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Music : New Spin on Old Rhymes : * Children's recording artist Norman Foote's work is laced with humor. He's a crossover artist--appealing to both young and old.

September 24, 1993|GARY KLEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Gary Klein writes frequently for The Times

UNIVERSAL CITY — Norman Foote loathes comparing himself to other children's recording artists. But when pressed, the Canadian singer-songwriter will admit to a similarity with at least one children's pop icon.

"If I get really sunburned," Foote said, "I do look an awful lot like Barney."

Foote's keen wit is evident throughout his two American releases, "Foote Prints" (1991) and "If the Shoe Fits . . ." (1992) on Walt Disney Records. Unlike the majority of bland-as-baby-food children's fare, Foote's songs are laced with humor. The rhyme--and reason--is also present in the videos and live performances that have helped Foote become a popular player in the growing family entertainment market.

At 37, Foote is becoming the ultimate crossover artist--a performer whose records and concerts appeal to children and parents.

"I like to write funny stories with an edge, not just mush," Foote said by phone before a concert in Charleston, S. C. "I'm trying to find a spot that I'm interested in and that kids are interested in."

Foote, who will open for popular children's artist Fred Penner on Sunday at the Universal Amphitheatre, plays about 175 shows a year. His performances are action-oriented, a mix of original songs, popular classics, physical comedy and what he describes as "props with attitude," including a giant talking head puppet that he slips over the heads of audience members. Along with his unique spin on nursery rhymes and tales, Foote is wont to do musical parodies of such celebrities as Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra, Led Zeppelin and Arnold Schwarzenegger during his set.

"I'm trying to tailor my shows to a family situation," said Foote, who lives in Vancouver, B. C. "To do that, you have to have something for adults as well as children.

"No matter what happens, you have to engage and keep the audience focused. You can't lie to young audiences. If you lose them, they're going to start moving around and chatting among themselves."

Foote, born Norman Mervyn Barrington-Foote, has been playing guitar and writing songs since he was 11. He played in various bands throughout high school and was performing puppetry and comedy with traveling theater troupes by his early 20s.

"I grew up listening to the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix and Van Morrison," Foote said. "But like a lot of kids, I was also prone to my parents' record collection.

"My mom taught me Al Jolson songs when I was 5. My dad had Nat King Cole, Harry Belafonte and Lena Horne, although he did get into that Dean Martin stuff before moving on to Tom Jones and Elvis."

Foote's releases and concerts include covers of Jolson's "His Majesty, the Baby," Cole's "Straighten Up and Fly Right" and "The Eggplant That Ate Chicago," which was originally performed by Dr. West's Medicine Show and Junk Band in 1966.

The majority of Foote's material, however, is original. Some songs, such as "I'm a Book," and "Nursery Medley," put a new spin on traditional rhymes.

Old Lady Hubbard went to the cupboard to give her poor dog a bone. But when she got there the cupboard was bare so they sent out for Chinese food.

Self-esteem, persistence and the environment are other themes addressed by Foote. "We're Almost There," a tune that features the universal exchanges between children and parents during a long car trip, strikes a chord with all ages.

Foote's trademark is his knack for capturing the humor in almost any situation.

Zachary Zach was always in the back to him it's the worst it could be He liked to be first but with his name he's cursed Zachary Zach with a Z

\f7 "I didn't set out to write children's music, but a lot of my material just naturally went that way," said Foote, who has three children, 8 months, 13 and 15 years old. "They're stories and they bring to life old classics. I like to take a twist on tradition."

Foote is anything but a traditionalist when it comes to penning and recording his compositions.

"He's not a guy who is going to sit down and meticulously work things out," said Bill Buckingham, who produced both of Foote's releases. "He'll come in to work on a song, and two minutes into the exercise, he'll say, 'Hey, let's work on this, I have another one.'

"He's an improviser. His charm, in the studio and when he's on stage, is his spontaneity."

Bruce Greenwood, a Sherman Oaks-based writer who co-wrote several songs, including "The Man Who Ran Away With the Moon," said Foote's strongest suit is his ability to eliminate the mundane from his music.

"Norm's like a funnel for information," Greenwood said. "He lets anything come in, filters it through his system and it comes out musically."

Besides his next album, Foote is working on several projects, including an animated musical and a television pilot. His performance at the amphitheater is the latest step in a career that has included concert stops at festivals, fairs and other smaller venues throughout the United States.

"A lot of people think you just start recording children's music and you sell a million records," Foote said. "That's not the way it works. You have to connect with fans and build audiences.

"The momentum is starting to happen, but I have a lot of dues to pay yet. I've had some success with the videos, and the records are starting to find their way out there.

"I'm just happy that I'm able to keep writing songs and develop audiences in every city."

WHERE AND WHEN

What: Norman Foote and Fred Penner in concert at Universal Amphitheatre, 100 Universal City Plaza, Universal City.

Hours: 3:15 p.m. Sunday.

Price: $12.

Call: (818) 622-3931.

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