The Magic of Bob Dorough

For Bob Dorough, three is a magic number. For his legion of fans, it’s Bob himself who’s magic.

Whether he was singing times tables or scat, Bob made music and learning fun for adults and children alike. He died April 23, 2018, at his home in Mount Bethel, Pennsylvania, at the age of 94.

In the late 1970s, I wrote an article about him for DownBeat that was never published. Here it is at last, the story in his words of how he created Multiplication Rock, presented as a tribute to a most remarkable man.

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It can be no accident that Bob Dorough included the song “Because We’re Kids” on his album Beginning to See the Light. The piece not only sums up his attitude toward children, which led to his job as composer of the ABC-TV series “Schoolhouse Rock!” It reflects the relaxed image he projects, the open smile that reaches you even before the soothing Southern twang of his voice.

Intoning the words of Dr. Seuss, Dorough sings, “But we’ll grow up someday, and when we do I pray we just don’t grow in size and sound and just get bigger pound by pound. I’d hate to grow like some I know who push and shove us little kids [sniff] around.”

No chance of that now. Dorough has spent the past several years scoring “Schoolhouse Rock!” in which he teaches children math, grammar and civics in a respectful and entertaining way. Listeners have long associated him with jazz, from his work as an accompanist to his own 1957 classic on Bethlehem records, Devil May Care. But that challenge met, he turned to producing popular artists like Spanky and Our Gang and writing advertising jingles.

After a decade-long hiatus from the jazz world, his career has come full-circle and he’s back to doing some of his favorite things. The veteran of swing and New York City jam sessions has returned to nightclub performing (including a recent stint at Bradley’s in New York) and has released a new album—a live performance recorded in California with longtime associate and bassist Bill Takas.

The duo recorded Beginning to See the Light on their own label, Laissez-Faire, to achieve the artistic freedom they desired. The track from which the album receives its name—a Harry James, Duke Ellington composition—finds Dorough swinging on piano around Takas’s strong walking bass lines. Throughout the rest of the recording, Dorough livens the recording with his unique voice, a reedy sound that’s soft and thin as a whisper, spiced with a drawl that echoes his West Texas roots.

Born in Arkansas, Dorough fell in love with music while in high school, to the point of going back to school another year after graduation to take advantage of playing with various bands. He picked up piano by ear after discovering he could compose and hold down more jobs by playing that instrument, then headed for North Texas State at Denton to polish his skills. “It was the first college to put jazz on the curriculum,” he says. “It was just a hotbed of jazz.”

His salesman father had other ideas for his son. “I was a natural mathematician. My father said, ‘You could be an engineer ‘cause your math grades are so good.’”

But New York City beckoned. “I played in different bands and combos and mostly we jammed. We were always playing. It was a way of learning. And I also liked singing. I got into my own style of singing. I guess I pretty much formulated my own style at a fairly young age, although I had what I thought was a late start in music. I was interested in serious music, too. Composition was my major.”

Dorough’s late start may account for his affinity for children and his long life in the business. “I always endeavored to think young, act young and live young, and take care of myself. As I say, I felt I got a late start in music. I was drafted and was in the Army. All that threw me way behind schedule. I dropped out when I was 28 or so, working on a master’s degree I never got at Columbia. And I’m probably one of the few American boys who took a high school post-grad course.”

When jobs in his field ran thin, he turned to producing popular artists—Chad Mitchell, Roberta Flack, Spanky and Our Gang. He tried advertising work. That move gave him an exciting job and a whole new audience—children. “It’s like anything else. You make a contact and get a job, and if it’s good, you get another one,” he says of his introduction to “Schoolhouse Rock!” and its creator.

David McCall, president of the McCaffrey and McCall advertising agency in New York, faced a problem that Dorough was soon to solve with twelve songs later released as Multiplication Rock. “His idea was to set the multiplication tables to music. He got it from his own child, who couldn’t memorize the tables but he could sing along with Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles and memorize all the words. So my partner, Ben Tucker, claimed I was the man to do the job.

“Apparently they’d tried other New York City composers and they had gotten a kind of result they weren’t looking for, sort of a simplistic writing-down-to-the-children insipid approach. So I went to see them about it and that was it. Even though they were in the advertising business, they seemed prepared to develop this idea, which was nothing new, actually. It was a little bit new in that he [McCall] wanted the multiplication tables set to rock music. Everything was rock music in that year.”

