EW's senior writer reviews a slew of reissued celeb albums for kids (including discs by Tony Bennett, Johnny Cash, and others)

By Chris Willman
Updated June 02, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT

Chris Willman on celeb albums for tots

Kids’ music is suddenly big business, with the tween-targeted High School Musical the biggest CD phenom of the first half of 2006, and the success of the Kidz Bop series and Curious George soundtrack proving that children (and parents) aren’t solely spending their allowances on GameBoy these days. Naturally, record labels are digging into their back catalogs to reissue albums that didn’t get so much attention back in the days when kid stuff wasn’t so au courant. Quickest to capitalize on the seeming hunger for family-appropriate music is Sonny — er, Sony, which has just reissued or repackaged 17 discs of celebrities’ preteen fare.

Four are from the ’70s: The Johnny Cash Children’s Album, getting its first CD release, plus TV soundtracks for Nilsson’s The Point, Carole King’s Really Rosie, and Marlo Thomas & Friends’ Free to Be… You and Me. The rest date from 1994 to 2001. (What — no one released any children’s album in the ’80s? With groups like Kajagoogoo ruling the charts, maybe producing actual kid fare seemed superfluous at the time.)

Here’s our guide to a handful of these discs, in rough order of preference:

Johnny Cash, The Johnny Cash Children’s Album (1975)
Want to hop, skip, and jump the line, not just walk it? The Man in Black might seem to cut an imposing figure for the smallest fry, but he’s at his least gothic and most cozy here. A number of songs name-check members of the family, making this one of the more personal albums in the Cash oeuvre. And for those who aren’t interested in autobiography, you do get some more generic doggie and dinosaur tunes. B+

Tony Bennett, The Playground (1998)
Take away the two duets with Kermit the Frog (along with, maybe, the regrettable one with Rosie O’Donnell), and a lot of this could be a regular-issue Bennett album, with his usual sidekicks, the Ralph Sharon Trio, accompanying him on demographically unlimited standards like ”Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive” and ”(It’s Only) A Paper Moon.” If you want to give your kids a natural high that’s just as big a pick-me-up as a sugar fix, play ’em the drum solo in ”All God’s Chillun Got Rhythm.” But beware: When Bennett suddenly stretches to hit a big note at the end of a tune, just to prove he still can, it could frighten small children. (And me.) B

John Denver, All Aboard (1997)
We knew Denver loved planes, but he had a thing about trains, too, apparently, since every number here is devoted to life on the tracks. Even if you’re not a fan of the ”far out” balladeer, you might still be charmed by Denver’s romance with the rails, which encompasses anthems both famous (”Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe”) and obscure (Vince Gill’s ”Jenny Dreamed of Trains”). B

Marlo Thomas & Friends, Free to Be… You and Me (1972)
This early 1970s artifact won’t seem the slightest bit dated… if you still regularly consult your copy of The Whole Earth Catalog and have a lifetime subscription to Ms. magazine. The songs are certainly a time-travel machine, from the opening chorus of the title song, as choraled by… the New Seekers! But if the soothing sounds of Rosie Grier warbling ”It’s All Right to Cry” haven’t weathered the years well, some of the between-song comedic bits, which were ”directed” by Alan Alda, do manage to amuse as well as preach, including a Carl Reiner-scripted bit where Thomas and Mel Brooks play newborns trying to figure out their gender differences. B

Carole King, Really Rosie (1975)
Anyone with Tapestry nostalgia will be struck by how closely this kids’ project musically adheres to that perennial’s piano trio-based, analog aesthetic. But the voluminous lyrics by Maurice Sendak tumble out in such unlimited doses in telling these short stories that the album is better absorbed in small doses. Because you’ve got a really, really wordy friend. B

Kenny Loggins, Return to Pooh Corner (1994), More Songs From Pooh Corner (2000)
He’s ”footloose” and fancy-zzzzzzzz, — which is to say, these sleepy-time efforts are not to be played in the vicinity of anyone operating heavy machinery or even an ironing board. But there are some lovely moments, particularly on the latter album — which is mostly dedicated to movie tunes, with choices both inspired (”That’ll Do” from Babe, ”Baby Mine” from Dumbo, ”The Inch Worm” from 1951’s Hans Christian Anderson) and not so much (Phil Collins’ ”You’ll Be in My Heart,” from Tarzan). Anyhow, six years after the last one, we should be about due for Revenge of Pooh Corner, right? Return: C+ More Songs: B-

Keb Mo, Big Wide Grin (2001)
Even children get the blues, or Keb Mo’s adult-contemporary blues, anyway. ”Grandma’s Hands” and ”Color Him Father” (celebrating a stepdad) are winners. On the downside, Mr. Mo manages to drain all the fun out of the O’Jays’ ”Love Train” and turn ”America the Beautiful” into a listless anthem that can’t quite be sung along with. C+

John Lithgow, Singin’ in the Bathtub (1999)
Lithgow has become a beloved Broadway performer, and this album includes some of his favorite kid-suitable show tunes from the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s, with no shortage of acknowledged classics. With all that talent and all those good instincts, why is this set such a painful sit? Maybe because it’s one thing to watch a gifted showman like Lithgow in the flesh, but it’s another to have to focus on his vocal limitations as he assaults you with Shirley Temple-era fare like ”At the Codfish Ball.” Hearing him triple up on ”Triplets” is (you guessed it) three times as annoying. C+

Tom Chapin, This Pretty Planet (2000)
Chapin’s heart is in the right place — which is to say, the recycling bin — with this socially-conscious-and-then-some effort. There may be a limit, though, on how many songs on one album can or should invoke ”Mother Earth.” The good news is, tunes like ”R-E-C-Y-C-L-E” might actually make conservation fun for your very youngest offspring. The bad news is, if they were really to start singing it around the house, you might snap and do something that would bring Child Protective Services out for a visit. C

(For more about The Johnny Cash Children’s Album, click here.)