- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 19, 2005

PITTSBURGH

Fred Rogers, the star and creator of PBS’ long-running “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” opened each show singing a simple song about the beauty of his neighborhood, accompanied by a piano, percussion and bass.

Although the lyrics on a new CD of his music sound the same, the arrangements featuring string musicians and backup singers — and recorded in high-tech studios — are all grown up.

Call it Mister Rogers coming of age.

The CD “Songs From the Neighborhood: The Music of Mister Rogers” features artists such as Amy Grant, Donna Summer and Ricky Skaggs singing about self-esteem, channeling your anger and, of course, being neighborly. It’s the first time Mr. Rogers’ songs have been recorded in styles such as bluegrass and big band by artists not associated with the children’s TV show.

“This is buried treasure,” says Dennis Scott, the CD’s Nashville-based producer, who came to Pittsburgh last week to meet Mr. Rogers’ widow, Joanne, and former colleagues. “I wanted to do right by it. I wanted to preserve the integrity of it,” Mr. Scott says.

Mr. Rogers, who died of cancer at age 74 in February 2003, had a lifelong love of music. He earned a bachelor’s degree in music composition at Rollins College in Florida in 1951 and was the composer and lyricist of more than 200 songs.

Mr. Scott, a 1981 Grammy winner for best recording for children, spent two years finding artists to sing on the CD, choosing the songs, working on musical arrangements — and persuading Mr. Rogers’ producers at Pittsburgh-based Family Communications Inc. to OK the project.

(Part of the proceeds from the CD and an accompanying DVD about the making of the music will go to Family Communications’ Fred Rogers Fund, a charity for — who else? — children.)

“I had some misgivings because I was used to hearing the songs in one way,” says Margy Whitmer, a producer of Mr. Rogers’ show, still seen on PBS stations across the country.

However, Mr. Scott’s persistence and ability to attract big names won over Mr. Rogers’ people. The result is a CD compilation of 12 of his best-known songs and an ensemble piece written by Mr. Scott but inspired by the man in the familiar cardigan sweater.

Singer Maureen McGovern says she was impressed by Mr. Rogers’ music and the fact that it wasn’t just for children. She sang the song “This Is Just the Day” accompanied by an uptempo beat.

“When they hear his music in a different light, I think it will cause a big smile,” Miss McGovern says.

Singer Jon Secada says he was flattered to be part of the tribute album and to sing “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” Mr. Secada says he emigrated from Cuba to the United States when he was 9 and learned English by watching TV shows such as “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”

“I appreciate his message, his approach and his delivery,” says Mr. Secada, who adds that he hopes his own two children will become fans.

Joanne Rogers, a pianist who shared her late husband’s love of music, was skeptical of lending celebrities’ voices to his music. She changed her mind after listening to the CD for just 30 seconds.

“In my heart, I think musically [Fred and I] were pretty much on the same line, and I think he would have felt the same way about it,” she says.

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