Dorough calls the assignment “a rare opportunity, one of the most exciting commissions I’ve ever had, a chance to communicate with the younger generation. I didn’t know if it would be on record; I didn’t dream it would be on TV.

“I sort of laid back a couple of months. I didn’t want to go popping out obvious rhythmical tunes. So I just studied my math books. It’s strange. I’m a collector of mathematics books. I’m a mail-order freak. I’d see Fun with Games and Numbers and Mathematics for the Millions, well I would order the book. Maybe I wouldn’t even read it. When I got this assignment, I just came home and started cracking all these books. I was prepared for the job.”

He also received some help from his daughter, Aralee. “My daughter was just entering the grades where they studied math. It gave me a chance to try some things on her.”

While the outcome was supposed to be rock, Dorough found he had created a gentler sound. “Some of my friends said, ‘That’s not rock, that’s jazz. You snuck it in on them.’ I don’t know. It’s neither rock nor jazz.”

The advertising agency originally tried to market Multiplication Rock as a record and a book, but the agency’s animation department worked up a better deal for another client, ABC-TV. To date, the network has produced 25 3-minute films. Dorough makes several a year and works as the show’s musical producer and arranger.

Until now, Dorough has concentrated on writing and recording for some of the legends of jazz. His 1957 release, Devil May Care, featured himself and Miles Davis. The trumpeter later invited Dorough to compose and sing a number for The Sorcerer. Mel Torme and others have recorded Dorough’s “Comin’ Home Baby,” and the Fifth Dimension covered his “Winds of Heaven.”

Now he takes life easy on his 3-acre farm in the foothills of Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains, playing piano and flute duets with his daughter, lounging in flannel shirt and wool socks in his sparsely furnished home, an easy hour from the studios in New York. “I sort of fell in love with this part of the country. This reminds me a little of my boyhood in Arkansas. It’s similar terrain. Matter of fact, my grandfather used to be this far from the river there,” he says, pointing to the Delaware River.

As for the future, Dorough is enthused about the rerelease of Devil May Care, out of print until it was reissued as Yardbird Suite. His plans include performing, finishing the TV series, composing and working on a grander scale with an orchestra. He will continue to compose along traditional lines, even though he embraces jazz-rock fusion

“I think it was inevitable jazz and rock would gravitate toward each other.” The musicians in both camps, he says, were using improvisation. “I think music is just coming together. It’s like the whole culture has been fused by communications. I myself was always in love with exotic music of all kinds. I liked Indian music from India and I liked African music. And naturally I liked some classical music, too, what you would call modern classical or modern contemporary.

“Culturally, I can see this fantastic blooming of all elements and styles. I’m definitely all ears.”

Jeff Widmer is the author of the CW McCoy and the Brinker series of crime novels.

Bob Dorough entertaining children in the late 1970s (photo by Donald S. Fisher)

In search of the real McCoy

UK blogger Natalie Rowe, who gave Peak Season four stars, thinks Mila Kunis should play CW McCoy . . . if Candace and her crew ever make it to the big screen.

Natalie writes, “The thing that is most memorable to me about CW is her quick wit. To me, there is no other person that could give CW this unique sarcasm like Mila Kunis can in her roles. She can play the bad-ass independent lady but also add in a little sass and seductiveness.”

Sassy and seductive. . . . Is that how you see the young former detective who faces down kidnappers, assassins and tourists on a daily basis? And here I was thinking Scarlett Johansson on a motorcycle. Or Six Feet Under’s Rachel Anne Griffiths, or is that over the top?

Who do you think should play CW? Leave your comments here and we’ll revisit the question, with photos, in another post.

 

Mila Kunis

 

Scarlett Johansson

 

Rachel Griffiths

The Revolution Will Not Be Printed

It’s easy to believe that since print survived radio and television it will survive the Internet. After listening to Barry Dawson, I’m not so sure. Or to take a more nuanced approach, I’m not sure it will continue to influence the culture and the economy to the extent it has since Gutenberg invented movable type more than 500 years ago.

Certainly print works better for some content and some eyes, but not news. Its immediacy seeks out the fastest and most flexible medium, and digital tools deliver. Combine original content, new distribution channels and innovative marketing and you have a potentially profitable business, as well as an alternative to ink.

