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K-tel founder’s daughter keeps the songs coming

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The Mini Pop Kids

The latest collection from Mini Pop Kids is like the kind of album that K-tel Records would release in the 1970s, with one difference: tracks from the likes of Cardi B, Drake and DJ Khaled are tidied up. After all, the singers are between ages nine and 15, with a stage show aimed at families. For the parents, they also offer We Got the Beat by the Go-Go’s, while Aretha Franklin’s Respect might be better known by the grandparents. Either way, the product continues the legacy of a Canadian Jewish success story like no other.

From the farm to Teflon

Philip Kives wasn’t looking to the music industry when he started out in business. In fact, his first money-making scheme involved selling gopher and weasel pelts that he trapped for a nickel a piece around the family farm near Oungre, Sask. Kives’s family were Romanian immigrants who moved to Turkey before they resettled in the Prairies; Kives was born there in 1929 and grew up without power or running water.

The life of Kives changed in 1946,  when he left the farm for Winnipeg, working as a taxi driver and short-order cook, then as a door-to-door salesman. Practising the art of the pitchman at the Woolworth’s near the Atlantic City boardwalk, he returned to Canada to sell Teflon frying pans via TV commercials. The problem was that the no-scrape chemical would come off, and many were returned to Eaton’s. “It didn’t deter him because he sold so many of them,” says his daughter, Samantha Kives. “It was about being able to prove that he had the talent to sell anything.”

Striking gold with polka greats

Going to Australia to sell a million Feather Touch Knives via the small screen for a personal profit of a buck a piece gave Kives more encouragement. A partnership with inventor Sam Popeil brought items like the Veg-O-Matic and Pocket Fisherman to Canada, until Popeil’s son, Ron, decided to start his own company. So, in 1966, Kives turned to selling albums: 25 Country Hits and 25 Polka Greats were the first from what became K-tel. The music was released under the same brand as the Miracle Brush lint remover and the home hamburger Patty Stacker, all promoted through frenetic advertising. But nothing is remembered more than the music.

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K-tel helped define Foo Fighters

“What the products had in common was that people didn’t know ahead of time that they wanted them,” says Samantha Kives. The records were marketed through commercial that contained short, but catchy, excerpts from some of the songs. Stuffing at least 20 tracks onto a single vinyl record wasn’t for the edification of audiophiles. But, in the 1970s, no other company was delivering this kind of bargain. As a result, albums with titles like Music Express and Sound Explosion offered kids some influential interface. Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters is fond of crediting K-tel’s 1976 Block Buster with where he first heard Edgar Winter’s Frankenstein.

Singing kids click in Canada

K-tel’s sounds evolved in the early 1980s, around the time the company scored an original hit: a medley of symphonies set to a disco beat, Hooked on Classics. After that, Philip Kives was alerted to the creation of a British show called Mini-Pops: preteens dressing up to perform hit songs stirred scandal in the U.K. media over the fact that the kids were occasionally singing risqué lyrics. Yet, the albums sold significantly in Canada, a success that the K-tel boss’s daughter helped with engendering enthusiasm for.

Samantha Kives was especially fond of the first tune on the Mini-Pops album, Video Killed the Radio Star, even if it was removed from its original cultural commentary context of British band the Buggles. But she also loved the version of Connie Francis’ innocent Stupid Cupid. At age seven, she related to performers just slightly older than she was. The follow-up album, We’re the Mini-Pops, ended up being one of Canada’s bestsellers of 1983. After financial difficulties, K-Tel bounced back, clearing the way for a past success to be revived.

The legacy of Mini Pops

The death of Philip Kives on April 27, 2016, at age 87, was national news based largely on nostalgia for K-tel. But the company was still running: Samantha Kives joined her father’s business a decade earlier, with a focus on licensing songs from its catalogue for digital platforms, along with movies, TV and commercials. Her job has also involved the relaunch of Mini Pop Kids, which returned in the wake of the success for an American counterpart, Kidz Bop. But the Mini Pops, by contrast, has never used adult voices on the 21st-century albums, of which there are now 16. A new live show is touring Canada, starting on New Year’s Eve in Medicine Hat, Alta.Samantha Kives can promise that questionable lyrics from songs they cover are never sung.

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