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)

Phil Woods rides again

This week, jazz musicians will honor one of the greatest alto saxophone players in memory, the late Phil Woods. This year’s Celebration of the Arts, the annual outdoor music festival in Delaware Water Gap, Pa., is dedicated to Phil, and his friends and admirers will gather tonight for a benefit concert to continue his legacy.

Forty-one years ago, I sat with Phil in his home in the Pocono Mountains for an interview published on Sept. 29, 1975 in The Pocono Record. He’d already played with the greats of jazz and two years later would conquer the world of pop music with his lyric solo for Billy Joel’s “Just the Way You Are.”

This is my contribution to his memory.

Phil WoodsPhil Woods is alive and well-known (in jazz circles) and living in your back yard.

The alto saxophonist has 30 records to his credit, a grant to compose a major work for sax and orchestra and a cool manner smoothed by years of roadwork with Count Basie and myriad jazz greats.

He lives in Delaware Water Gap in a modest white clapboard house with his lady Jill and at least five cats, composing his three-movement “Sun Suite” in front of a blackened stone fireplace in his vaulting living room.

He began writing the suite under a grant by the National Endowment for the Arts; it comes to fruition in October when Woods, his quartet and an orchestra tape it for RCA Records.

Like many musicians, artists and writing living in the Poconos, Woods’ work is known nationally and internationally, yet he camouflages himself here, lays back and enjoys the scenery for a month, then flies through Japan and Holland, touring jazz festivals or debuting a new work.

He left home (Springfield, Mass.) at 15, powered by Art Tatum and later Charlie Parker, jazz jingling in his blood, hauling a horn willed to him by his uncle. He hit the road with the Birdland All-Stars tour, petrified but hungry to learn with his heroes—Count Basie, Sarah Vaughan, Bud Powell—riding the band bus and playing the southern Tobacco Warehouse circuit in the late ‘50s.

Living on the road out of a bus taught him about life, he feels. “There are still some big bands out there. But there’s no place for young people to get that experience, although the colleges have tried to replace that in a sense with the stage band situation. But that doesn’t teach you too much about life. That teaches you about the music, but not the invaluable things about living.

“You just keep your mouth shut and watch what the veterans do. I think that’s ideal, don’t you? Any man who’s been doing it five times as long as you have must have something to say.”

images-coverWoods has studied at both schools, trekking from Bach to bebop, from four years at Julliard through two decades of big bands and his own quartet. With a common twine called jazz running through his career, he has turned out eclectic potions like “Charity” on his 1973 album for Testament (“This is my boogaloo period.”) and “Images,” his latest LP for RCA with Michel Legrand and his orchestra.

His phrases are lithe, never overblown or dirty. He ranges from the cool (“The Windmills of Your Mind”) to the big and brassy to the sporadic. (The experimental sounds on the Testament album Woods said didn’t go over in a nightclub in the San Fernando Valley.)

Woods’ rather eclectic life seems to give his music its dynamics.

“I used to interview American jazz artists for a French magazine, a jazz magazine,” Woods said as he lit a cigarette and settle back in a chair in his living room.

That was during his 1968-72 stay in Paris, a trip Woods feels everyone should take. “It’s one of the most magnificent cities in the world. If you’re an artist, you owe it to yourself to go see it—why it’s different—so you can relate to what you have here. You need that contrast,” he said in a gravely baritone voice.

A musician before he found an instrument, Woods stumbled into the field. “I could whistle and make up a melody. I couldn’t figure out why I couldn’t sit down at the piano and just make up stuff. I was totally frustrated, and it would just sound terrible.

© Garth Woods“But I remember the attraction. That’s the reason I got the saxophone, because my uncle died. And when I was evidently nine, ten or younger, I would go look at his sax. It just intrigued me, all that white—the pearl and the gold, you know. I just loved to touch it.”

He was hooked after one lesson, took a four-year crack at classical clarinet and composition (“I had dreams of perhaps playing Mozart but I found out that was not my road.”) and gravitated toward jazz.

With a photographic memory for a melody, Woods set out to imitate his heroes of the big band era. “I guess you have to imitate before you can stretch out. That’s how you learn how to play. Essentially you can’t teach jazz, but a great way to help a student learn how to play is to have him learn how to play different solos.”

That background and the awe Woods says he feels for the jazz greats who have survived the decades (“It’s easy to be a swinger when you’re 26; let me check you out when you’re 46.”) led him into his present brainchild, “Sun Suite.”

“It will be a piece that everybody will be able to play, hopefully. It is meant to be used—not just recorded once and discarded. Hopefully published and used in schools. I’m trying to construct it in such a way it can be played with almost any instrumentation.”

Lighting another cigarette, Woods described his round-the-world tour of jazz festivals, culminating with the recording of “Images” before the Concord Jazz Festival this year in California.

But can he describe in words what his music’s about?

“No. Only when I have a horn in my mouth.”