley, he faces 75 kids ages 5 to 12 years old. The younger ones look expectant, the older kids blase and suspicious of the cheery guy with the guitar.

“The staff is looking ebullient,” he calls over to the adults. He creates a stir when he shouts, “Whoopi Goldberg says you’re going to have a good time!” Goldberg was music director at Cazadero Music and Arts Camp. Lapow replaced her in 1980 when she left on her road to Hollywood. Lapow’s promotional material has Goldberg, pronouncing, “Gary’s kids’ stuff is great!” Lapow dives into “Great Balls of Fire,” and soon, the young ones are snapping their fingers. He turns up the beat on his CD player, using call and response as he works the crowd and shoves the mike into faces.

“I liked it when he rapped,” says 9-year-old Jonathan Higganbotham of Berkeley, an MTV fan.

“I love the challenge,” Lapow says later. “The same kids who come in ’cool’ are begging for autographs at the end.” A few days later, Lapow is serving iced tea in a yurt, hidden away in the backyard of his blue Victorian in Berkeley. It’s a peaceful space, with a comfy sofa, a rocking chair and pillows. Lapow’s wife of 24 years, Ahbi Vernon, a psychotherapist, uses the yurt for her sessions.

Lapow explains he didn’t start out entertaining children. In the mid- 1970s, he played guitar for the late songwriter and activist Malvina Reynolds, and before that, was a member of the Red Star Singers, San Francisco’s radical activist band.

But his love of the arts began much earlier, in Brooklyn, where his father, photographer Harry Lapow, was a package designer for some of New York’s biggest stores. One day, the elder Lapow wandered into an Italian wedding party at Coney Island. The photographs he took became part of his famous book, “Coney Island Beach People.” Lapow, the grandson of Russian and Polish immigrant Jews, says he always felt “a freak in my neighborhood. My father wasn’t interested in sports.” Seeing that his son liked to draw and sing songs, Harry Lapow advised him to enter the High School of Music and Art in New York.

“It got me into Manhattan, where I saw boys and girls who were interested in art, music and poetry,” he says.

He hung out at Washington Square Park, jamming with bluegrass and folk musicians.
Brooklyn College followed, as did the civil rights era - Lapow went to the South to teach, playing guitar for the Freedom Singers in 1964. Landing in Berkeley in 1970, Lapow joined the Red Star Singers. The band broke up in 1974.

To supplement his earnings, Lapow began teaching at summer music camps, and found he liked working with children. He made some tapes and soon, they were selling better than his music for grown-ups.

Today, his Springboard Records – he is “CEO and custodian” – sells nine CDs.
There are themes, mostly life skills that address bullying, teasing, conflict resolution, prejudice and respect, literacy, and an awareness of disabilities. His newest CD is on nutrition.

Lapow’s work has won many awards, including one from Virginia’s Wolf Trap Institute for Early Learning Through the Arts, where he has been a master artist for 18 years.
His two children, Zev Vernon-Lapow, 20, and Emerald Vernon-Lapow, 14, are a part of their dad’s creative team.

“Zev grew up thinking everything in the world had a song,” he says. Emerald joined in, too, though at one point, “I had become uncool,” Lapow says. “Now I’m very cool because a lot of her friends grew up with my music.” Lapow credits them for turning him on to hip-hop.

“But I was interested in rap from the very beginning because it was a great beat.” What he rejects are the lyrics and images that are “pumped” at kids on MTV. “Sex, a lot of money, violence,” Lapow says. “I have to shatter those images when I’m out there -- there are no naked women behind me. All I can do is let them hear my lyrics, which help them see they care about themselves.”

Lapow’s own brush with the big time came in 1988, when the Disney Channel ran his Kaleidoscope Concert, along with his songs, repackaged as music videos on “Music Box,” for eight years. Now, it’s the Barneys and Wiggles of the world that are celebrities, which the modest Lapow accepts as his fate. “I’ve enjoyed the black hole of success,” he quips, smiling.

Fans like cookbook author and chef Mollie Katzen of Berkeley get annoyed that Lapow doesn’t get as much visibility as, say, the Wiggles. “They’re pleasant enough, but there’s so much more to Gary,” Katzen says. “He never talks down to kids.” Katzen met the singer when she took her young son, now a 21-year-old professional dancer, to a Lapow concert. “My son did not like children’s music,” she says. “I couldn’t even get him to listen to Raffi. Somehow, he got exposed to Gary’s music. He approved of it.” It just shows Lapow’s “Jewish bluegrass soul,” Katzen says. “He’s a true troubadour, a poet type, an untapped treasure.“

©2005 San Francisco Chronicle