Watch CBS News

Remembering Bob McGrath, 'Sesame Street' icon and LaSalle County native

CBS News Live
CBS News Chicago Live

CHICAGO (CBS/AP) -- "Sesame Street" icon Bob McGrath, who died Sunday at the age of 90, grew up on a farm in LaSalle County and performed in singing competitions in Chicago as a boy.

McGrath's passing was confirmed by his family, who posted on his Facebook page on Sunday: "The McGrath family has some sad news to share. Our father Bob McGrath, passed away today. He died peacefully at home, surrounded by his family."

Hello Facebook friends, the McGrath family has some sad news to share. Our father Bob McGrath, passed away today. He died peacefully at home, surrounded by his family ❤️

Posted by Bob McGrath on Sunday, December 4, 2022

McGrath's Illinois upbringing and Chicago connections are documented in the 2008 book, "Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street" by Michael Davis.

McGrath was born June 13, 1932, on a farm in LaSalle County that Davis' words make sound very far from Chicago. Davis describes McGrath's birthplace as "a farm that straddled the north-central Illinois towns of Ottawa and Grand Ridge, deep in the bosom of corn, oats, and soybean country, near the confluence of the Fox and Illinois rivers. The McGrath farm was without electricity until around the time Bobby entered first grade. He attended a one-room schoolhouse with his older brother Edmund."

By third grade, the one-room schoolhouse had closed, and McGrath was attending St. Columba School in Ottawa, Davis wrote.

"Word quickly spread around Ottawa about the McGrath boy's talent, and by the age of seven – with private training – Bobby was winning singing competitions in Chicago," Davis wrote.

McGrath had been considering studying engineering at the University of Illinois as his brother did, but attended a three-week music camp outside Chicago on a scholarship during high school and decided to attend the University of Michigan as a voice major instead, Davis wrote.

"He excelled in his studies, joined the glee club, dabbled in barbershop quartet, and soaked up the classical song literature of the Italian, French, and German repertoire," Davis wrote. "He blossomed vocally and drank in all that was Ann Arbor, Michigan in the early 1950s."

McGrath went on to serve two years in the Army, and then moved to New York, where he earned a master's degree from the Manhattan School of Music, Davis wrote. He appeared on Mitch Miller's "Sing Along with Mitch" show and then launched a singing career in Japan in which he was described as a teen idol.

McGrath, who had been a fraternity brother with original "Sesame Street" executive producer Dave Connell, joined the cast of the groundbreaking children's program when it first went on the air in 1969. He is remembered by many children and adults today as music teacher and friendly neighbor Bob Johnson.

McGrath was one of four non-Muppet cast members on "Sesame Street" when it debuted – along with Loretta Long (Susan), the late Matt Robinson (the first actor to play Gordon, a role later assumed by Roscoe Orman), and the late Will Lee (Mr. Hooper).

Sesame Street: People in Your Neighborhood with Bob by Sesame Street on YouTube

McGrath was known for singing lead or solo on many classic "Sesame Street" songs, including "Sing," "Rain Falls," "The People in Your Neighborhood," "I've Got Two," and "Keep Christmas with You (All Through the Year)."

Sesame Street: Keep Christmas With You by Sesame Street on YouTube

But McGrath's vocal repertoire on "Sesame Street" extended far beyond material composed for the program. He performed everything from numbers from "The King and I" and "The Sound of Music" to Stevie Wonder covers for the 1977 album "Bob Sings!" – and on the third episode of "Sesame Street" in 1969, he even performed "Good Morning Starshine" from the rock Broadway musical "Hair" alongside a group of hippie Muppets.

Sesame Street - Good Morning, Starshine (1969) by Tiny Dancer on YouTube

Meanwhile, McGrath's "Sesame Street" character – Bob Johnson – depicted a dedicated music teacher, a paternal figure to Big Bird's 6-year-old boy character, and a straight man to the absurd antics of Oscar the Grouch and other unruly Muppet characters.

He made his final appearance on the show in 2017, marking an almost five-decade-long figure in the "Sesame Street" world.

"A revered performer worldwide, Bob's rich tenor filled airwaves and concert halls from Las Vegas to Saskatchewan to Tokyo many times over," the Sesame Workshop said in a statement. "We will be forever grateful for his many years of passionate creative contributions to Sesame Street and honored that he shared so much of his life with us."

A longtime New Jersey resident, McGrath is survived by his wife, Ann Logan Sperry, and their five children.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.