Musician Randy Kaplan is the whole package — roots rocker, storyteller, laugh-out-loud funny and fun for the whole family.
Randy Kaplan left the University of Michigan after his sophomore year in 1986 to pursue an acting career in California and New York. As he found intermittent work in theater and films — but mostly on television (Growing Pains, Beauty and the Beast, A Different World) — he also looked for opportunities to sing and play guitar. Along the way, he earned an English degree from the University of California at Los Angeles.
One temporary job, teaching at a preschool, got him interested in children’s music, and that came to the forefront of his entertainment projects. Kaplan began composing, performing and recording upbeat sounds for young people and their families.
Six children’s albums later, along with eight adult albums, Kaplan holds notable recognition through the National Parenting Product Awards and Nickelodeon Parents’ Picks Awards as well as on Top Ten Lists of National Public Radio and People magazine. He also is a three-time winner of the ASCAP Plus Award.
While in California, Kaplan met Julie May, a singer who grew up in West Bloomfield and Bloomfield Hills and worked as assistant to comedian Dana Carvey. After marrying and having a son (Ryland, now 6), the couple decided they wanted to stay close to family and returned to Michigan in 2015.
With a master’s degree in teaching from Oakland University, Kaplan became an English and music teacher at Farber Hebrew Day School in Southfield and continued his entertainment career on weekends. His wife arranged bookings, taking him to venues around Michigan and beyond.
Kaplan’s next show will be in the city he knows well as a student and performer — Ann Arbor, where he will be introducing songs from his seventh album, tentatively titled 6 Strings 12 Yams, among a larger program that begins at 3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 11, at the Westgate Branch of the Ann Arbor District Library.
“When I sing live, I play acoustic guitar and use a little harmonica rack a la Bob Dylan so I can accompany myself with an additional instrument,” says Kaplan, 51, who also tutors various subjects. “I will include a mix of all six albums. I do requests, too. For my live songs, I have slightly different versions, which can mean a new verse or a different take from what’s on the CD. Still, it’s mostly the hits that have been played on the radio.
“The new album, still to be recorded, is going to have some string instruments with old country blues and ragtime. With blues, I especially have to change the lyrics a lot because they’re not kid-friendly. I do a lot of lyrical adaptations and call them Randyized songs. I add stories and comedic monologues.
“About half the songs on my CDs are original songs that I wrote, comedic stories and ballads. Half the songs are covers or adaptations.”
Trippin’ Round the Mitten, released last year, was the first CD made since Kaplan moved back to Michigan. His wife sings on some of the recordings — as does his son.
“At first, the CD was going to be very Michigan-centric,” Kaplan says. “I found a leaf on the ground in the exact shape of Michigan, and I used that for cover art. Although one song is like a Michigan travelogue, the selections wound up being very diverse.
“There’s a new hip-hop element on it, and I do a couple of rap songs. There are silly songs and a song about space travel. The stream-of-consciousness stuff is like the way little kids think, and I try to capture that through the lyrics.
“One song, ‘Honk Honk,’ came after I had some nose surgery. My little son kept grabbing my nose, and I wrote a rap song about noses. ‘Spaceman’ is my parody of ‘Mr. Bass Man’; it’s about my kid wanting to be an astronaut. ‘Every Second Counts’ is about morning chaos in a house where kids have to go to school and the parents have to go to work.”
Kaplan, who grew up on Long Island, has played guitar since he was 10 and had a band in junior high school. Rock ’n’ roll launched his career, but after starting with open mic nights and getting requests for other performances and styles, he did lots of folk and blues with a band he organized.
“In the late ’90s, I made my first CD on my own and released it,” Kaplan recalls. “That was for adults. I performed the songs around the country for about five years, but I found my niche with children’s music.
“I made a young people’s recording, and someone sent it to Sirius XM radio on my behalf. The program director liked it, and my songs were played on Channel 78. Every year, when I release a CD, I perform on their satellite station. That’s how I get gigs around the country.”
At home in Bloomfield Hills, Kaplan plans for performances before Jewish organizations, including synagogue and temple groups and Friendship Circle. Some weekends, he works with Horizons — Upward Bound, which provides free Cranbrook classes for young people from Detroit.
“I’m building my Jewish music repertoire because I want to make a CD of Hebrew and Jewish-themed songs,” says Kaplan, whose son attends Hillel Hebrew Day School. “I already have one that I wrote — ‘The Hebrew-Speaking Bear’ — and I send it out with translations and a glossary.”
Randy Kaplan will perform at 3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 11, at the Ann Arbor District Library Westgate Branch, 2503 Jackson.
Free admission. (734) 327-4200; aadl.org. For information on other upcoming performances, visit his website.