Rock-Star Wannabe Finds Fame Making Music for Kids
By GWENDOLYN BOUNDS
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
April 6, 2004; Page B1
From the time he was a toddler, Ray Yodlowsky wanted to be the fifth Beatle.
He grew up in Carole King's former house in suburban New Jersey, where the doorbell chimed
"Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow," one of her first songwriting hits. He got his first drum set at seven years old.
At 16, he jammed with Bruce Springsteen on guitar and keyboards at the Stone Pony club in Asbury Park, N.J.
Then he skipped college, started rock bands and eventually hit the road with Meat Loaf and Matchbox Twenty.
He even adopted a smoother last name -- Andersen -- to use on stage.
"Yodlowsky, bleh," he says.
It might have continued this way, another talented musician plugging along while waiting for his break into rock 'n' roll stardom.
But in 1994, Mr. Andersen played an impromptu gig at a Kiddie Academy day-care center in New Jersey,
belting out "Yellow Submarine" as a favor to his wife, who was temping there. The kids went wild.
And without realizing it, Mr. Andersen was on a new career path.
Today, the musician is more successful than ever. Known simply as "mr. Ray," Mr. Andersen has sold
about 25,000 compact discs in the past three years featuring music from his children's album, "Start Dreaming."
His songs, ranging from "Swish!" to "Boo-boos Go Away," are a hybrid of kid-empowerment messages cloaked
in a rock sensibility that parents welcome as a break from Barney. Mr. Andersen's own dinosaur tune,
"I'd Be a Dinosaur," is played in a minor key with a shuffle inspired by Doors classic "People Are Strange."
Moms say they don't mind Mr. Andersen's good looks or sultry style, either.
His pay also has picked up. Mr. Andersen charges $500 to $2,000 for his concerts at museums, schools, birthday parties,
parks and theaters, and less for church and charity clients. Families up and down the East Coast have hired him,
and he is playing bigger and bigger venues. Actress and mother Julianne Moore bought his DVD after a
recent concert honoring Dr. Seuss at New York's Hammerstein Ballroom, he says. Mr. Andersen earned $100,000 last year,
nearly three times as much as during his highest-paid year as a rocker.
In many ways, Mr. Andersen's journey is like a lot of careers; his work unexpectedly led to an accidental destination,
and now it is hard to go back. The transition wasn't easy. For a while, he tried to live in two musical worlds, playing
until 3 a.m. with his own nightclub band, Blue Van Gogh, which left him groggy and reeking of smoke when he showed
up the next day at day-centers filled with adoring children. His kid-friendly mr. Ray moniker also didn't seem to
fit his self-image as more of a rock 'n' roll rebel. "I wanted to be something more like Rocket Ray," he says.
"But some kid called me Mister Ray, and I was stuck." He lowercases "Mr." as a way of gently bucking the establishment.
The two musical genres didn't mesh naturally. The guys in Blue Van Gogh didn't come to hear
Mr. Andersen's new repertoire, even as mr. Ray's pint-size following grew and he furiously wrote songs
for his first kids' album. "I'd bring the music into rehearsals, and I'd tell the band about it," he says.
They would chuckle, he says, making Mr. Andersen a bit defensive. "The kids' music universe is not taken seriously."
Blue Van Gogh eventually disbanded, but Mr. Andersen still is friends with his former band members.
Still, Mr. Andersen couldn't make a quick, clean break with his past. Along with wife Patti Maloney, also a musician,
he was asked to open for rockers Matchbox Twenty on that group's European tour in 1998. That led to the biggest
offer of his career: a gig with Meat Loaf. For three years, Mr. Andersen traveled off-and-on with the band in the U.S.
and Europe, singing backup vocals on songs such as "Bat Out of Hell" and playing keyboards and rhythm guitar.
Crowds often were arena-size, and the paycheck was healthy.
Nevertheless, on Meat Loaf's tour bus, Mr. Andersen constantly tinkered with his mr. Ray songs,
including "Flower Power" and "When I Grow Up." Before long, Meat Loaf band members started calling him mr. Ray.
When he came home to New Jersey for a few weeks at a time, playing a few mr. Ray shows,
Mr. Andersen began to realize that he missed being around kids.
"It was like a shaft of light slowly coming through the windows," he says.
