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 March of 1979 (photo courtesy of Donna S. Fisher; used with permission)

Fall in: men, housework, and the will to do dishes

Is there a husband in the house?

No one ever mistook Mr. Mom for Superman. No lavish praise for the stay-at-home dad. No kudos for bucking the stereotype. Dads who buy groceries in the middle of the day look less like superheroes than the unemployed. Those who leave work at five to start dinner feel like corporate welfare cheats.

As I read Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, I couldn’t help concluding that the burden of housekeeping will continue to fall on women until cultural expectations change for their mates. For men who struggle with the issue of leadership at home as well as work, I offer a few observations based on the chapter titles in Sandberg’s book:

  • Fill the ambition gap. “Men are expected to be ambitious,” Sandberg writes. “Women are expected to be nice.” Men can be both. Offer to split the chores. And when your spouse has to work late, don’t carp when she gets home. She’s heard enough complaining at the office.
  • Set the table, don’t just sit at it. Arrive home early and make dinner, maybe on alternate nights. On the days when your spouse cooks, offer to wash the dishes.
  • It’s a jungle gym, not a ladder. The kids were your idea as well as hers. Offer to split the chauffeur work. Watching the ballgame instead of reading to your kids will feel better now, but your children have long memories, and one day they’ll be taking care of you.
  • Speak your truth. If you feel a disproportionate amount of the work is falling on you, don’t slam a door you don’t really want to close. Talk about it with your spouse. She might give you a “now you know how it feels” look but eventually she’ll realize that she can’t function effectively at work without your support at home.
  • The myth of doing it all. Now you know what women have known for centuries: you can have it all but not all at once. There isn’t time to clean, cook, take care of the kids and work on your doctorate. You’ll fall asleep during one of those activities. “Instead of perfection,” Sandberg writes, “we should aim for sustainable and fulfilling. Success is making the best choices we can . . . and accepting them.”

So lean into your family and home. So lean into your family and home. Only then will you truly become the man of the house.

Are boomers betting the farm on the house?

Chances are you won’t retire debt-free like your parents’ generation.

That’s the conclusion of a study by the National Center for Policy Analysis (NCPA), a nonprofit, nonpartisan public policy research organization dedicated to promoting free-market alternatives to government regulation. The study compared the pre-retirement spending habits of today’s middle-aged (45-54) and older workers (55-64) with those in the same age groups 20 years ago. It found that more boomers carry mortgages, and spend a higher percentage of their income servicing that debt, than their predecessors.

Here are some of the findings:

  • Home mortgages comprise almost three-quarters of all consumer debt, and three-fourths of middle-aged and older workers’ households have mortgages.
  • From 1990 to 2010 the share of expenditures on housing — including principal, mortgage interest, taxes, maintenance and insurance — for these age groups increased about 25 percent.
  • For 55 to 64 year olds, nearly half of this increase was due to an increase in the interest portion of housing expenditures — even though mortgage interest rates have fallen over time.
  • The portion of income boomers spend on mortgage interest increased 47 percent, from 4.3 percent to 6.3 percent.

Housing debt has risen for several reasons, according to NCPA senior fellow Pamela Villarreal:

  • Since a higher percentage of pre-retirees purchased their first home at a later age, many will still be paying for their homes when they retire.
  • In the mid-1990s, the Federal Housing Authority allowed more borrowers to qualify for loans with lower down payments, bumping up the size of those loans.
  • Instead of paying off their mortgages, many baby boomers borrowed against the equity in their homes.

And then there are the effects of the Great Recession on boomers’ children.

“Fifty-nine percent of these parents are providing financial support to adult children who are no longer in school,” Villarreal said. “Nearly one-third has paid off student loans for their children.”

As they say in Vegas, never bet against the house.