Reaching Young Fans Is No Breeze David Jack's Songs Are A Hit With Children, And So Is David Jack. But How Does A Children's Musician Make It Big When Radio And Tv Don't Tune In?

Posted: February 02, 1992

David Jack pops his latest tape, We Love Saturday, into the boombox. Son Adam, all of 2, stands on a chair and, rocking to the beat, sings along with one of his dad's songs, "Happy Street." The boy waves his arms a la Muti, so animated he could topple. If little Adam is any indication - and granted, he's biased - David Jack is destined to become the Elvis of the toddler set.

Small problem, though. Elvis had it easy compared with children's performers today.

If you have youngsters, maybe you've heard of David Jack, or seen him at a mall or a synagogue or a hospital. But chances are just as good you don't have a clue.

He's 32, a Neshaminy High grad, another good young musician knocking

himself out to make it big in children's music.

All around him, the business is exploding. Most of the major record companies, Warner Bros. and BMG among them, are establishing children's divisions. Celebrities are jumping in, from Micky Dolenz, late of The Monkees, to Shelley Duvall. Even Disney, beyond promoting Mickey and Donald, has signed such real-life musicians as Norman Foote and Parachute Express.

"It is big stuff now - big, big stuff," says Diane Huss Green, editor of Parents' Choice, a nonprofit foundation that recognizes the best in children's music, videos, computers and radio every year.

But outside the big-money entertainment aeries, children's music is a cottage industry. And most of the musicians are independents such as David Jack, hustling for attention.

Few radio stations play David Jack. Rolling Stone magazine doesn't write about him. Most newspapers don't review his concerts or his tapes. Most record stores don't sell him.

"I get letters all the time, people saying they can't find me," he laments. "It's a terrible place to be as an artist. . . . Day and night, I just have to keep going."

So every weekend, Jack races to Syracuse or San Diego or somewhere in between to do a concert, for which he's paid anywhere from $750 to $1,750. Singing and playing the piano, he has youngsters up and dancing, laughing and clapping with such songs as "The Cozy Bug Twist," "Dance in Your Pants" and "The Dinosaur Dip." In some shows, he grabs three fathers from the audience and they become David Jack and the Jackettes.

Weekdays he's on the phone - lining up more gigs, coaxing TV stations to give him a shot at his own show, peddling his three cassettes and his new video to distributors and department stores. You can find them at Zany Brainy in Wynnewood and at Kiddie City stores, among others. A great victory for Jack would be getting his tapes into Wal-Mart.

"I feel like I'm always selling myself," he says. " 'Hi, I'm children's recording artist David Jack. I'm great. I'm great. I'm great.' "

When he has time and energy, he does what he loves: writes new material and composes songs, on a multi-track synthesizer in the den of his Huntingdon Valley home.

Like all children's musicians, Jack works in the shadow of Raffi, the first and most famous of the genre. Raffi was a coffee shop folk singer in the 1970s who started performing in schools as a favor to teachers. He was sincere, gifted, warm, fun and gentle. He traveled Canada peddling tapes out of the trunk of his car. By the mid-1980s, he was legend, selling out venues from Carnegie Hall to the Cow Palace. Raffi is no longer doing children's music - he's now singing about environmental issues.

Just as Raffi did, Jack knows he must chase success the old-fashioned way: by word of mouth.

"No matter how wonderful you are, no matter how wonderful your music is, you must start at the grass-roots level," says Michelle Henderson, managing director of the Children's Group, a small marketing and management company in Toronto that promotes several children's artists. "Shipping out of your dining room. Giving free concerts. The only way is to find those true believers and expect them to spread it. That's how it works."

And that's David Jack.

*

Last summer, in an auditorium at Drexel University, Jack violated what he calls "the first rule of Hollywood."

He spent his own money.

And his sister's money and his parents' money.

Together, he says, they dropped nearly $100,000 to make a children's video, David Jack . . . Live! Makin' Music, Makin' Friends. "We pooled all our money," he says, "and we're broke."

He paid for six camera crews and lighting. He hired a set designer, a choreographer, a production contractor, dancers, even dinosaurs. A large chunk of the cost was for editing, in a Chicago studio at $250 an hour - 12 hours a day for a week.

"Even if we don't make anything off it now, it was worth it to do it," says Jack, "because we got what we wanted - a quality product that kids and parents would enjoy."

His older sister, Susan Jack Cooper, who lives in San Diego, writes his lyrics. A Yale drama school graduate and onetime roommate of L.A. Law's Jill Eikenberry, she had been ill for years with emphysema, caused in part by a severe blood enzyme deficiency. She recently underwent a lung transplant, and her recovery, he says, is "nothing less than a miracle."

Their mother, also in San Diego, does all his shipping and balances the checkbook.