"Finally, it was just enough to make me realize, 'What am I doing?' " He quit Meat Loaf in April 2001 and immediately
released his children's album. It was upon signing a distribution deal with Sugar Beats Entertainment,
a New York company coincidentally founded by Carole King's daughter, that Mr. Andersen recalls,
"I finally felt like I was letting go of my rock self." At the launch party for "Start Dreaming,"
held at a hip Manhattan night club, Mr. Andersen found himself running around to cover erotic paintings with blankets because
he didn't want to offend kids in attendance.
In retrospect, maybe Mr. Andersen should have seen his big change coming.
His adopted last name is taken from Hans Christian Andersen, one of the musician's favorite children's authors.
As mr. Ray's popularity grew, so did Mr. Andersen's business opportunities. Cablevision Systems Corp.
and Comcast Corp. play mr. Ray songs on their digital-cable music channels. Retailer Toys "R" Us Inc.
pipes him inside its stores, for which he is paid royalties. He has been invited to perform -- and pitch his
CD and recently released DVD -- on the QVC home-shopping channel. And Mr. Andersen says he is in
talks with two entertainment companies about music-licensing deals that could include plush toys based on
characters in his songs, such as Zibby the Zebra and Kalien the Alien. Mr. Andersen split up recently with
Sugar Beats, deciding that going it alone would give him more flexibility over distribution. Both sides say the split was amicable.
Mr. Andersen takes his new persona so seriously that last year he filed a $10 million lawsuit against Walt Disney Co.
and Pixar Animation Studios claiming the "Mr. Ray" manta ray in the animated movie "Finding Nemo" infringed
on his trademark and caused confusion among fans who expected him to be dressed as a manta ray at appearances.
The suit was settled out of court.
Other grown-ups have built followings as kids' musicians, ranging from touchy-feely environmentalist Raffi to
the more-folksy Dan Zanes and Roger Day. But making it really big is tough. Children's tastes can be fickle,
and getting widespread distribution in such a niche market is tricky. "Record stores usually put kids' music
behind the staircase," says Bonnie Gallanter, vice president of Sugar Beats, which has sold more than a
million CDs in the last decade featuring kids who belt out cover versions of hit tunes such as
"Walking on Sunshine" by Katrina & the Waves. "The best place [to sell kid-friendly music]
is bookstores or children's specialty stores, but they have limited shelf space for this kind of music."
Mr. Andersen says he hopes to become the "Mister Rogers of the rock 'n' roll world." But to get there,
he needs to get on television. The Wiggles, for example, is a men's quartet from Australia that released
its first album in 1991 and has parlayed live concert music into a booming business of videos, TV shows and merchandise.
"I would say that the biggest challenge is transferring the popularity of the music realm into the visual realm,"
says David Bittler, spokesman for the Nickelodeon cable network. "On our channel, kids are center stage, not adults."
Still, the popularity of "Captain Kangaroo," which ran on CBS for about 30 years, and PBS's "Electric Company"
in the 1970s show that kids will watch programs aimed at them that feature adults. If mr. Ray "has got this following,
it all comes down to talent, timing and chance," Mr. Bittler says. To boost his odds, Mr. Andersen's DVD is structured like a mock mr. Ray show.
Ironically, Mr. Andersen is finding that his mr. Ray persona attracts adult fans more than ever. To end kid concerts,
he often plays Paul Simon's "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard," while typically dressed in a black shirt with
shocks of hair falling in his face. "He's got a sexy charisma," says Susan Coleman, 41, of Solebury, Pa.,
who hired Mr. Andersen to play at a country club for her daughter's third and sixth birthdays --
and is trying to book him for her husband's 40th birthday party.
Diana Chaney, a former money manager, hired Mr. Andersen for her husband's upcoming 50th birthday,
where the musician will play a combination of kids' and adult-oriented songs. "Most kids' music drives
me crazy," she says. "But he's cool. Edgy."
David Stamberg, 40, recently purchased a Meat Loaf DVD shot when
Mr. Andersen was touring with the band. "Let's be clear," Mr. Stamberg says. "I like Meat Loaf, but I bought it for mr. Ray."
To nurture the grown-ups in his audience, Mr. Andersen on Friday night performed his first "Adult Acoustic Rock Show,"
with two other musicians featuring music from the '60s and '70s, at a tavern in Hightstown, N.J. In a nod to his core
fan base of kids, Mr. Andersen billed the show on his Web site as "PARENTS' NIGHT OUT!"
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