My Hero, Dorough

From Miles Davis to generations of cartoon-watching kids, everyone loves Plainview ex Bob Dorough, one of jazz’s heppest cats.

December 1998By Comments

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 an outstanding music school. During his time there, his classmates persuaded the administration to become one of the first colleges in the nation to add jazz to its curriculum.

After graduating with a degree in music in 1949, Dorough left Texas for New York, hoping to attend the prestigious Juilliard School but ending up instead at Columbia University. After his GI bill ran out, Dorough left academia and held jam sessions four to five nights a week at his East Seventy-fifth Street flat; participants included the likes of Pepper Adams, Elvin Jones, and Bill Evans. When a legal snafu kept him from being granted his all-important cabaret card, he took a job with champion-boxer-turned-hoofer Sugar Ray Robinson, spending the next two years on the road as his musical director. He then settled in Paris temporarily, where he worked seven nights a week at the Mars Club, a hot spot for English-speaking tourists on the Right Bank. By the time he returned to New York, in 1955, he had honed his singing style and deservedly earned an enhanced reputation.

In 1956 Dorough released his debut, Devil May Care, which sported an in-the-know version of Charlie Parker’s “Yardbird Suite” and the winning “Baltimore Oriole.” The response was good, but sales were cut short when the Bethlehem label went out of business shortly after the album was released. The promise of another recording contract—with a bankrupt label, it turned out—led him to hitchhike west to Los Angeles, where he began to gig in earnest. He jammed, joined a combo, played between sets by comic Lenny Bruce, and, through a mutual friend, met Miles Davis.

“Terry Morel, a jazz singer and a fan of mine, had Miles over, and he spotted my album,” Dorough recalls. “Terry played some of it, and the next day he showed up and said”—Dorough does a raspy Miles imitation—“‘Put that on again.’ After she told me, I said, ‘Let’s go see Miles.’ I figured if he digs my LP, I gotta say hi. We went to the gig and Terry says, ‘Miles! This is Bob Dorough.’ So Miles says, ‘Hey, Bob, go play “Baltimore Oriole.”’ No ‘Pleased to meet you’ or anything. I played while he stood there watching me, and when I was done, he just walked off. After that, whenever I saw him, he always wanted me to play and sing. When I got back to New York, he even gave me an opening spot for his quintet at the Village Vanguard.”

In 1962 Dorough was invited to compose a Christmas song for Davis. They recorded his cynical “Blue Xmas” for Columbia Records’ Jingle Bell Jazz and also his “Nothing Like You.” “It was a Gil Evans arrangement,” Dorough says. “Miles called Gil up to his house, and we worked all night on the chart. The next day we recorded. I didn’t even think it turned out that well. But Miles dropped it on his album Sorcerer in 1966. Because of that, the song became quite famous.” Yet Dorough would never work with Davis again. “I kind of blew it,” he says. “I was getting busy with my family; we moved to Pennsylvania. Every time I called, his number was changed. I really lost track of him, and I’ll always regret that.” (In Davis’ autobiography, he devoted just a single sentence to Dorough, labeling him that “silly singer.”)

In the mid-sixties “Comin’ Home Baby,” a demo Dorough wrote with his bassist friend Ben Tucker, found its way to Mel Tormé, who made it a huge hit. Still, no contract came his way. In 1966 disc jockey Mort Fega recorded Dorough’s second album, Just About Everything, for his Focus label. Amazingly, after the album’s release, that label folded too. Jazz work became so scarce that Dorough took to arranging and producing pop acts like Spanky and Our Gang and writing advertising jingles.

Then he was approached by the creators of Schoolhouse Rock. The idea had been hatched about a year earlier by ad executive David B. McCall, who noted that his son couldn’t grasp multiplication tables but had memorized every word of his Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix records. Sensing an opportunity for an educational record album, McCall enlisted other talents in his firm, and together they began auditioning jingle composers. The project’s creative director, George Newall, was a pianist who haunted the Hickory House jazz nightclub, where he had befriended Ben Tucker. In addition to having worked with Dorough on “Comin’ Home Baby,” Tucker had also heard one of his experimental albums, This Is a Recording, which consisted entirely of lyrics taken from discarded scraps of paper like receipts and laundry tickets. When Newall expressed his frustration at not being able to find the right writer to transfer the rigidity of math into music, Tucker spoke up: “Get Bob Dorough. He can put anything to music!”

Initially wary of the project, Dorough was persuaded when he was told he didn’t have to write down to children. Using his daughter, Aralee, as a barometer (she is now the principal flutist for the Houston Symphony), he stuck to the approach he took for his jazz work: Keep things happy, funny, and clever. His first entry, “Three Is a Magic Number,” was storyboarded and presented to ABC, a client of McCall’s. At the time, the networks were under fire for their lack of responsible offerings, so the timing couldn’t have been better. ABC executives—including Michael Eisner, then the head of children’s programming, now the CEO of Disney, which owns the whole network—were so enthusiastic about the project that they cut the length of their Saturday morning shows by three minutes and tacked on Schoolhouse Rock at the end. Suddenly Dorough, who had spent the past few years sporadically employed, found the prodigious demands of TV on his shoulders. In a few months’ time he would complete most of the twelve multiplication songs.

By the mid-seventies, as his work on the series continued, Dorough revitalized his jazz career. He began a stint at the New York jazz club Bradley’s—the first vocalist to play the famed, now defunct venue—released albums on a label he co-owns, Laissez-Faire, and collaborated on a variety of projects with everyone from Art Garfunkel to John Zorn. Nonetheless, he remained relegated to cult status until an old friend offered some posthumous help. In 1996 Columbia Records released Miles Davis and Gil Evans: The Complete Columbia Studio Recordings. Included in the set were Dorough’s tunes, along with another piece of his that Davis had recorded. This new visibility helped lend to the surprise phone call from Blue Note.

Released in 1997, Dorough’s Blue Note album, Right on My Way Home, is among his finest: a jaunty romp that captures his eccentric talent in professional, high style. The unusual set of songs, including Dorough’s boyhood favorite “I Get the Neck of the Chicken,” features well-thought-out arrangements, and ringers such as saxophonist Joe Lovano add considerable punch. Despite modest sales, the record has done much to raise Dorough’s public profile; he even performed on the Central Park Summer Stage this past season.

All of this attention pleases Dorough’s longtime fans in his adopted hometown of Mount Bethel, which is situated in a lush valley on the Eastern Pennsylvania border. He has lived in the area since 1966—one of a number of jazz dignitaries, including Urbie Green and Dave Liebman, who set up shop there so they could play regular gigs at the now faded resorts in the Pocono Mountains—and many residents have grown up around him. On the night after his schoolhouse gigs in Scranton, the local hero made one of his infrequent appearances at the nearby Deer Head Inn, center stage for the rural location’s still-vibrant jazz scene (alto-saxophone legend Phil Woods lives up the road, and late bandleader Fred Waring’s compound sits across the street). The place was jammed with the young and the old, friends and relations. A thirty-year-old in a “Conjunction Junction” T-shirt hovered in the back. Dorough knew each audience member by name, and he greeted them warmly.

When Dorough took the stage, he exuded a giddy excitement throughout each of his three one-hour sets. Refusing to sit still at the piano, he grimaced, mugged, thrusted his lower lip, and flung his hands with rock star braggadocio. The piano keys flew as his reedy twang filled the room and spilled out to the overflow crowd on the porch. “I’ve got just about everything I need,” he sang, and that night, at least, no one in the room doubted it.

Jeff McCord wrote about Leaning House Records in the May issue of  Texas Monthly.

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