In the hugely popular children's trio known as Sharon, Lois and Bram, it was Lois Lilienstein, a classically trained singer who loved musical theatre, who brought the bubbly razzmatazz to the group.
"She had always been a Broadway babe, as I like to say," recalled Bram Morrison, who, with Sharon Hampson, was the folkie in the group that performed for children on television and records and in live performances across Canada for decades.
"She always loved the Broadway musical theatre. She brought that kind of show-biz sensibility to the group," Mr. Morrison said of Ms. Lilienstein, who usually stood in the middle of the trio when they sang, exuding energy with each smile, arm gesture and hand flap of their best-known song, Skinnamarink ("Skinnamarinky dinky dink/ skinnamarinky doo/ I love you").
Mr. Morrison and Ms. Hampson were contemporaries in Toronto's music scene before Yorkville became the folkie hot spot in the 1960s, but it would take a few years before they made a professional connection with Ms. Lilienstein. One day in the early 1970s, she and Ms. Hampson, both singers and mothers, had lunch, but it wasn't until all three got to know each other as individual performers that they decided, in 1978, to join forces as Sharon, Lois and Bram and focus on entertaining young children.
The group reached the height of their popularity with the children's TV programs The Elephant Show (later Sharon, Lois & Bram's Elephant Show) in the 1980s on CBC-TV and then Nickelodeon in the United States, and Skinnamarink TV in the late 1990s on CBC-TV and the Learning Channel.
But it is the group's songs, performed with smiling faces and happy banter, that live on, to the point where a generation of Canadian adults can sing the chorus for Skinnamarink without remembering where they first heard it. The song was on the group's first album, One Elephant, Deux Éléphants, in 1978, and was the closing number on The Elephant Show series.
"It's out there in the ether. Everyone knows it, but [a lot of] people don't know that it came from us. … And it doesn't matter as long as they're singing it," Ms. Hampson said.
Ms. Lilienstein died of a rare form of cancer in her Toronto home on April 22 at the age of 78. Family members and close friends, including Ms. Hampson and Mr. Morrison, were by her side in her final days.
Lois Ada Goldberg was born on July 10, 1936, in Chicago. A classically trained singer and pianist, she studied music at the University of Michigan, where she met her future husband, Ernest Lilienstein. He was a sociology professor at York University in Toronto, where the family settled.
"Music was always a part of her life. That was the heart of it," said their son, David Lilienstein. "In our home, music was always front and centre, whether it was classical music, show tunes, you name it."
Performing for children started gradually for Ms. Lilienstein, beginning when her son was attending a co-op nursery school. "The woman who ran it said to Lois, 'How about coming in occasionally and doing a little music for the kids?' " Ms. Hampson recounted. "And Lois said, 'I can only do Bach and Beethoven.' [The woman] said, 'Whatever you do is more than we've got happening here.' So I think it's fair to say that that's when Lois started investigating children's repertoire."
Ms. Hampson recalled meeting Ms. Lilienstein and realizing they had much in common. "We were both doing music for children in different situations – she through the public libraries in a program called Music for Children, and I was involved in Mariposa in the Schools. So was Bram by that time." Working in the same music programs was how the three "became very directly involved with each other in an ongoing basis."
Performing for children came naturally to all three. Ms. Lilienstein began singing regularly, while Ms. Hampson had weighed becoming a kindergarten teacher. Mr. Morrison (after a spell as the guitar accompanist for folk singer Alan Mills, performing at times for family audiences) earned a teaching certificate and taught elementary school for seven years.
The three recorded their first album in 1978, after cobbling together $20,000 from friends and family. It was meant to be an artistic project – they had no expectation of it opening a new career for them. They started performing in classrooms and what Mr. Morrison dubbed "gym-natoriums." They were all in their late 30s by then, raising their own families, and were essentially the same age as the parents whose children they were singing for. That sparked a chemistry not only within the trio but also with audiences.
"It turned out to be a lovely mixture, because we had this background in old folk songs that were tried and true, and that people had been singing for generations," Mr. Morrison recalled.
"[Lois] grew to love the folky stuff, and we also loved the show-biz, Broadway stuff," Ms. Hampson said.
One Elephant, Deux Éléphants included a blend of genres for children, yet was geared to parents, too. It included songs the trio liked themselves, rather than simply the usual treacly children's music. "It provided for us the opportunity to create new approaches to so many ranges of music, including rock 'n' roll occasionally," Ms. Hampson said.
In a 1998 interview in The Globe and Mail, Ms. Lilienstein reflected on the group's by-then 20-year career. "When we started, we didn't go into heavy analysis," she said. "We just knew that we shared a philosophy that children could enjoy the full range of music, and that they were entitled to the best culturally, just as we think they're entitled to the best food, the best care and the best education."
After her husband died in 1998, Ms. Lilienstein decided to stop touring with the group, after two decades of performing, doing their children's TV series and releasing more than two dozen albums.
"She was so deeply affected by losing him to cancer, that she sort of lost the fire. The travelling, being on the road, coming home to an empty house, was not something that she had the stomach for," her son, David, said.
She remained active in the group's business matters, however, including continuing to run their own record label.
"The way she said it was, 'I want to step back from touring.' But touring was not the only activity we had," said Mr. Morrison.
Ms. Lilienstein continued to help promote the trio's releases and sometimes would take the stage for benefit performances. "After her retirement, or her 'stepping back,' some years later her health started to decline. She had serious issues with arthritis, which made it more difficult for her to do things," Ms. Hampson said.
Although known for her outgoing stage personality, Ms. Lilienstein cherished her private side. "The other part of her was to live a quiet life," Ms. Hampson said.
Ms. Lilienstein leaves her son, David, daughter-in-law, Erin, and granddaughter, Tessa.
There is one matter the trio members left unresolved, however: Who wrote Skinnamarink? Labelled "traditional" on their recordings, the song was introduced to Ms. Lilienstein when she was visiting family in Chicago, around the time she was asking relatives to help finance the group's first album.
While there, she asked her cousin's young daughter if she had heard any good songs; the girl had just come back from a camp, Ms. Hampson recalled, and sang Skinnamarink for Ms. Lilienstein.
The trio never did discover the source of their most famous song. "We have no idea where it came from. … We hoped to find out, and we tried over time, but we have no idea," Ms. Hampson said. "We've never done anything where we didn't end with Skinnamarink. So it was a real find."