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How Big Is Raffi? To Kids, Head and Shoulders Above Most Singers

updated 12/01/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/01/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

Rowdy behavior just doesn't play well in Boston. When members of a sellout crowd of 1,200 fans stand screaming on their seats at the august Berklee Performance Center, the bearded performer onstage quickly stops the show. "I have a quiet song for you," he says calmly, squinting into the din, "whenever you're ready."

It's a cinch this is no David Lee Roth concert, where you couldn't hear a bomb blast through the roar. The man in the spotlight is a 37-year-old Toronto-based singer named Raffi (he never uses his surname), and as soon as he speaks, the fans hush like a pack of preschoolers. In fact most of them are. Ranging in age from 2 to 8, the kids remain standing so that they can see the stage. Except when they're asked to sing along, however, they keep quiet, transfixed by the catchy tunes for tots that are Raffi's specialty.

Raffi's regulars are already familiar with compositions like Riding in an Airplane and The Bowling Song. All appear on his One Light One Sun album, a half-million seller that has made him the most popular children's recording artist in the U.S. Despite his negative views about TV for kids ("Children are doers, not viewers"), his 1985 concert video has aired on cable's Disney Channel and has also earned the prestigious Parents' Choice Award from Parents' Choice magazine.

In Canadian kindergarten classrooms, Raffi's seven LPs are as familiar as chalk and erasers, and south of the border, long lines form outside the toy and children's book stores that usually serve as ticket outlets for Raffi shows. Last year during his 28-city U.S. tour, New York City scalpers reportedly got $300 apiece for tickets from desperate parents.

The singer, who has no kids of his own and eagerly shows strangers puppy pictures of his 12-year-old mongrel, Bundles, says there is no secret to his ability to relate to a younger generation. "I accept the children as they are," he says. "We don't exploit the cuteness of the child. The essence of my approach is that children are whole people."

Raised in Toronto after his Armenian parents fled Turkey in the mid-'50s, Raffi got interested in folk music in high school, where he also met his future wife, Debi Pike. After knocking around the Toronto folk music scene, he began playing to the small crowd in 1974 when Debi's mom, Daphne, invited her singing son-in-law to entertain the kids in her nursery school class.

"I didn't know much about children at all," Raffi says now. But the performance was a hit, and Raffi began knocking out tunes for the knee-highs full-time. In 1976, again at Daphne's suggestion, he recorded his first self-produced, self-financed and self-distributed album, Singable Songs for the Very Young. "It's been a grassroots career," he concedes, "but I wouldn't do anything else."

Raffi attributes his success to his positive attitude. "When I decided to write a song about a whale, I could have written a mournful dirge about the vanishing whales. Instead I wrote Baby Beluga [1980], which is very upbeat and happy. You don't need to sing a sad song."

As he does after every show, Raffi sits in the lobby of the Berklee theater for more than an hour, greeting his young fans and signing autographs. Almost two years have passed since One Light was released, so when's he going to record again? "I am working on a new song," he confides. "Something about a bathtub."

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