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)

The luckiest people in the world

Writers who need writers are the luckiest people in the world.

We build on the work of other writers. We draw inspiration from their creations, and their success. We’re usually too busy building our own careers to notice.

It’s time to notice.

Women-Writers-FrontYou don’t know me but I would like to thank you for helping to create the character of CW McCoy in Peak Season, a series I hope someday will approach the benchmark you’ve set. You didn’t just paste male characteristics onto women or use violence to attract attention. You were the trailblazers, the authors who turned the noir subgenre on its head and ushered in a generation of smart, tough, proficient female investigators.

That said, here is my list of writers whose female characters have traded cookies for cojones:

  • Sara Paretsky, for creating V.I. Warshawski, a character whose toughness serves her sense of justice
  • S.J. Rozan, for her evocative sense of place in the Lydia Chin outings
  • Lee Goldberg, for the deft portrayal of a secondary character, Natalie Teeger, in his series of Adrian Monk novels
  • Julia Spencer-Fleming, for Rev. Claire Fergusson’s moral compass
  • Laurie R. King, for the daring intelligence of Mary Russell
  • Sue Grafton, for revealing the conflicted love life of Kinsey Millhone
  • Janet Evanovich, for the push and pull of drama and humor in the Stephanie Plum novels
  • Marcia Muller, for Sharon McCone’s allegiance to family and friends
  • And Jennifer Crusie, for giving her leads a heartbeat and not just a pulse.

Writers who need writers are the luckiest writers in the world. Thanks to you, I’m one of them.

‘Not just a gun and a badge’

“Police officers are human,” Training Officer Jeffrey Dunn tells members of the Sarasota Police Department’s Citizens Academy. “Some of them do stupid things sometimes.”

And some of them do good and brave things. Genevieve Judge, the department’s public information officer, wants to get both of those messages to the media and the public. She knows that a fast, honest response to a negative situation can build trust. And that publicizing the positive things officers do can help build understanding and goodwill.

“There are good police officers and there are bad police officers,” Judge says. “It’s how you handle the situation that people will remember. We can ignore it or we can stay in front of it. Even if we’re not proud of it, I’d rather people hear about it from us so they get the whole story.”

Media savvy
To that end, Judge, a veteran television reporter and videographer, launched the department into the world of social sharing when she came on board in 2013, creating a dialog with residents on the major networks. With the backing of Chief Bernadette DiPino, she routinely posts on Facebook, Twitter (@SarasotaPD), YouTube,  and Instagram.

Judge covers all major public events, does ride-alongs with officers called Tweet from the Beat and shoots video for initiatives like Click It or Ticket and Shop with a Cop, a program for children that runs around the holidays. She also fields questions and requests for arrest reports from journalists who also try to balance coverage, often pitting citizens against the police and putting the department on the defense.

Like the academy itself, the social media feed gives residents a behind-the-scenes look at the department and its personnel. It helps them balance the news they see and hear from other sources. “I want people to see it on our social networks before they see it anywhere else,” Judge says. “That way we own it and it comes from a trusted source.”

The publicity serves another purpose. “It shows our officers are not just a gun and a badge. They are human.”

Street smart
No one know that better than Jeff Dunn, who started with the Bradenton Police Department in 1992 and has worked on the K-9, SWAT and field training teams. In addition to organizing the citizen’s academy, he trains recruits and experienced officers in diversity, firearms, non-lethal weapons and law-enforcement policies and procedures.

“It’s not the most dangerous job but it’s the most rewarding. In police work, anything that goes wrong comes back to training. We make sure everything is correct and accurate and up to date.”

Firing-range practice is essential but training must encompass real-world situations. That’s why Dunn uses scenario-based training, creating events that are realistic, such as putting officers in situations that require them to use defensive tactics. “Not many police officers are attacked by paper targets.”

I’m sure there are days when Genevieve Judge feels the same way.

Next: defensive tactics.

Jeff Widmer is the author of The Spirit of Swiftwater and other works.

Jeff Dunn tours the SWAT ready room with members of the SPD Citizens Academy

Jeff Dunn tours the SWAT ready room with members of the SPD Citizens Academy

In Sarasota, train for the worst, hope for the best

Sgt. Daniel Weinsberg trains by watching footage of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Sgt. Bryan Graham practices by building bombs with Play-Doh instead of C-4. Officer Tammy Featherstone role plays a scenario where she’s talking to a suicidal veteran with traumatic brain injury.

When they aren’t training, they’re confronting protesters, removing explosive devices and rescuing hostages, always dealing with a high level of danger, to the public and themselves. They accept the risks and seem to enjoy their work.

Just another day at the office for three specialized units of the Sarasota Police Department—Emergency Response, Explosive Materials and Crisis Negotiation. The three team leaders brought their equipment and expertise to the Citizen’s Academy in the third of a series of 12 classes that give civilians a glimpse of life behind the badge.

First up, Sgt. Weinsberg, team leader for the the department’s contingent on the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office Emergency Response Team. The ERT deploys during times of emergency or crisis when there is a high probability of criminal or civil unrest. Think hurricanes, riots and, yes, weapons of mass destruction. It consists of three teams from the sheriff’s office and one from the city, 10 officers per team.

