Mister G is in the house, time for FUN!
South County Spring Break campers scream with delight as they are urged to imagine bugs in their hair by Mister G — otherwise known as Ben Gundersheimer of Whately. Recorder/Paul Franz Purchase photo reprints »
As do his previous albums, this upcoming release from Mr. G includes a host of talented backup musicians from our area, including Charles Neville, Rani Arbo and Tony Vacca. Purchase photo reprints »
Mr. G performs at Deerfield Elementary, where both kids and adults dance to his music. Recorder/Paul Franz Purchase photo reprints »
Mister G performs in Deerfield, where both kids and adults dance to his music. Recorder/Paul Franz Purchase photo reprints »
Great goofy grasshoppers!
A gaggle of gusto girls and giggly little guys in the Conway Grammar School’s gym are gyrating, jumping and going ga-ga over the strumming, singing musician who is giving them gallons of (uno! dos! tres!) “Choco-lalala, Chocho-lalala, Choco-la-tay!”
Mister G grooves as his young audience bounces, claps, shouts.
In his straw fedora, orange shirt and sneakers, the singer The Washington Post calls “a kid-friendly, bilingual rock star” is in total control of the rising temperature of the gym and its audience of jumping-bean juniors, who drop to the floor magically as he instructs, almost mid-strum, “OK, sit down.”
The music never stops as he keeps the rhythm going, very softly (10 seconds. 20 seconds. 30 seconds). “OK, You can stand up.”
Again, it’s a go-go guacamole pit, a gym full of kids moving to a Latin beat and ecstatically jumping to Mister G’s thumping “Quiero Leer” (I Need to Read.)
“Witches pirates and dinosaurs
Kings and queens with silver swords
When I’m reading I’m never bored
Yeah I need to read.”
These kids are totally into the reggae and funk and everything Mister G dishes out, including, “Ratones en tús pantalones,” just as other pint-sized audiences have truly seemed to have “rats in their pants” during performances from New Orleans (where Mister G. had been the night before) to London to Mexico City and beyond. Also totally into it are the grown ups, including sixth-grade teacher Rick Gifford, who joins Mister G at the front of the room for a dance, every limb of his 6-foot-plus body shooting out simultaneously.
“¡Ay caramba, ay caramba!
You’re going crazy ...
You’ve got rats in your pants
So you’re jumping to the sky ”
A Parents’ Choice Gold Award-winning artist whose fifth recording is about to be released, the Whately superstar of kids’ music will appear this Saturday at 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. at the Eric Carle Museum, 125 West Bay Road, Amherst, where his concerts have sold out the last two years.
“Ten cuidado por el rio, ten cuidado por favor
That mean old crocodile is knocking at your door
Be careful by the river, be careful pretty please
He’s a hungry crocodile, and he doesn’t want grilled cheese!”
* * *
Mister G. is groovy.
But he’s no Lady Gaga, this 1989 Amherst College alum with his fedora and a slight beard, performing solo without a thumping backup band, light show or other pyrotechnics. But there’s genuine rapport between him and his young fans, some of whom showed up at the Conway gym in green “Mister G” T-shirts or sportin’ hats like his.
People magazine calls him “irresistible.” Scholastic Family and Children says Mister G is “the musical equivalent of a tasty chocolate bar infused with a spicy chili kick.”
And, as these kids twist and shout for the musician also known as Ben Gundersheimer at the front of the gym, he’s being turned on by them as well.
It’s not difficult to imagine Gundersheimer as a 9-year-old; you can actually hear Boy Ben crooning “Maybelline” a la Chuck Berry on his new album, or Elton John’s “Benny and the Jets” on his 2011 CD, “Bugs.”
Both are from a collection of cassettes Gundersheimer made growing up around Philadelphia, where he took acoustic guitar lessons and learned songs by Jackson Browne, James Taylor and Simon & Garfunkel. By junior high, he was writing his own songs and playing in rock bands, headed toward a love of Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson.
“You always loved anything that had a lot of energy, and pep and rhythm … bopping around, and you would make up stories,” Gundersheimer’s mom tells him on a video clip that’s bound to be posted on his website.
His songs got a first airing on his debut professional gig, that first summer after starting college, playing four sets a night at a Martha’s Vineyard bar.
“I found a way to cut my teeth and entertain drunk tourists and keep everybody happy and moving,” says Gundersheimer, who later headed off with his degree in English to play with a friend in an acoustic duo in Washington, D.C. He won Berklee College’s first songwriting scholarship and picked up some sound engineering and production skills and played clubs around Boston. With trombonist Dan Fox and percussionist Scott Kessel, he has also played in clubs and — in the group’s alter ego as Roots Music Collective — at schools.
That first taste of performing for kids sent Gundersheimer to get a teaching degree from Smith College in Northampton, where his students gave him the nickname Mister G.
“I was kind of burned out, the music industry was imploding and it was hard to think of where I’d go next as a musician,” says the 47-year-old performer, who, at the time, found it was hard to make a living and that his idealism was slipping.
“I was becoming a jaded touring musician,” Gundersheimer says. “To play at 8 in the morning in cafeterias under fluorescent lights, with (kids’) energy and enthusiasm for the music, I was really moved by that. It was quite a contrast to what I was experiencing in the hipster club scene. I was really touched by it: a totally honest response to music.”
Thinking he’d switch careers to teaching, he found his talents were great tools in the classroom. “I’d say, OK, let’s make up a song instead of a book report, to learn about math or social studies,” says Gundersheimer, who earned his master’s in 2008. “You could see they were more excited about that ... we were creating something in the moment and they were really learning. Everyone was really engaged and there was nothing dull about it.”
