Lois Lilienstein was a classically trained musician with a degree from the University of Michigan, but her big break came when she played piano for her son's co-op nursery school in a Toronto church basement.
"I was playing nursery rhymes instead of Bach or Beethoven," she told the Toronto Star in 1998.
But children loved her engaging personality and willingness to be silly, and she went on to co-found Sharon, Lois & Bram, with Sharon Hampson and Bram Morrison. It became one of the most successful performing groups for children in North America, with TV shows, gold records and tours that sold out performances in major auditoriums.
Lilienstein, 78, died Wednesday at home in Toronto. The cause was cancer, said her son, David.
She was the member of the trio — almost always standing in the middle — who found the group's infectious signature song "Skinnamarink," with nonsense lyrics that drove many a parent to distraction in the 1980s. Lilienstein first heard her 8-year-old cousin singing it.
Skinnamarink e-dink e-dink,
I love you.
The song was featured at the end of episodes of the group's long-running TV series, "Sharon, Lois & Bram's Elephant Show," which debuted in Canada in the mid-1980s and later ran on the Nickelodeon cable channel.
But the group's repertoire, which included sing-alongs and other audience participation at concerts, was hardly limited to nonsense ditties, or even songs meant specifically for children. They also drew from folk traditions, movie songs and rock numbers such as "Rock Around the Clock."
"We believe in Woody Guthrie's definition of a children's song: that it's any song a child likes to sing," Lilienstein told the Los Angeles Times in 1990 when the trio was on a tour that included shows at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa and the Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles. "The term 'kiddie' music is prehistoric."
She was born Lois Ada Goldberg on July 10, 1936, in Chicago to a musical family. Her father was an insurance salesman who moonlighted as a musician in clubs and at bar mitzvahs, and her mother was a tap dancer.
She graduated with a bachelor's degree in music in 1958 and in 1966 moved to Toronto with her husband, Ernest Lilienstein, when he got a job teaching sociology at York University.
Lilienstein became such a popular children's entertainer that long lines formed when she appeared at school libraries. "They were checking children's certificates to make sure they weren't too old to get in," her son said in an interview Friday.
In 1978 she teamed up with Hampson and Morrison, both of whom also played to children's groups, and the trio gained followers through appearances on Canadian Broadcasting Co.'s radio shows.
Because the CBC is so ubiquitous in the country, Lilienstein said, it was easier to become widely known.
"If you do one show," she said in a 1989 St. Louis Post-Dispatch interview, "everyone in the country has heard you." From family and friends, they raised $22,000 to record their first album, "One Elephant, Deux Elephants," that became Canada's best-selling children's album.
Lilienstein stopped touring with the group after her husband died in 2000, but still recorded with them and made some appearances.
The fame achieved by the trio was unexpected, she said.
"I was always known as the girl who played the piano and loved kids," she told the Chicago Tribune in 1993. "But I had no idea I'd end up putting the two together."
In addition to her son, who is an attorney in San Francisco, she is survived by a granddaughter.