Viewers who watched protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle will remember cordons of police with body armor called turtle gear wading into the crowds. “That’s what we don’t do,” Weinsberg said. The ERU doesn’t even suit up if it isn’t necessary to preserving life because that image alone can trigger a backlash.

Many of the drills involve learning how to not to respond when provoked. “As one of our training sergeants said, ‘You don’t want to be on TV.’”

As leader of the Explosive Materials Unit (EMU), or bomb squad, Sgt. Graham and team have a different but equally perilous situation to defuse. They use a host of equipment, from protective suits that weigh 90 lbs. to the Remotec ANDROS F6A robot. It has a telescoping camera, a claw to position an X-ray device and the ability to climb stairs.

The team’s primary job is to remove the bomb to a remote location and detonate it, often with a charge of highly pressurized water. No Danger UXB guesswork about which wires to cut first. But in the end, someone has to get close to the explosive device . . . if only to pick up the pieces for FBI analysis.

Officer Tammy Featherstone, a member of the Crisis Negotiation Unit (CNU), deals with another kind of danger—threats to the lives of hostages and potential suicide victims. The CNU deploys two negotiators to every incident. The first talks to the suspect, the second takes notes and feeds that information to intelligence officers.

Her goal is a peaceful end to the situation. “We want to bring everyone home.”

Next: SWAT and the dive team.

Jeff Widmer is the author of The Spirit of Swiftwater and other works.

Sgt. Bryan Graham and the equipment used by the Sarasota Police Department's Explosive Materials Unit. The robot used to remove ordinance sits on the far right. On the screen, an X-ray of a victim-activated bomb.

Sgt. Bryan Graham and the equipment used by the Sarasota Police Department’s Explosive Materials Unit. The robot used to remove ordinance sits on the far right. On screen, an X-ray of a victim-activated bomb.

 

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?

The age of distracted viewing

Half of all cell phone owners use their devices while watching TV, according to a new study by the Pew Research Center. Owners use their phones to engage with content, avoid advertising or interact with others. The report is based on a survey of 2,254 adults via landline and mobile phones.

The numbers drop dramatically with the increase in an owner’s age.

First the general stats. Of the 88% of American adults who own cell phones:

  • 38% use their phone to keep themselves occupied during commercials or breaks in something they are watching
  • 22% check whether something they’ve heard on television is true or not
  • 6% use their phones to vote for reality show contestants.

“Taken together, that works out to 52% of all adult cell owners who are ‘connected viewers’—meaning they took part in at least one of these activities in the 30 days preceding our survey,” the center reports.

A deeper dive into the numbers shows that as you age, you are less likely to use a mobile phone while watching TV:

  • While 81% of mobile phone owners in the 18-24 age bracket use their phone while watching TV, only 29% of those aged 55-64 and 16% of adults over age 65 multitask.
  • 73% of the 18-24 crowd uses phones to distract themselves during commercials while the numbers for the two older groups drop to 16% and 9%, respectively.
  • 45% of the 18-24 cohort uses the phone to fact check TV content while, in the two older groups, those numbers plummet to 8% and 4%, respectively.
  • Only 1% of adults over age 65 see what others are saying online about the program they’re watching. The figure rises to 28% for the youngest age group.

The numbers are similar for owners who use their mobile devices to interact with friends or contribute thoughts about televised content. In the 18-24 group, 28% post comments, 43% exchange test messages with others watching the same program and 7% vote for a reality show contestant. Compare that with adults over age 65, who rarely post comments (1%), seldom exchange text messages with other viewers (4%) and don’t vote for contestants (3%).

What does that say about engagement among older viewers? Are they too old fashioned to use new devices or do they have longer attention spans? Are they less inquisitive or more patient? What do you think?

Jeff Widmer

Retro TV takes wing with ‘Pan Am’

Hot on the heels of the critically acclaimed drama “Mad Men” comes the high-flying “Pan Am,” ABC-TV’s retro look at the swinging sixties. Debuting this fall the show stars Christina Ricci, Karine Vanasse, Kelli Garner and Margot Robbie. New York magazine is reporting that Jonah Lotan, who plays an ambitious new pilot, is being replaced.

ABC bills the show as full of “passion, jealousy and espionage. In this modern world, air travel represents the height of luxury and Pan Am is the biggest name in the business. The planes are glamorous, the pilots are rock stars and the stewardesses are the most desirable women in the world.”

The executive producer and writer is Jack Orman, who served in similar capacities on “ER” and “JAG.”

The show’s appeal may lie in its contrast with air travel today. No doubt the writers will handle body searches differently than the Transportation Security Administration. As for the soundtrack, producers have chosen the perfect backdrop for a martini-loving generation, Frank Sinatra’s “Come Fly with Me.”

Hopefully the show will fare better than the airline. A cultural icon of the 1960s, Pan American World Airways operated from 1927 until 1991. After declaring bankruptcy that year its assets were acquired by Delta Air Lines.

This writing life

Ira Glass, host of radio’s “This American Life,” talks about the building blocks of a great story in a series of four videos on YouTube. His advice on crafting a compelling story works for any format, print, audio or video: start with an anecdote, not just a theme. Have one thing happen after another. Then let someone reflect on the importance of what they’ve just experienced.

Perhaps Glass’ most crucial piece of advice is the most obvious and over-looked: trial and error leads to success. Or as Glass puts it, “The most important thing you can do is do a lot of work.”

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?