It was while working with teacher Robbie Murphy’s second-grade class at the Smith Campus School after a field trip that Gundersheimer and the students wrote a song about a frog they’d discovered — “Mister Chubby Pants.” That song, together with “Sneaky Chihuahua,” another song written with the class, wound up on “Pizza for Breakfast,” his first album. The class did backups on his 2010 CD as well.
Soon after, Gundersheimer married Katherine Jamieson, a college literature instructor who’s become his manager and business partner, sometimes even donning a colorful wig to share the stage with him for lively audience prompts. Honeymooning in Colombia, he contemplated writing songs in Spanish so they could tour Latin America.
What followed for Gundersheimer — who’d learned Spanish beginning in junior high, convinced that as an aspiring pro baseball player, he’d need it someday to talk with Latin teammates — were his two award-winning bilingual albums, “Chocolalala” and “ABC Fiesta.”
That’s led not only to tours of Mexico, Guatemala and Colombia, as well as southern California, Florida and Texas, but also to a National Association for Bilingual Education’s national convention and schools, theaters and other venues around the country.
“It’s nothing I could have imagined,” he says of the kind of wild reaction he gets when he brings songs like “Hola Amigos” and “Bongo Bongo” to audiences at Conway Grammar, Whately Elementary or Northampton’s Academy of Music. “The kids know all the songs and we just do a sing-along with them. It’s just incredibly touching, a very different gratification than you get in the adult rock ’n’ roll world.”
At Conway, where Spanish teacher Stephanie Shaffron works with every grade, she says, “This is so exciting musically, but also so much fun. It’s been a phenomenal teaching tool.”
Shaffron, who’s invited Gundersheimer twice to Whately as well, says she was offered a copy of “Chocolalala” by a parent, but didn’t realize he lived locally when she first listened to it, thinking “Oh my god! Who is this guy?”
* * *
Charles Neville is blowing some wild licks on the saxophone for a song Gundersheimer is listening to in his West Whately home studio. It’s a song on Mister G’s new CD, “The Bossy G.”
“When you see me sittin’ at the end of a word,
I’m the bossy E, or haven’t you heard?”
If you’re an A or you’re an E or you’re an I an O or U,
I’m the bossy E, and I’m the boss of you!”
As with his other albums, this one — with a literacy theme and songs like “More Books for Me” — has an impressive lineup of backup musicians who recorded in New York and Whately. Among them are Neville, Amherst classmate and singer Rani Arbo, as well as Suzanne Vega’s bassist, Mike Visceglia, and Cyndi Lauper’s keyboardist, Steve Gaboury; add to that Whately neighbor and percussionist Tony Vacca and his Senegalese friend, talking-drum artist Massamba Diop.
All told, the musicianship surpasses what anyone might expect from what’s categorized as a children’s recording. But then again, says Gundersheimer, it’s categorizing that grates on him.
When he began listening to kids’ music just a few years ago, Gundersheimer — who has no children of his own, but has a dog and two cats — “felt there really was space where I could bring more stylistic variation and more musicality and production value. I basically tried to create stuff I’d want to listen to myself. I love art that functions on multiple levels, so I could do something an adult musician could get into and appreciate, but even preverbal children could appreciate on a visceral, primal level … and that older kids can get the jokes and learn something. I try to walk that line; that’s part of the fun and the challenge.”
Gundersheimer’s albums have appeared four times on Grammy award nominating ballots in the children’s and Latin categories and have won a Parents’ Choice Gold Award and been picked as Best CD of the year by People magazine, The Washington Post and Parents Magazine.
Clearly, this isn’t your parents’ kid’s record. It’s likely not even yours.
Yet if Gundersheimer dazzles fans on CDs and on a website popping with videos, a blog and much more, his solo gigs are hardly restrained.
“Everyone doing kids work who’s doing big venues is thinking, ‘How do I command that big stage, that big crowd?” says Gundersheimer, who brings his bass drum along for that added oompf. “I’m a big proponent that you should able to make your point with just an (amplified) acoustic guitar and voice.”
Accompanied with no more than that, and his bass drum, Gundersheimer was grand — grande! — in the Conway gym, said Gifford.
“We need invigoration in this way,” said Gifford after his first time seeing a Mister G performance. “I think he became a role model of loving what he does … and that’s what I’m going to bring back to my sixth-graders. I’m going to say, ‘Here’s an example of somebody who’s happy in life and that’s what I want for you kids. I want you to be happy in life and excited in what you do.”
Gundersheimer, who also does workshops for teachers to “empower” them to use music in the classroom, says he’s also felt liberated by playing music for kids — especially because it’s kept him from being pigeonholed in one musical style.
“I’m all over the place stylistically,” he says. “But in the grown-up world, it’s too much for people: If you do the rock thing, it’s ‘What happened? We’re the folkies!’ or ‘We’re the funk people!’
“The kids are in the moment. The kids don’t care or register what that stuff is.”
Although he ponders gigging again for older audiences, Gundersheimer is at home with the spontaneity and infectious joy of making music with kids.
“It’s just fun, for me, who likes playing with different instruments, mixing different sounds, different genres. In that sense, I feel I’m just a curious kid who got bored easily, who never grew out of that.”
* * *
Tickets for Saturday’s Eric Carle performance are $8, $7.50 for members. They may be purchased in advance at the Museum Admissions Desk or by calling 413-658-1126. On the day of the event, tickets are first- come, first-served.
On the Web:
Senior reporter Richie Davis has worked at The Recorder for more than 35 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 413-772-0261, ext. 269.
Staff photographer Paul Franz has worked for The Recorder since 1988. He can be reached at email@example.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 266. His website is www.franzphoto.com.
Editor’s note: Ben Gundersheimer’s performance name was incorrect in the printed version of this story.