Joanie Bartels, arguably the most popular female performer of children’s music of the 1980s and 1990s, engages her fans—roughly toddlers to eight-year-olds—with whimsical lyrics and an energetic style. Her bold-printed dresses and flamboyant hats and bows project an eccentric yet warm persona that does not intimidate her young audience. Praised in School Library Journal for her “refreshing way of not talking down to kids,” Bartels was also voted favorite female vocalist in a survey of parents by Child magazine.
Bartels’s appeal to children may have its roots in her own childhood; she was raised among seven siblings and says her parents encouraged musical play. Watching jazz vocalist Rosemary Clooney sing on television was Bartels’s first inspiration. She revealed, “I remember watching her and thinking, ‘That’s what I want to be, a singer!’” Bartels began her musical career as a folksinger, playing the coffeehouse circuit. She sang lead for several jazz and rock groups and supplemented her gigs with jobs doing backup studio vocals. Her recording work included an appearance on pop singer Gino Vanelli’s Pauper in Paradise.
Bartels entered the field that would bring her fame in 1985 with the release of her recording Lullaby Magic. Described by Parenting magazine as “a soothing slide into snooze-ville with pretty, lilting classics,” the album became a runaway hit in the children’s market. Lullaby Magic earned gold record certification of over 500,000 units sold, making Bartels the first female children’s artist to be awarded the honor.
Discovery Music, the company that released Lullaby Magic, had planned the album as the first in a series of children’s recordings. Bartels went on to record a total of eight records in seven years for the Magic series. Using a variety of woodwinds, horns, strings, brass, and piano, the recordings feature Bartels’s vocals and guitar playing. Ann Reeks, in Parenting, cited “her quirky lyrics and sparkling, limber voice” as the reason for her popularity among children. Bartels described the philosophy behind the series to Billboard in 1993, stating, “We made the Magic series to bring parent and child together. We depict different times of day and interactions and then present them in a fun, entertaining way.”
The second Magic album, Morning Magic, was released in 1986 and included hits from Broadway lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II and the Beatles. The next in the series, Lullaby Magic II, followed the format of the first,
For the Record…
Born May 21, 1953, in Dorchester, MA.
Began career as folksinger; sang with jazz and rock bands and contributed backup vocals to recordings by other artists, including Gino Vanelli; became children’s entertainer and released Lullaby Magic, Discovery Music, 1985; released first long-form video for children, Simply Magic, Episode 1: The Rainy Day Adventure, Discovery Music, 1993.
with one instrumental-only side and one side with vocals. This second lullaby album reinforced Bartels’s position as a leading children’s musician, though it did not match the popularity of the first.
As the series progressed, Bartels increasingly included her own compositions. Travelin’ Magic, released in 1988, depended on many familiar sing-alongs, just as Lullaby Magic relied on traditional children’s songs. But Bartels’s next album, Sillytime Magic, highlighted the artist’s own brand of silliness. She used sharp images, fun-sounding words, and the incongruities children love in lyrics like those found in her popular “Silly Pie”: “You mix some wiggly worms and squiggly squirms and a buzzy bumblebee/You shake it up and bake it up ‘til you have a silly pie.” The album received a grade of A+ from Parenting magazine.
Christmas Magic was not received as favorably by critics; Parenting magazine awarded it only a C+, and School Library Journal, after noting its “Lawrence Welk flavor,” a reference to the popular but—to some—bland bandleader, warned that it “may appeal more to some adults than to children.” However, Bartels’s 1991 release, Dancin’ Magic, once again pleased critics, parents, and children alike. Some of the songs correspond to specific dances, such as the “Hokey Pokey” and the “Loco-Motion,” though many are arrangements of dance music from the 1950s and 1960s and even earlier. Bartels also included some original songs, such as her “Dinosaur Rock ‘n’ Roll.”
Bartels and Discovery Music branched out into videos in 1993 with Simply Magic, Episode 1: The Rainy Day Adventure. As Discovery Music’s premiere video, the project benefited from the experience of writer and director Sydney Bartholomew, known for his award-winning contributions to the television program Pee Wee’s Playhouse. The video follows the adventures of three children and their magic babysitter, Bartels, who arrives one stormy afternoon while the children’s mother is out. She fixes the electricity, phone, and television and jollies the children out of their fear of the storm and into eating, bathing, and napping. Incorporated into this story are songs from Bartels’s records.
According to reviewers, Bartels’s transition into the new medium was a smooth one. Library School Journal, for one, reported, “Bartels has a good on-stage personality and carries off the magic persona well.” Pulse! remarked, “Coming off as a [film nanny] Mary Poppins/[quirky pop singer] Cyndi Lauper hybrid, Bartels is positively vivacious in musical numbers that are a collage of colorful sets.”
Bartels followed her successful entry into videos with another in 1994, The Extra-Special Substitute Teacher. As with her first such outing, songs from her Magic records are interwoven with the storyline. This time appearing as a substitute teacher, Bartels incorporates music into her history, geography, and dancing lessons. The video includes Bartels’s own “Dinosaur Rock ‘n’ Roll,” “The Martian Hop,” and “Silly Pie,” as well as arrangements of “La Bamba” and “Put on a Happy Face.”
In 1993 Bartels began a new series with Discovery: Joanie’s Jukebox Cafe. The first outing, Jump for Joy, primarily includes songs written by Bartels and collaborators. Most of the pieces do not employ her customary background orchestration, relying more on technopop and encompassing styles from reggae to country. The recording is aimed at school-age children and focuses on emotions, such as the feelings of anxiety addressed in the song “New Kid on the Block.”
Bartels is also a popular live performer, touring from coast to coast. She encourages participation from her audience, many of whom join in by singing and dancing. It’s not unusual to see adults and children doing the “Hokey Pokey” or snaking through the aisles in a “Loco-Motion” dance train at Bartels’s shows.
Bartels’s popularity with children and parents has showed no sign of waning. The Magic series continues to prosper, having sold over 2 million units as of mid 1994. In fact, by then Bartels seemed poised to significantly expand her audience with her forays into video and new record series aimed at older children.
On Discovery Music
Lullaby Magic, 1985.
Morning Magic, 1986.
Lullaby Magic II, 1987.
Travelin’ Magic, 1988.
Sillytime Magic, 1989.
Bathtime Magic, 1990.
Christmas Magic, 1990.
Dancin’ Magic, 1991.
Joanie’s Jukebox Cafe, Vol. 1: Jump for Joy (includes “New Kid on the Block”), 1993.
Simply Magic, Episode 1: The Rainy Day Adventure (video), 1993.
The Extra-Special Substitute Teacher (video; includes “Dinosaur Rock ‘n’ Roll,” “The Martian Hop,” “Silly Pie,” “La Bamba,” and “Put on a Happy Face”), 1994.
Billboard, February 13, 1993.
Parenting, August 1992; October 1993.
Publishers Weekly, October 18, 1991; April 19, 1994.
Pulse!, March 1994.
School Library Journal, March 1991; November 1993; February 1994.
Additional information for this profile was provided by Discovery Music, 1994.
—Susan Windisch Brown
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