Photographs by Richard Rasmussen
Arkansas-born jazz musician Bob Dorough performs Friday as part of the Arkansas Sounds Concert Series at Ron Robinson Theater in Little Rock.
Thursday, May 18, 2017
Bob Dorough may not be a household name, but if you grew up watching Saturday morning cartoons in the '70s and '80s, you are most likely familiar with his work.
The 93-year-old Dorough, who was born in Polk County, was the musical director of Schoolhouse Rock, the series of animated educational shorts that used wildly catchy songs to teach a couple of generations of kids about adverbs, conjunctions, how a bill becomes law and other lessons between episodes of their favorite cartoons and bites of soggy cereal.
7 p.m. Friday, Ron Robinson Theater, 100 Market St., Little Rock
Admission: $15 ages 13 and up, $5 ages 12 and under
Schoolhouse Rock has its roots in a 1971 record he was commissioned to write and record of the multiplication tables set to music, says Dorough, a vocalist and pianist who was inducted into the Arkansas Jazz Hall of Fame in 1998. He started with the whimsical "3 Is a Magic Number" and worked his way through the rest of the numbers one at a time.
The result was the Capitol Records' album Multiplication Rock which eventually became the animated Schoolhouse Rock.
An advertising agency artist doodled around with some images inspired by "3 Is a Magic Number" and "they sold it to ABC TV and suddenly we were on television," says Dorough from his home in Mount Bethel, Pa., where he has lived since 1966. "We introduced other subjects and we used other songwriters, but I was the musical director throughout the whole project. I did all the arranging and a lot of the singing and I wrote more of the songs. It was a lot of fun."
The series ran from 1973 to 1985, slyly indoctrinating unsuspecting children with rules of grammar, civics and mathematics via quirky ear candy like "I'm Just a Bill," "The Preamble," "Interjections" and others. It was revived in the '90s and a 30th anniversary DVD collection was released in 2003.
Expect a few of Dorough's Schoolhouse Rock hits Friday when he performs at Ron Robinson Theater in Little Rock. The Ted Ludwig trio -- guitarist Ludwig, bassist Joe Vick and drummer Brian Brown -- will perform with Dorough.
"I'm playing with some great musicians," he says of the trio. "I'll be doing my jazz repertoire and some Schoolhouse Rock."
Born in Cherry Hill near Mena, Dorough moved around the Natural State with his family for a few years before settling in west Texas when he was 12. He grew up listening to cowboy music, and his parents sang in church. He messed around with the harmonica a bit and would tinker with the keys when a piano was handy. It was when he joined the school band, though, that he found his calling.
"That was when I fell in love with music," he says. "There was something about the ensemble, a lot of kids playing different horns, and it all fit like a glove when it was good. I said to my parents, 'I'm going to be a musician.'"
From 1943-45, he served in a Special Services Army Band unit. After his discharge, he earned a music degree from North Texas State Teachers College (now the University of North Texas) and then headed straight for New York, just in time to immerse himself in the burgeoning be-pop revolution, an early form of modern jazz.
Dorough served as bandleader for boxing champ Sugar Ray Robinson, a gig he got through his work as a union musician playing for classes at a tap-dance studio: "I'd go to the union to get jobs and play for singers and tap dancers, anyway I could make a little money and pay the rent. The boss said I should go play in the big room downstairs and that's where I met Sugar Ray."
Dorough spent two years working with the boxer and ended up in Paris in 1954 after Robinson dropped his musical career to return to the ring. Dorough stayed behind, leading a band there.
"It was my first job where I was completely free, where I could do what I wanted to do," he says of his time in France. "That's where I developed my singing and entertaining style."
He moved to Los Angeles and in 1956 made his first recording as a bandleader, Devil May Care, for the Bethlehem label. The album included "Yardbird Suite," Dorough's tribute to his hero, saxophonist Charlie Parker, who died in 1955.
The album also won him at least one influential fan. Dorough was playing a gig in the Poconos when trumpeter Miles Davis, who liked and recorded a version of the album's title cut, "Devil May Care," called and asked him to write a Christmas song. The result, "Blue Xmas," was recorded by the two in 1962 and was included on a seasonal compilation album.
"He became a friend of mine," Dorough says. "He was very nice. If he liked you, you were OK. Of course, he was a strong personality. Sugar Ray was, too, so I was used to dealing with strong personalities."
The iconoclastic trumpeter included Dorough singing "Nothing Like You" to close out the 1962 album Sorcerer, a rare vocal appearance on a Davis record.
He has appeared on dozens of albums as a leader and a sideman. The most recent, Bob Dorough Trio and Special Guests: Live at the Deer Head Inn, was released in January and finds the pianist and his winking, rubbery vocal style in fine form. It was recorded on his 93rd birthday.
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