WHEN YOU’VE BEEN THROUGH A LOT, astonishment doesn’t come easy. Consider the case of Plainview ex Bob Dorough, the hip, insouciant jazzman whose destiny seemed permanently entwined with false starts and empty promises. Two years ago, while he was knocking around in his home studio, all that changed during a single telephone call. On the line was Bruce Lundvall, the president of the revered jazz label Blue Note Records, who wanted to sign the singer-pianist to a recording contract. Dorough, whose previous albums had been released by smaller, more obscure labels, says the offer hit “like a bolt from the blue.” For one thing, he was 73 years old, hardly the age to be signing his first major-label deal. And though he has spent almost half a century pursuing a unique and peculiar muse, his greatest success has come not from jazz but from his contribution to children’s television.
Dorough does have his share of jazz loyalists: elder hepcats who have claimed allegiance since his 1956 too-cool-for-school reading of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Baltimore Oriole” and his early sixties collaboration with Miles Davis. But a much larger, multigenerational group knows him from Schoolhouse Rock, the animated segments he created beginning in the early seventies for ABC-TV. Installments such as “Conjunction Junction,” “Three Is a Magic Number,” and “My Hero, Zero” earned Dorough a kind of anonymous fame as the long-running series’ unseen musical director, primary composer, and performer (he admits with no small amount of regret that he cannot get through a jazz show anymore without acknowledging it). And they had an immeasurable impact on the millions who watched them. The repetitive nature of the three-minute spots, along with Dorough’s expert arrangements and keen ear, achieved the desired effect of kids absorbing lessons in math, grammar, and civics.
Schoolhouse Rock went off the air in the mid-eighties, but it returned in 1992 and continues to be a Saturday morning fixture, largely because fans of the original spots now handle programming duties at ABC. Not surprisingly, it has spawned T-shirts, hats, and other merchandise, along with videos that nostalgic, cathode-raised grown-ups buy and rent for their kids. The music Dorough and others created for the series has been collected by Rhino Records on a CD box set, Schoolhouse Rock, and modern music stars including the Lemonheads and Austinite Daniel Johnston have rerecorded their favorite compositions for a tribute album, Schoolhouse Rock! Rocks. A traveling company even performs a live-action version of Schoolhouse Rock around the country.
Dorough does his share of traveling too, including frequent visits to elementary and middle schools, where he’ll typically play an out-of-tune piano in a concrete room full of rambunctious children with the attention span of gerbils. In May, for instance, he had two shows scheduled in Scranton, Pennsylvania, a long early-morning drive from his home near the Delaware Water Gap. At each, he and his bandmates performed energetically before an enthralled group of kids who gleefully shouted back their multiplication tables.
On the trip home, Dorough stopped to buy some wine, and a kid shouted to him from across the store: “Bob Dorough!”
“Hey,” Dorough replied. “How do I know you?” Turns out he had played the boy’s school sometime back. They spoke for a minute, then Dorough went back to purchasing his wine, while the boy huddled with his friend in a corner of the store.
“Hey, Bob!” the boy shouted. “Zero is my hero!”
“Yeah, that’s right.” Dorough waved to them as they left before turning back to the clerk. “Jazz fans,” he muttered.
Dorough’s engaging demeanor practically invites people to approach him; he possesses the infectious enthusiasm of someone twenty years younger, and he unpretentiously peppers his speech with retro watchwords like “cats” and “dad.” His voice, infused with a Southern flavor, is thin and straining but unexpectedly flexible onstage. A risk taker, he dives into challenging material eagerly, pushing himself and his audience. His cabaret style recalls a freer Mose Allison, accomplishing the ruse of sounding buoyant and world-weary at the same time. With long gray-streaked hair tied in a ponytail and a huge Cheshire cat smile, he has a forceful jazz piano technique and wild gesticulations that conjure a curious and unforgettable presence.
Jazz wasn’t always Dorough’s passion. He was born on December 12, 1923, in Cherry Hill, Arkansas, and grew up a self-described “macho kid” who wanted to be a Texas cowboy. Music touched his early years only peripherally: He would sing cowboy songs with his parents and later memorized popular songs, tunes by Bing Crosby, and the Depression-era hit “I Get the Neck of the Chicken.”
When Dorough’s father, a World War I veteran, received a bonus from the government, he moved the family to Plainview. For young Bob, relocating to the flat prairies of the Panhandle would prove fortuitous. After he scored well on an aptitude test, his family was visited by Robert Davidson, the band director at Plainview High School, who looked into his mouth and declared, “I think he can play the clarinet.” A week later, Dorough was in the junior high school band, and as soon as he heard the different instruments working together to make music, he was hooked. Davidson became his mentor, teaching him harmony, giving him free lessons, even making him an assistant director of the junior high band.
After graduation, Dorough enrolled at Texas Tech University in Lubbock and got his first serious jazz exposure watching a local combo that aped Jack Teagarden and Louis Armstrong. While pursuing his band studies, Dorough began to explore jazz clarinet and saxophone. In 1943 he was drafted into the Army, and after basic training at what he remembers as a “terrible place on the coast somewhere between Galveston and Corpus Christi,” he was eventually transferred into the military’s band program, where he spent his remaining three years in the service. After the Army, he headed for North Texas State Teachers College (now the University of North Texas) in Denton, which already had a reputation as