Bob Dorough, 1923-2018
The jazzman who created Schoolhouse Rock!
Bob Dorough was struggling to eke out a living as a jazz musician in the early 1970s when an ad executive came to him with an unusual request: Could the singer and pianist write some songs to help children memorize multiplication tables? The original idea was to make a record and workbook, but when Dorough pumped out snappy numbers like “Three Is a Magic Number” and “My Hero, Zero,” the project grew into a series of animated shorts that ABC inserted between Saturday-morning cartoons. The Schoolhouse Rock! series moved on from math to civics, science, and parts of speech, and helped educate a whole generation of kids. While Dorough had jammed with jazz greats, including Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, and Charlie Parker, he knew he’d be remembered for Schoolhouse Rock! “I’m cool with it being the first thing people see in my obituary,” he said.
The son of a salesman and a homemaker, Dorough “grew up in rural Arkansas and Texas,” said The Washington Post. He showed musical talent early and by his teens he was playing piano, clarinet, and saxophone. His jazz career would be “anything but conventional,” said the Los Angeles Times. After serving as a composer in the Army band during World War II, he went on to work as a music director for Sugar Ray Robinson during the boxer’s short-lived show business career, and as an accompanist to beat poet Allen Ginsburg and acerbic comedian Lenny Bruce. Dorough was also one of the few vocalists to record with Davis—he co-wrote and sang on Davis’ wry 1962 ditty “Blue Xmas (To Whom It May Concern).”
Well-connected in the music world, Dorough recruited “a high-end assortment of talent” for Schoolhouse Rock! said The New York Times. Respected jazz artists like Blossom Dearie, Dave Frishberg, and Jack Sheldon all contributed, the last singing Frishberg’s “I’m Just a Bill,” about the workings of Congress. For the rest of his career “it was not uncommon for him to be playing a jazz set and have someone call for a Schoolhouse Rock! tune,” a request he always gladly indulged. “What you’ll notice is, each one of them is musically brilliant,” said Steve Berger, Dorough’s longtime guitarist. “He never wrote down to the kids. He always brought them up.”