SUPPORTIVE PARENTS

"More important than anything is the moral support he's getting," says Jack's wife, Vicky. "His parents used their last penny for that video. They believe in him. His mother raves about him wherever she goes - the cleaner's, the library, the bookstore." Adds Jack: "My mother says, 'You want me to sell my house, I'll sell my house.' "

Jack's father, who died last year, was a music teacher in the Pennsbury School District for 30 years. Jack's mother is a musician as well. He grew up playing piano and drums, and came to love performing while working as a counselor at a Catskills summer camp.

Jack graduated from UCLA as a music major and worked his way up from secretary for the manager of music operations at CBS Television in Los Angeles to music supervisor - a job, he says, "most music majors would give their left arm for."

He started doing children's music in 1985, after his first child, Benjamin, was born. He and his sister decided to write some songs "just as a fun thing to do," he says. His parents donated $5,000 to make a tape - Don't Wake Up the Baby - that sold about 1,000 copies. "Mom took it around to nursery schools," he recalls. "Dad drove it up to the Marine barracks commissary in San Diego. I called Columbia House record club - and they put it in the catalogue."

In 1988, he released another tape, Dance in Your Pants, which won a Parents' Choice award. He negotiated a contract with Western Publishing, publisher of Golden Books, which agreed to distribute his tapes. He received a big advance against future royalties. "I really thought that was it," he says - that his music would be in every supermarket and toy store.

Not quite. Western also distributes Sesame Street-related products, and given a choice, Jack says, "most stores take Sesame - not me."

COMING TO GLENSIDE

In 1990, he left CBS to become a children's entertainer full-time. Last year, after 10 years in California, they moved back to the Philadelphia area, so Vicky could be near her family while Jack took to the road. His next local appearance is March 29, at the Keswick Theater in Glenside - a benefit for Ronald McDonald House.

"I'm picking up the pace now," he says. "With the video and the new album, I'm making a push. I have two friends booking shows for me around the country. I'm trying to get into Wal-Mart and Kmart and Target and on television."

Ahhh, television.

Ultimately, Jack sees himself as a latter-day Gene London - whom he watched as a child in Philadelphia.

"He was just a guy," Jack reminisces. "He was not an animal. He was not dressed up. He was not inside a computer, screaming at people. He was not talking surf talk, like 'cool dude.' He was a friendly guy who kids could relate to. There was magic and fun stuff. . . . I can be a role model for kids. I know how to speak to kids. And I think I know what kids like."

What's that?

"They like ME!"

Last year, Jack and his sister developed a treatment for a Saturday morning TV show. "It takes place in a library - which is death right there when you're talking to networks," he says. "You have the Saturday gang, and they meet in the library every Saturday. The show would have lots of characters - the grumpy librarian, the reference librarian who knows every crazy fact."

Jack would be inside a TV set. Kids would turn him on to complain about how bored they were. They could pull a book on the shelf and, like Batman and Robin disappearing into the Bat Cave, they'd enter Jack's world, where he would sing and dance with them. He'd also take the kids on trips - "to the set of the Today show, where Willard Scott explains why it rains, to meet Michael J. Fox, who tells them why he loves to play hockey."

Sounds good, right?

Wrong.

"David developed a lovely concept," says Judith Price, head of children's programming for CBS, "but it's more suited to public television. It would have a hard time being competitive in a network arena."

The sad fact is, she explains, "it's a real struggle to get kids to watch shows that are good for them." And in almost every case on Saturday mornings, kids prefer cartoons over live action.

"Pee-wee's Playhouse was the one show that competed against cartoons," she says. "Pee-wee was the most expensive show in all of Saturday morning television, but it was commercial, and it was competitive."

CBS has tried other live performers, she says, but they've always failed. She singles out Riders in the Sky, a new Saturday show that mixes live action, puppetry and animation, and stars real-life singing cowboys Ranger Doug, Too Slim and Woody Paul. It has no shoot'em-ups, no guns. The worst villain is Spongehead, who soaks up all the water.

"It's doing terrible," says Price. "It's the show we get the most mail on, but it's not being watched in a competitive way."

And if kids don't watch it, advertisers won't pay for it, and CBS won't show it. It's that simple.

"I think David is terrific," she adds. "I think he is very talented, and he's like a child in a grown-up's suit. However, for a children's performer - as with anything - it's always a long uphill struggle. . . . We're rooting for him."

Jack is undaunted. Last January, a federal law took effect requiring stations to provide more educational programming for children. He's hoping local stations will give him a chance to do 30-second or one-minute spots in which he can, for instance, take kids inside the Spectrum and explain how a hockey rink is converted into a basketball court.

He's doing such spots now for a TV station in San Diego, flying out every two weeks to film them. He'd love to do the same here.

And it may happen. Channel 29, the local Fox network affiliate, is thinking about establishing a children's on-air host, and they've talked with Jack.

"I think he has a lot of experience in entertaining children in live events," says program director Bill Butler. "He's sensitive to issues and topics in children's entertainment - and he has a following."

Just last week, as he was performing at a school in Baltimore, Jack was thinking just how much fun he was having.

"I saw all the kids out there dancing, and singing along," he recalls. ''It's really hard work, but the kids get so much out of it. It makes me feel good. It makes it worth it."

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