Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Mister Rogers – It’s Such a Good Feeling – The Best of (Omnivore Recordings)

Johnny Costa – Plays Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (Omnivore Recordings)

The Neighborhood, from a couple of different perspectives

It was easy to make fun of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood as an adult.  Eddie Murphy certainly did several times on skits for Saturday Night Live.  His slow, deliberate delivery which he addressed his young audience could get on our nerves.  The music seemed trite and Rogers was anything but a great singer.  Oh, not to mention the cringe-worthy subject matter.  I mean, how dare he talk about DEATH on his show?

Of course, now we realize it was all pure genius

First came the 2018 documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor.  Now, coming in November of 2019, is A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, a movie starring Tom Hanks.  Yes, Mister Rogers is finally getting his due.  

Bridging the gap between those two films are a pair of reissues from Omnivore Recordings, which shed further light on Fred Rogers’ gifts. It’s Such a Good Feeling is a collection of many of the best-loved songs of the 5-decade long TV series, while Johnny Costa Plays Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood shows that the melodies laid under the lyrics were also a thing of brilliance.

As someone who watched the very first episode of Mister Rogers as a young boy, the mere sound of this familiar voice brings back feelings of warmth, like hearing a long-deceased relative whom you loved.  As the first born, Mister Rogers was my playmate and my confidant. 

The thing that’s so amazing is how intricate some of the melodies are.  I didn’t know I was listening to jazz at the time (sneaky, sneaky).  As an adult, I’m even more impressed that most of these were done live, on the spot, while the show was being filmed.

Make no mistake, Rogers was never a great vocalist that you’d pay to see at a nightclub, but he used the most of his limitations.  For example, listen how the bouncing melody and plaintive lyrics contrast the Art Tatum-like speedy piano fills of Costa on “Look and Listen.”  Most of these songs are true duets – Rogers sings “Be Brave, Be Strong,” and Costa echoes with his piano.  

And, Rogers’ true gift was being able to relate perfectly to the children in his audience.  “Pretending” has a tension to it that adds excitement, but isn’t scary.  “You Can Never Go Down the Drain” sounds completely ridiculous, yet Rogers pulls it in and keeps it earnest.  

Or take “Sometimes People Are Good,” where he sings “are the very same people who are bad sometimes.”  What other song better captures the duality of most of our personalities?  Or “Wishes Don’t Make Things Come True” is a surprisingly sober topic for a kid’s show.

Of course, the real treats are the staples of his long-running program – opening with the insistent “Today is a Very Special Day,” and “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” and ending with the optimistic “Tomorrow.”  

Johnny Costa Plays Mister Rogers Neighborhood marks the first time this album from 1984 has been available on CD.  Rogers’ accompanist takes the familiar melodies of the program and adds further colors, with the addition Carl McVicker on bass and Bobby Rawsthorne on drums.  

It’s here where you really do get a better appreciation for this music.  Stripped of the vocals, these songs are less childlike and more just incredibly uplifting jazz music.  You also get an opportunity to really marvel at Costa as a soloist.  The comparisons to the legendary Art Tatum are definitely warranted.  

The second half of his rendition of “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” really swings, while “Then Your Heart is Full of Love” is very melodic.

Honestly, this is just great background music – put it on at a party and dare your friends to guess what it is!

In anticipation of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, take a walk down the old street again.  —Tony Peters