Barry DawsonThat brings us to Dawson, a resident of the West End of Monroe County, a rural area of the Pocono Mountains in Northeast Pennsylvania. Long inhabited by the descendants of German and Dutch settlers, the area best known for woodlands and resorts continues to transition to a bedroom community for metropolitan New York and New Jersey. Several papers, radio and television stations cover the region but shifts in the economy and the culture have gutted their newsrooms.

Enter the digital entrepreneur. Dawson grew up in the West End, moved to North Carolina and returned to take a job in radio promotion with a pair of stations in the nearby Lehigh Valley. He has local knowledge, knows how to bypass channel surfers by embedding commercial messages in programs and lives on his mobile phone. Combining those assets, he bought a police scanner, became a reluctant reporter and launched westendsupporter.com and westendradio101.com. He also integrated his site with accounts at Facebook and other networks as a way to drive traffic and measure results.

Dawson believes that with its speed to market, digital news will eventually replace printed news. It’s a natural fit. Blending content and commerce creates a viable business model. Only time and his bank account will prove him right. Meanwhile, here are five conclusions I’ve drawn from his venture:

  1. Digital trumps print for speed and relevance
  2. Mobile devices trump PCs for optimum news delivery
  3. Micro content beats state, national and international news for gaining followers
  4. In our attention-deficit culture, product integration trumps advertising
  5. For marketers, digital offers the precise measurement of the effectiveness of the ad spend.

Where do you find your news? And do you think print and the people who produce it will dwindle in importance?

As Technology Booms so Does Need for Simplicity

What’s cool to one person can leave others cold. Technology is like that. Some get excited by it. Others get tangled in it.

As homes incorporate more sophisticated technology, builders and designers have to question whether customers will be wowed by all of the gadgets or struggle to operate them. The question goes well beyond the old cliché of whether older eyes can read the buttons on a remote.

Some thought-leaders are addressing the issue.

“Boomers are a very diverse group,” said Anne Postle, AIA, owner of osmosis art and architecture in Colorado. “Many are quite tech savvy, but others don’t want technology that complicates their lives. Examples of this are controls that require that you get out the instruction manual whenever you want to adjust a light, AV controls that require that you adopt a teenager (who understands the remote) if you want to watch a movie, or any system that loses all of its pre-programmed settings when the power fails.

“Too often, the technology that is ‘old hat’ to the Millennials can be very frustrating to the boomer. Consider things like night path lights through the house on a motion sensor, charging stations for phones and tablets and outlets that include a USB port for electronics. Smart builders will take a cue from Steve Jobs and offer technology that is intuitive, solves problems and truly simplifies the Boomers’ life.”

Home smart home

The home of the future will look like the home of today, only with a few more gadgets.

By 2020 experts believe our homes and appliances will contain more advanced technology but that many of us will prefer working with non-digital systems. That’s according to a survey of 1,021 Internet experts, researchers and observers conducted recently by the Pew Research Center.

In other words, predictions of the demise of the analog home run counter to behavior, much like those predictions of the paperless office.

“Hundreds of tech analysts foresee a future with ‘smart’ devices and environments that make people’s lives more efficient,” the Pew Center reported. “But they also note that current evidence about the uptake of smart systems is that the costs and necessary infrastructure changes to make it all work are daunting. And they add that people find comfort in the familiar, simple, ‘dumb’ systems to which they are accustomed.”

Smart technology can manage systems that control heating and air conditioning, power, appliances, security, entertainment and communications. Some systems allow remote monitoring and access by way of mobile devices.

Slow digital adoption could reflect the age of homeowners. Younger people who quickly adopt technology haven’t had the years to save for a down payment. The “typical” age of a homebuyer has remained at 39 years since 2007, according to the National Association of Realtors. Census figures show that while 43% of households with a householder under the age of 35 own a home, 81.6% of those with a householder between the ages of 55 and 64 do.

In the survey some experts believe homeowners will adopt technology that saves energy and money. Others think that for the moment the issue is a “marketing mirage.” Aside from programmable thermostats and Internet-enabled security cameras, which technology will nudge homeowners toward the digital domicile?

Working for life

The headline grabbed my attention: “The Secret to a Successful Retirement: Don’t Retire.” It adorned an article on The Street about a study by Boston College’s Center for Retirement Research: “The best financial advice for the growing number of Baby Boomers eagerly approaching retirement is: ‘Don’t.'”

