It was widely reported yesterday that Bob Dorough passed away this week. The news whisked me directly back to my parents’ den, circa 1974. I could picture nine year-old me sitting cross-legged on the linoleum floor, with Apple Jacks-tinted milk dribbling down my chin. Through a mouthful of cereal, I was trying to sing the words to a jazzy ditty that was coming from the console TV.
“Conjunction Junction, what’s your function?...”
Dorough wrote that song and many others that burned into the memories of viewers like me. He was a lifelong musician, a jazz artist at heart and he served as musical director for Schoolhouse Rock. If you’re completely unaware of American music or television culture, I’ll clue you in. Schoolhouse Rock was a series of animated shorts which appeared on the ABC television network. The shorts ran between groovy Saturday morning cartoons like Hong Kong Phooey (“Number one super guy!”) and Super Friends. The bits were educational in nature, focusing on math, grammar, history, science and other subjects. They were so well received they ultimately had a 25-year run.
What kid in his right mind would want to spend the precious freedom of Saturday morning learning something scholastic? Not many. But Dorough’s songwriting was so sneakily catchy, you couldn’t help it even if you tried. The earworm that he delivered to you on Saturday morning was the correct answer to your math quiz on Tuesday afternoon. He might even be regarded as the father of math rock, even if just in name alone.
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There were other songwriters involved in the series, but Dorough came first and he alone wrote and performed nearly all of the songs under the series’ “Multiplication Rock” banner. One of the few he did not perform in that group was the haunting “Figure Eight,” sung delicately and to perfection by jazz singer Blossom Dearie. I heard it today and it still gives me chills. It’s about the number eight. That’s how good it is.
Dorough wrote others outside of the math group, including “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World,” which told the story of Paul Revere 20 years before the Beastie Boys. He penned the helpful “Lolly, Lolly, Lolly Get Your Adverbs Here” and the extra-funky “Verb: That’s What’s Happenin'.’”
Happenin’ indeed. Dorough’s background in bebop music meant we young listeners were not just being educated, we were being schooled musically by someone with pedigree. The tunes were so hip, years later they were interpolated into De La Soul songs ("Three Is a Magic Number") and covered by artists like Blind Melon and the Lemonheads.
Former Houston Press music editor Chris Gray had a chance to talk Schoolhouse Rock and ask Dorough about his career in a 2012 interview. Gray asked Dorough about his interest in music and he said it began in high school band. He went to University of North Texas and said, “As the years went by, I was coaching singers at North Texas and I liked the idea that I would be singing their song just to show them how it would go, just swing it. I thought, ‘Gee, I could do that myself’ and became more interested in the art of jazz vocals. It made sense to accompany myself on piano, so I began to write songs.”
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He wrote a jazz standard, “Devil May Care,” which has been recorded by contemporary acts like Diana Krall and Jamie Cullum. Working in the genre, he told Gray, allowed him to rub shoulders with and befriend some other legends, like Lenny Bruce, Allen Ginsberg and Miles Davis.
Dorough’s best connection to Houston is his daughter, Aralee, who is the longtime principal flutist for Houston Symphony. Gray asked about his influence on her career and Dorough said, “I know a lot about classical music, it's just that I played the other kind. She grew up in my home, so she was getting experience doing little concerts with me.”
Dorough was 94 years old when he passed away Monday. He kept working late in life. When the Houston Press chatted with him in 2012, he was 88 and was recording new soundtrack music with Aralee and some local artists ahead of a gig at Bohemeo’s for some lucky fans. I saw him perform once, in 2001, at The Centrum, in Cypress Creek, where he narrated a performance by Houston Symphony’s Airmail Special group. Ahead of the show, Dorough said, "The power of music is what attracts kids. The original idea for Schoolhouse Rock was to just put the information in a fun song and melody. I think music is absolutely the best thing we have in the world for young people. It's too bad that all young people don't get exposed to it, so I know this is going to be a wonderful concert.”
It was. Afterward, I got to chat with Dorough. He gave me a copy of his album, Too Much Coffee Man. The three-minute title track is something of a theme song for me, a grown-up version of those Saturday morning songs I learned and loved so well. Always one to seize such a moment, I thanked him. Those Schoolhouse Rock songs shaped my interest in jazz and other forms of music. They helped me form a love of language, thanks to their lyrics and the lessons they taught, I gushed. He accepted this all graciously. Then, his eyes lit up when I introduced him to my kids, who would later become musicians themselves after listening to enough music in their lifetimes – including some of Bob Dorough’s — to make him very happy.