Front Porch

Steve Denyes: Rock Star of the Preschool Set

Steve Denyes

Denyes’ latest album.

Denyes and his Hullabaloo partner Brendan Kremer. Photo by Nancy Krueger.

Steve Denyes’ biggest fans are small. Probably the smallest folks around. They are preschoolers, kindergarteners, and lots of other people with baby teeth and scraped knees.

Denyes is the front man, the singer with the guitar, and one half of Hullabaloo, which has, over the last 14 years, been noted for being one of the best children’s music ensembles in the country. With his partner, percussionist Brendan Kremer, Denyes has received rave reviews from Parenting, Parents, People, Cookie, and Parent & Child magazines. The duo has also won 17 national awards and has made it to three national “Top 10 Best Children’s Music” lists.

“I average one or two gigs a day. I thank my lucky stars that I’m in a career that allows me to have a schedule that is so busy,” Denyes says. Performing over 300 shows every year, he has been described as “the hardest working man in San Diego show business.”

The San Diego native and surfing enthusiast sort of slid into performing children’s music. He had a firm background in working with kids, having taught music for elementary schools and kindergarten through sixth grade for eight years. Then, finding himself in the status of uncle ten years ago, when his sisters started their families, Denyes recorded children’s songs and passed around the CDs to his nieces and nephews. Things clicked, and the next thing Denyes knew he was singing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” to crowds of bouncing, smiling preschoolers every day and getting paid to do it.

The other half of Hullabaloo is percussionist Brendan Kremer. The two musicians went to kindergarten together. Now, it’s not what you might assume, that their performances are somehow long reminiscence sessions for the two lifelong friends. “We’re not trying to recreate our childhoods, and our relationship affects our music about as much as it would if we were playing blues or rock together,” Denyes says.

Denyes admits that the formula for a successful children’s song is pretty easy. Take enough silliness and put it into a tune that is bouncy enough and the kids will love it. He says the hard part comes when crafting a song that has what might be referred to as a high “Rocky and Bullwinkle Factor,” a song that has enough playfulness for the kids to enjoy but one that contains some puns, plays on words, and adult humor that mom, dad, and teachers can enjoy as well.

And there is more to it than the bouncy, silly songs. “Grownups will listen to the quality of a singer’s voice or how well a musician performs a solo,” Denyes says. “For kids, you have to engage them physically. They have to be clapping their hands, dancing, or singing along. Otherwise you will lose them.”

What distinguishes Hullabaloo is their, well… lack of distinction. Denyes doesn’t wear a silly hat, neither does Kremer. There are no silly shoes. And you won’t find a clown face on either performer. “When we decided to do children’s music, we decided that we were not going to be sugary sweet characters. I never felt that that was a useful approach,” Denyes says. Hullabaloo is not riffing off of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood”; they are not trying to recreate Romper Room or Captain Kangaroo. They are simply Hullabaloo. When Denyes is up in front of a group of preschoolers he might remind you of your favorite uncle back when you were a kid, the one who made you feel like a special child but just a smidgen grown-up, too.

“When I started there wasn’t a lot of great music for kids. There weren’t great examples of that but I ran across one person, Dan Zanes of the Del Fuegos. I thought, ‘This is really spectacular!’” Denyes credits Zanes with liberating children’s music from the three-chord happy tune ghetto and incorporating rock, metal, and hip hop into his music for children.

So, budding musicians practice their scales, take music lessons, and even go off to conservatories as they picture their future lives of performing in concert halls and music showcases. It is a reasonable bet that few, if any, think that they will travel from classroom to library back to classrooms filled with four and five-year-olds eager to jump up and down and clap their hands. Denyes guesses that a few of his musical colleagues view performing for children as being something of a step down from performing for adults, and almost all of them are surprised by how much he enjoys performing for children. But think of it. What if you had the choice of performing for an unimpressed hipster crowd in a noisy bar or for 100 smiling faces of children who are happy that you are there. What audience would you rather have?

Denyes wrote his first song in seventh grade, and the rest of his life has contained music or been about music ever since. In the nineties he became one of San Diego’s most prominent singer/songwriters. Back then the moniker “Famous Steve Denyes” followed him around. In 1996 he was chosen as one of San Diego’s Magnificent Seven by the San Diego Folk Heritage Society to represent America’s Finest City at a music festival in Toronto. A resulting CD highlighted the talents of the crew, which included the late Steve White, Deborah Liv Johnson, the perennial promoter of the music spot Dizzy’s Chuck Perrin, and Eric Keeling.

Being an adult singer-songwriter, being a performer for children, being 14.3 percent of San Diego’s Magnificent Seven, if that weren’t enough, most folks would be surprised to find out that Steve Denyes is also an author. In 2003 Denyes published the results of 15 interviews he conducted with musicians, most of them fellow singer/songwriters from the San Diego area. The result, Gigging for a Living, is a compendium of the joys and the many frustrations that musicians face pursuing their craft. “I never intended the book to be a how-to book,” Denyes says. Included in the compilation are Jeff Berkley, international man of mystery Gregory Page, Eve Selis, and Peter Sprague. In one of the book’s more humorous moments one musician recounts how, during an IRS audit, the folks at the tax office told him that he should change careers to make more money. “It can be a rough life, being a musician. Conducting the interviews, I was impressed with the dedication that these people had.”

He has taken up other challenges. In the early 2000s Denyes wrote a one-man musical called Waiting on Arleen, which he performed in local cafés and music showcases and recorded to CD. This past January Denyes took up the challenge of writing 20 songs in 20 days. Taking song suggestions from his fans–yes, the preschoolers–he came up with 20 children’s tunes. He admits that the writing process was pretty easy going at the beginning, but by days 17 and 18 he had to reach further and further into his creativity database to reach his goal.

Earlier this year Denyes recorded an album. Titled In Situ, Denyes intended to get back to his adult singer-songwriter roots. “The album was made on a dare, a challenge from a friend. ‘I’d like to hear some of your grownup songs,’ he said to me. I didn’t quite know what to do at first. I hadn’t written any grownup songs since my thirties. I mean what do you write about? But I set out to do it.” The 11 tunes are indeed adult themed. There are songs about relationships, both successful and unsuccessful, a song or two about looking back to “better days,” and some frank appraisals about being 40 something. My personal favorite, a waltz, is a lighthearted love song called “Fred Astaire’s Shoes.”

If you are the parent of a toddler or two, you can of course find Hullabaloo at schools and libraries, and of course at backyard parties. But Denyes and Kremer also perform their youngster-friendly sets at some of San Diego’s summer concerts in the park. This month Hullabaloo performs at the Mission Hills concert in Pioneer Park on Independence Day. They are at the San Diego Botanical gardens on the 19th, and will be taking part in the National Carousel Day at the carousel in Balboa Park.

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