Fred Penner on The Cat Came Back at 40

Fred Penner also reflects on his late sister's relationship with music and how it impacted his switch from economics to children's music.

'Nobody in my life ever told me that I could do this as a career,' the musician says

Fred Penner on stage at the River Run Centre in Guelph, Ont. (Vicki Mahony)

In 1979, Fred Penner, then a former economics student, released his debut album, The Cat Came Back. The title song was an adaptation of the 1893 comic song of the same name, and Penner's version kickstarted his career.

He's now a four-time Juno-winning musician, and a member of both the Order of Canada and the Order of Manitoba. He's also recognized by many as the face of Canadian children's music, partly due to his CBC TV show, Fred Penner's Place, which aired from 1985 to 1997.

"Nobody in my life ever told me that I could do this as a career," he said in a special live taping of q at the River Run Centre in Guelph, Ont. "I love to perform, but nobody ever said this is an option for you."

Impact of his sister

If there's one person Penner could credit for inspiring him to consider a career in children's music, it's his late sister, Susie.

"She was a critical part of my understanding of how deeply a child can be affected by music," he said. "So I remembered that as I was growing up."

Susie was born with Down syndrome when Penner was 12 years old. Although she was nonverbal, her interactions with music — particularly how she reacted to different music —  touched Penner deeply.

Susie passed away when Penner was in his 20s, a time when he was about to start an economist position with Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation. But her death, along with the death of his father soon after, put a halt to that plan.

"[I saw that] life is not meant to be sitting behind the desk for Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation," he said. "I felt that I could do something more with my life."

Penner notes that this moment "opened me to exploring the musical world." He started writing music for his ex-wife's children's dance theatre in the late '70s, and that led to a patron offering to pay for his first project. That "godsend," as Penner described it, grew into The Cat Came Back.

Four decades later, Penner still remembers his beginnings and how his late sister impacted it.

"I think she taught me a lot of important life lessons. I think I learned the value of vulnerability and the importance of creativity linked with being vulnerable."

Fred Penner is currently on a cross-Canada Cat Came Back 40th Anniversary tour. For tour dates, visit his website.

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— Written by Mouhamad Rachini. Produced by ​Danielle Grogan

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