Like so many other Canadian kids, Ethan Ullmann and his younger brother Elijah grew up singing the words to songs such as “Skinnamarink” and “One Elephant, Deux Elephants” by Sharon, Lois and Bram.
But the Toronto university students never imagined performing those 1980s and ’90s children’s music hits for modern-day audiences.
Of course, the fact that the brothers are also Hampson’s grandsons had a lot to do with it.
The current incarnation of the legendary group is composed of three generations, under the billing of Sharon, Randi and Friends. (Randi Hampson is their mom.)
The act is hoping to see young fans show up—with their parents and maybe even grandparents in tow—to wiggle and clap and dance at their first in person concert since the pandemic started, at the 1,100 seat-Regent Theatre in Oshawa on Sunday, May 15.
And for Sharon, it’s been a long wait to get back to the stage this way.
“You can imagine for a grandmother to do it, for a bubbe, to be doing it with her daughter and her grandsons is, only, like, the best thing!”
Ethan, who turns 21 on Sunday, plays bass and flute, while Elijah, 18, is a vocalist alongside his mother and grandmother. Randi’s partner James Meschino plays guitar, and Ethan’s roommate Zachary Dawood is their percussionist.
But how Sharon got here is a whole story in itself.
Sharon Hampson, Lois Lilienthal (who died in 2015) and Bram Morrison emerged from Ontario’s folk music scene with a debut album in 1978. The trio of Jewish singers recorded 21 best-selling albums, performed at the White House, the United Nations and Carnegie Hall, and were North American television fixtures for over 20 years: first with The Elephant Show and later on Skinnamarink TV.
Hampson’s daughter joined the entourage as manager when Sharon and Bram did a farewell cross-Canada tour in 2019—after which Morrison, now 81, retired from touring. But when the pandemic hit, Randi, a Toronto lawyer, started mounting virtual shows with family and friends.
They even re-recorded the song “Talk About Peace”, which was originally written by Hampson’s late husband Joe, after the Vietnam War. He became a member of the legendary Canadian group The Travellers, who composed the home-grown version of “This Land is Your Land”.
Randi thought the song’s message was just as relevant today So they invited Bram, plus Blue Rodeo’s Jim Cuddy, actor Colin Mochrie and two dozen other entertainers to add their tracks to the 2020 music video.
A new album followed with material recorded at live performances from back in the day. Next came a kids’ book called Skinnamarink, featuring new lyrics penned by Randi. A documentary is next, along with two more books. (The next one, due in August 2022, is called Sharon Lois & Bram’s One Elephant Went Out to Play.)
With her Gen Z grandchildren as part of the musical team now, Sharon is finding new ways to reach her old fans, plus connect with new ones. The Sharon, Lois and Bram account on TikTok boasts 122,000 followers so far and 1.3 million likes.
The grandsons think it’s “surreal” to hear things like “Hey, I saw your grandmother on my feed!”
Connections like these lead to quickly learning when actor Kate Hudson filmed her daughter singing “Skinnamarink” while holding two microphones. And singer Josh Groban posted a throwback photo of himself listening to the original act’s second album, Smorgasbord. (Drake, a Toronto rapper with a toddler of his own, may not be too far behind.)
Ethan and Elijah insist they felt no pressure to join the “firm”, as the British Royal Family is often called. They have their own eclectic musical tastes, too: Elijah is a Beatlemaniac who sings the Paul McCartney song “I Will” at some of the family’s virtual concerts. Ethan is more into Diana Ross and Kool and the Gang.
Still, being raised in a musical home and ingesting the music of their famous grandparents made it easier for the two University of Toronto students to come on board.
Ethan: “Basically my mother and my grandmother came up to me and said, ‘Hey, we’re doing some of these little virtual concerts. Do you want to accompany us?’ And I said, ‘You know, Sure.’ And then this sort of started expanding over time, gradually.”
It took Elijah, who is in his first year studying political science and history, a little longer to agree to participate in the family lockdown jams.
“I would be playing a game with somebody online, and… then I would realize that I was subconsciously singing it when they were practicing downstairs. And then eventually it was a natural progression that I would just end up helping them with their music.”
That’s an experience which Randi Hampson knows well. She began singing with the original trio at age 3—first watching backstage, and then helping with vocal arrangements. But she never imagined performing with three generations at once.
Randi’s younger brother, Geoff Hampson, has his own career as a professional bridge player, and is not involved with the family performances. His mother blames an inferior Toronto high school music program for discouraging him.
But the grandsons found their footing onstage. Sharon is particularly impressed by Ethan’s flute skills, and Elijah’s ability to pitch a little lower to match Bram’s rich baritone—which is on display when they harmonize on “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain.”
So, how does the Hampson clan think they can reach new fans today? Randi thinks there are enough parents who want to expose their kids to quality, no matter how many will settle for “Baby Shark.”
Sharon explains that the original philosophy of the trio included an explicit goal not to teach anything. Instead, the songs would do that organically, when the young listeners interact and sing along. The magic of the music was in making audiences feel safe.
Onstage, the boys don’t emphasize that Hampson is their real-life grandmother. Instead, they tease her about her timing.
Despite celebrating her 79th birthday in March, Hampson remains diligent about attending her regular exercise sessions. But with age, she’s slightly modified her act. For example, she no longer dashes across the stage.
Still, the family marvels at her pep, and how she still can get an audience up on their feet and dancing.
Even so, in getting back on the road, she’s anxious about how her own vocals will hold up.
“Everything is in a lower key. I worry about my voice, but it’s been okay. My family keeps telling me it’s okay.”
And, if it isn’t, she hopes the rest of the group will be honest with her. But she hopes Sharon, Randi and Friends can draw crowds for a while.
“I don’t feel like stopping yet.”