The study found that a combination of depressed home prices, poor stock market returns, inadequate savings and diminishing pensions means that many people approaching retirement have one alternative: to work longer.

That wasn’t what I was expecting to read. From the headline I thought the article would take a contrarian point of view: that some people find fulfillment in work and would miss that in retirement, along with other benefits like socialization and lottery pools. That busy people seem happier than lazy ones, or just don’t have as much time to complain. That spending more time on Facebook or hugging the TV remote doesn’t lead to a spiritual awakening.

Look at Paul McCartney. He just turned 70 and he’s still performing.

If we believe what people say they’ll do–a big if–most Americans plan to work past age 65–some 74 percent, according to a study released in May by economists at Wells Fargo Securities LLC. Most seem worried that the Great Recession has blown a hole in savings and retirement plans, but I think the reasons for hanging on run deeper.

Work is as much about engagement as it is about money. Yes we need to pay the mortgage but we also need to stay sharp and work helps us to apply that focus throughout our lives, on and off the job. It’s good discipline.

So the next time someone asks when you’re going to retire say “never.” They’ll think you need the money. You’ll know the real payoff.

Jeff Widmer

Plumbing the list of world’s richest characters

Business magazines have this running battle to list the world’s richest people. As if that wasn’t enough, in April Forbes listed the richest fictional characters.

Topping the list is Carlisle Cullen, patriarch of the Cullen coven of vampires in the Twilight series of novels. As the magazine put it, “Cullen, age 370, has accumulated a fortune of $34.1 billion — much of it from long-term investments made with the aid of his adopted daughter Alice, who picks stocks based on her ability to see into the future.” If only we could do that, we could write for Barron’s. Also on the short list: Thurston Howell III (the character played by Jim Backus on the CBS television comedy “Gilligan’s Island”) and Scrooge McDuck (Uncle Scrooge to his nephews Huey, Dewey and Louie).

MarioTo commemorate the release of “Iron Man 2,” Ranker devised a list of the richest comic book heroes and wealthiest villains of all time. Its top five? A surprising group that includes Black Panther, Namor the Sub-Mariner, Adrien Veidt (Ozymandias), Batman and Lex Luthor.

Now comes word from Forbes of the five highest-earning videogame characters, and topping the list is none other than Mario, Nintendo’s plumber who has leaped ahead of the pack since his debut in the 1981 arcade game Donkey Kong. Also on the list: Pikachu, the voice of John Madden, Sonic the Hedgehog and Link from the “Legend of Zelda.”

As Mario would say, “Yahoo!”

Everything I know I learned from TV

In the novel Tell No One, Harlan Coben’s POV character floats an intriguing theory: “It’s an amazing thing really, but when you think about it, we learn life’s most important lessons from TV.”

Such as how to fire a gun, spot a tail or read someone their rights. Or if you’re not the star of a suspense novel, how to look smashing in jeans, score on a first date or cook a meal even the North Koreans would appreciate.

When education and religion reach their saturation limits, television eagerly fills in the blanks. It teaches us how to deal with alien races (“Star Trek”), bask in constant applause (“Seinfeld”) and talk to women (“Xena: the Warrior Princess”). It shows us how to impress our buddies with our athletic prowess while balancing on a bar stool (“SportsCenter”).

jetsons-video-phoneI’m not even going to get into the absurdities of life we’ve seen paraded across screen: Balloon Boy, OJ, Watergate, the Lewinski scandal, the McCarthy hearings. Maybe the revolution will be televised.

On the other hand, we can find practical ways to improve ourselves and our property by installing hardwood floors, landscaping the backyard and learning to speaking another language with our furry friends on Sesame Street—especially if Bob Vila stops by. With the advent of the Wii, we can even get stay fit without leaving the apartment. Jane Fonda meets the Jetsons.

Television has shown us the best we have to offer (the Olympics) and the other stuff (Jerry Springer and “The Price is Right”). We’ve seen the struggle, triumph and greed born of a capitalist society. TV has challenged (“The Twilight Zone”), horrified (live coverage of the 9/11 attacks) and, as always, entertained (the Marx Brothers and the early days of MTV come to mind).

I’ve learned a few things while watching the middle screen over the years: compassion from the cast of “M*A*S*H,” determination from crime shows like “Colombo” and “Monk” and the importance of character from “Foyle’s War,” Anthony Horowitz’s brilliant saga of life on the British home front during World War II.

What lessons have you learned from TV?