Now the stage is bare and there's emptiness all around. Facing his audience after almost seven years in the wilderness, it's only natural that this beloved performer should be wracked with fear. Will the old magic work again? Will this crowd get fidgety and have to go to the bathroom a lot? Does he still have--IT!!?

A single white spotlight beams on the dome of his red baseball cap. Slowly it trails down to reveal the rest of him in an immaculately white suit. At first, the fans seem confused about whether they're looking at a doctor or a very tall glass of milk. Out of the darkness, flashing red bulbs form huge letters 20 feet high which begin to spell out his name--R A F F. . . . He waits for one more vowel, then the spokesman for an entire generation begins to sing.

Ring ring ring ring ring ring ring
Ding dong ding dong ding dong ding
It's no baloney, it ain't a phony
My cellular, bananular phone

Raffi is back, the kids go wild.
In 1990, after selling 17 million children's albums and creating a kiddie-entertainment empire, Raffi tried to make it in the adult world. He released an environmental-awareness album titled Evergreen, Everblue; it did okay, but it was no Bananaphone, his latest million-plus-selling offering. The man apparently has come to grips that he should be--as Mr. T used to say--"doin' it for the kids."

While Raffi's return to the children's entertainment arena wasn't quite as dramatic as that of Elvis' 1968 comeback special, expectations ran just as high. The comparison isn't as far-fetched as it seems. After all, both men have recorded "Old MacDonald" at one time or another, and Raffi, the 46-year-old singer who hails from Canada, has long been referred to as "the Elvis of the preschool set." (Actually, in these politically correct times, the press has been tagging him "the Springsteen of the preteen set," as if it's morally preferable comparing Raffi to the Boss, a known adulterer, than to the King, a pill-popping good ol' boy in a karate suit. Go figure.) But unlike Presley, Raffi didn't fritter away the better part of a decade sleepwalking through lousy movies with lousier soundtracks and insulting the intelligence of his devotees.

In 1988, Raffi became depressed and angry about the pollution, overpopulation and deforestation he saw all around him. Rather than risk frightening the kids with the sad news that we were slowly poisoning ourselves with toxins, he retreated from the children's music world to address pressing environmental concerns.

Evergreen, Everblue, 1990's ecologically concerned adult-pop, also signaled the start of Raffi's involvement in the successful campaign to abolish the CD long box in the United States. During this time, the United Nations appointed him goodwill ambassador for its Environmental Programme, even sending Raffi to Rio for the Earth Summit in 1992.

"I think the reason Evergreen, Everblue didn't cross over into pop, which is what we were hoping for, was that I was so strongly identified as a children's performer," says Raffi, stating the obvious. "It speaks of the strength of love that my audience has for me as a singer who provides music for their families."

Evergreen, Everblue was hardly a bust anyway, selling in the neighborhood of 200,000 copies. But Raffi's never been the kind of performer to get hung up on numbers. If he was, he'd have long ago maximized his exposure by starring in his own kiddie TV show, like fellow children's artists Fred Penner or Sharon, Lois and Bram. Both of these acts are now readying their own interactive CD-ROMs for next year, something you'll never catch Raffi doing. He's penned several biting commentaries in Billboard magazine about the importance for children to interact with actual adult humans. Play the title track of his latest opus and you'll hear his philosophy clear as a bell: "Don't need computers or TV to have a real good time." Although there are three Raffi concert videos available, the artist staunchly refuses to accompany his audio recordings and children's books with video counterparts. Given this "no videos" stance, it's a wonder the press hasn't started calling Raffi "the Pearl Jam of the toddler brigade."

But why should Raffi prostitute his art this late in the game? He's maintained his integrity for 17 years, selling 17 million records worldwide without being rammed down the throats of kids and parents alike. Raffi's a word-of-mouth, grassroots phenomenon, and except for sweater-hugging, sneaker-tossing Fred Rogers, Raffi is the only children's performer who hasn't cashed in on his popularity with shameless merchandising and huckstering. You won't find Raffi and Sony jointly marketing My First Bananaphone. There'll be no product tie-ins with Chiquita, no Franco-American Raffi-olios with his mug on every can. No hard sell. "Parents appreciate that because they're getting hit all the time," notes the soft-spoken singer.

Speaking of something parents get hit with all the time, let's talk about Barney. It's hardly fair to blame Raffi's seven-year sabbatical for the emergence of this most loathsome of children's performers. Yet Raffi's disappearance may have inadvertently set the stage for the Purple One to gain his stranglehold on the under-5 set. But just as Barney has an uncanny ability to get into the hearts of children, he's equally adept at getting under the skin of parents. If Mister Rogers' Neighborhood and Sesame Street weren't on the same PBS station as Barney & Friends, many elders would probably put a channel block on the remote control. It's hard to know what's more offensive--hearing Barney's head-splitting, high-pitched squeals, or watching those sickeningly plucky kids the show's creators seem to delight in casting.

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