Music legend Gary Rosen dies
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Audio clips of Gary Rosen's music
Rosen family appreciation
And now his audience and fans will have to continue the song without him.
Rosen, the Brattleboro musician who took his inventive and unique style of family entertainment to audiences of all ages across the country, died Saturday from complications brought on from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease.
He was 60.
Rosen and his former partner, Bill Shontz, formed the duo Rosenshontz in New York City in the late 1970s and they moved up to the Brattleboro area at about the same time.
Rosenshontz is credited with bringing a higher level of sophistication and musicianship to children's music. The group performed at hundreds of shows and appeared on national television before breaking up in 1996.
Rosen continued performing for families and released a number of solo CDs after Rosenshontz split up.
He recorded and performed in concert until complications from ALS made it impossible to perform.
In a prepared statement from the Rosen family, Mary Rosen said her husband kept a positive outlook throughout the time that he battled the incurable sickness.
"Gary lived life to the fullest and found joy in every day, despite his disease," she wrote.
"Gary always said, 'It's not going to get my spirit.' And it didn't. He kept the twinkle in his eye, and the smile on his face, and he overcame the fear of knowing what the day might bring."
In Rosen's final two years, a group of about 20 volunteers cared for him and his family as the debilitating illness progressed.
The family said the Brattleboro community came together to lend tremendous support. "In April of 2005, Bonnie Stearns pulled together a 'circle of care,' and what a circle it has been. Since Bonnie held the first meeting, the family has welcomed and loved all the support that everyone provided. Because of Bonnie's initiative, patience, determination, and understanding of what was needed, Gary continued to live comfortably in his home."
Stephen Stearns, director of the New England Youth Theater and a close friend of the family, worked with Rosen and the two shared performing stages around New England throughout their careers.
Stearns said Rosen helped build Brattleboro into a strong community that supports artists, and he said the music Rosen wrote will live on like the great traditional folk songs of the past.
"He made a huge difference on the music scene in New England and nationwide," Stearns said. "He wrote songs that touch people. Gary's music goes beyond cute. It goes to the heart and soul of the human experience and the dreams of the child. It is not simple, formula stuff. It comes out of a deep understanding of children, and their longing to find their voices."
Stearns also said Rosen's success changed the way the entertainment industry looked at children's music.
The success of Rosenshontz created a market that could fill a small hall with parents and children who were willing to pay for a ticket and come out to hear his songs.
"Gary's music opened that door and people saw that you could make a living and raise children because out of the work he was doing there was demand for those things," said Stearns. "It became a real way for artists and theater and children performers to succeed."
Peter Amidon, a Brattleboro musician who came to southern Vermont at about the same time that Rosen did, said that the town was drawing artists from around the East Coast.
Amidon said he remembers walking down Elliot Street and hearing the music of Rosenshontz coming from a performance space that has since closed.
Amidon said he was struck by how the young audience reacted to the music.
"Young children can be brutally honest and they will not be engaged against their will," said Amidon. "He definitely had a particular gift for engaging young children and he had a lot of other gifts as well."
Amidon performs folk music, and though he did not cross musical paths often with Rosen, he said Brattleboro's cultural palette has lost a color that will never be replaced.
"He was always very expressive and we always came out feeling like we got a gift from him," Amidon said. "Gary had a particular niche carved out and I don't see anyone jumping in to fill it."
Rosen and Shontz started playing children's music almost by accident. The two met and started playing folk and rock and roll in Greenwich Village in the mid-'70s.
After performing for tips outside of the gorilla cage at the Central Park Zoo, Shontz remembers, the pair found that parents and children reacted well to their early brand of family entertainment.
"We would play every gig we could get and children's music was one," Shontz remembered.
After playing a show in Vermont, they decided to move to the area.
They got a job playing for the schools in Windham County and, after working up a repertoire that would appeal to anyone between the ages of 5 and 17, the duo decided to concentrate on playing music for young people.
For many years Rosenshontz booked its own shows and sold albums out of the back of a well-traveled vehicle.
"We had to create a show for every age group and decided that was our niche," said Shontz.
Then a national booking agent signed them and the duo started appearing on national television and touring more extensively.
"It took off, and everything went crazy," he said.
Their recordings featured professional session musicians, which Shontz said was a change from most of the children's music available at the time.
The new musical form appealed to parents as well as their children, and at one point Rosenshontz sold out 43 shows in a row across the country.
Their original 1978 album, "Rosenshontz Tickles You," still sells. "From the beginning we never babied the music," Shontz said. "If we played rock it was rock. If it was swing, we played swing. We took children's music up several notches. The whole point was to make music that wouldn't drive parents crazy."
Rosen was born in Amherst, Mass., and attended Oberlin College. He played the clarinet in junior high school and picked up the guitar with millions of other teenagers during the folk movement in the 1960s.
He cited Pete Seeger as an early influence.
Throughout his career, Rosen has performed at The White House, New York's Town Hall, The Smithsonian and he once sang the National Anthem at Fenway Park.
His recordings have been recognized with a National Parenting Publication Award, a Children's Music Web Award and a Parent's Choice Award.
He was diagnosed with ALS in 2004 and lost the ability to play his guitar shortly thereafter, though he continued to sing at local shows with his children.
At a benefit concert last year, about $20,000 was raised to help the family augment what insurance does not cover. Some of the money is being put away in a trust fund for Rosen's family.
He is survived by his wife, Mary, and their three children; Lela, Penn and Eliza.
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