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

Juggling the multiple voices in our heads

In Part 1 of our interview with  Peak Season narrator Pamela Almand, she talked about how a career in flying helped her second career as a narrator take off. In Part 2 she hones in on the joys and trials of audiobook narration. Pam and I talked about her career and her company, The Captain’s Voice, via email in late October.

Who are some of your favorite authors and why?

I’ve always loved suspense and thrillers. Dave Baldacci, Harlan Coben, Vince Flynn, Grisham, Brad Thor. . . . Unfortunately, male suspense authors don’t often use female narrators unless, like in Peak Season, their protagonist is a woman. I love the opportunity to narrate strong female protagonists like CW McCoy. That is where my strengths and deeper voice can really shine, and I love books where I get to add a touch of sarcasm or sassiness to the character.

I also really enjoy non-fiction from Thomas Sowell, Bill Bryson, Charles Krauthammer and others, but don’t have a lot of time to read them. I’d love to narrate any of their books, though, and that is where a lot of documentary and e-learning work helps me. The non-fiction author has a purpose and motive for writing and my job is to capture his or her passion and enthusiasm for their subject matter. And I’d love to narrate Ann Coulter. Although I don’t always agree with her, I love the combination of dry wit, snarkiness and intelligence with which she writes.

Pam Almand recordingDo you have a favorite book or project?

That’s the toughest question yet, Jeff. I can honestly say I’ve enjoyed just about all my projects as new and interesting learning opportunities, with the possible exception of a very dry, 10-hour narration on rules and regs on the handling of toxic chemicals (but it paid very, very well, so I’m not complaining.)

Which characters are your favorites to play?

Strong female protagonists with many facets to their emotions and personalities . . . and I always enjoy doing over-the-top characters where I can play with crazy accents and dialects.

How do you prepare to perform an audio piece?

Since I love to read, and read fairly fast, many times I’ll have read a book in its entirety before I decide whether to audition for it. If not, I’ll read the book and annotate it at the same time; each character has a distinctive voice, and many times you don’t find out details about it when the character’s first introduced. Halfway through the book, there might be a note that “the slight hint of her German background was obvious when she shouted at him” or “that morning his high whiny voice just drove her nuts.”

I’ll also practice a particular voice I want to use for a character and record a sentence or two for reference and make a separate audio file for each character who doesn’t appear regularly.

Then I jump into the studio and start telling the story, to myself more than the listener.

When you’re narrating a work with multiple characters, how do differentiate among them?

I mark them with individual highlight colors and notations on characteristics I need to know and I kinda try to feel out each major character in different emotions in the voice I’ve chosen for them, if that makes any sense.

And I don’t try to sound just like a man but only to suggest the difference through a bit of gravel perhaps, a flatter delivery, maybe a more resonant delivery. One of the best things I heard from Pat Fraley in a coaching session was that men don’t all have low voices, women don’t all have high voices. Duh. It seems obvious but it’s a common misinterpretation. Pat is a great coach for the sheer number of distinct sounds he can produce from that smiling mouth of his.

What new and exciting projects do you have coming up?

The release of Peak Season in audiobook is the most exciting right now. Lots of marketing and promo for that and a couple of other audiobooks. And I have a documentary piece coming up for a Christian non-profit on sex trafficking as well as a United Nations video directed by a wonderful client in Barcelona. And then the usual smattering of other work that comes up in a normal week.

And, of course, I’m eagerly awaiting CW McCoy’s newest adventures. I love this woman and love getting to live her life vicariously narrating your novels.

Flying high with the voice of CW McCoy

Pamela Almand used to pilot 747s for a living. Now she’s flying high with a second career as narrator and voiceover actor.

The voice of CW McCoy in Peak Season, Pam has a voice and delivery perfectly suited to strong female leads in the mystery/suspense genre. I’m impressed with how she captures the spirit of CW McCoy and imbues each character with a unique voice. We hear the anguish of Anita Church and the flippant Jersey girl in CW’s neighbor, Cheryl Finzi. As for the male voices, Pam renders them with suitable gravitas but avoids descending into caricature. Hers is an expressive reading that captures every nuance of the dialog.

I interviewed Pam about her career and her company, The Captain’s Voice, via email in late October. Here, in Part 1, she talks about how a career in flying has helped her second career as a narrator take off. In Part 2, which will post later, she hones in on the joys and trials of audiobook narration.

Tell us a bit about the path you took to a career in voice acting and audiobook narration.

My career path has really run the gamut. After a BFA degree in graphic design from Colorado State, I took a flying lesson and got completely hooked. Although at the time there were no female airline pilots, I abandoned the art degree and built my flight time quickly. I did everything from flying single-engine aircraft solo across the Atlantic to being a production test pilot for a business jet manufacturer and eventually became an airline pilot.

In 1995, I was asked to do a national Tylenol TV commercial—fun and very lucrative—and that cascaded to jobs here and there: spots for Northwest Airlines, narrating training videos, doing occasional narration for clients all over the world, all the while toying with the idea of a full-time voiceover career.

When I had to temporarily stop flying for medical reasons, I built a professional recording studio and built my occasional hobby into a full-time business. Although I wasn’t able to go back to flying and finally retired this year, I’ve been tremendously blessed to have had two careers that I passionately love.

Pam Almand in uniformYou piloted a commercial airliner. How has that influenced your audio work?

You know, the perseverance and drive and just plain hard work it took to get on with a major international airline as a woman has served me well in building this business. And as a 747 captain flying all over the world, I caught a lot of grief and teasing from my male colleagues, which helped me develop a thick skin and a sense of humor, traits I find useful in just about anything I’ve ever accomplished.

The most tangible carryover from flying to voiceover is the asset, for a female pilot, of having a low-pitched voice. I think after hearing a few high, squeaky female voices on the radio frequencies I unconsciously deepened my tone, not only for the added gravitas, but for that air of calm authority you expect from an airline captain. I never added the stereotyped Chuck Yeager drawl, though.

And although English is the required aviation language, excellent diction is as essential in international aviation communications as it is for professional voiceover and audiobooks. Think about trying to radio your situation to a Chinese or Russian air traffic controller.

How does audiobook narration differ from your other projects?

Audiobook narration is far more of a storytelling style than normal voiceover work. And in commercials, e-learning, video narration and other voiceover work, I’m rarely called upon to be a male character or to carry on a conversation with myself.

What’s the most challenging part of your job?

I truly think, to me, fictional audiobooks are a great challenge. You have such an enormous wealth of characters, personalities and voices possible in a span of an 8-12 hour book, it’s a job to keep them straight, to jump from character to character, and simply to keep the stamina required to do hours of recording without the energy fading.

My other voiceover work is broken up into 30-second, 60-second TV or radio spots, shorter narrations, phone messaging systems, e-learning projects (which can sometimes get as long as an audiobook) or videogame voices and it breaks up the recording and editing sessions into much shorter blocks. And, of course, those usually only involve being me.

What do you like best about your job?

That’s a hard one. What I think I’m most passionate about, though, is the variety of subject matter I get to read and learn about.

As a case in point, I had a week where I voiced the phone messaging system for The Hotels and Casinos of Monte Carlo; signed a contract to record a contemporary Christian romance audiobook called Come To Me Alive; narrated a series on medicinal marijuana; recorded pickups for a national infomercial for CamiShaper by Genie; and was the voice of Abraham’s 95-year-old wife Sara for a Biblical video game called Stained Glass. (I wasn’t sure if I should be flattered when they loved my audition for that one.)

Do you have any disasters you’d care to share?

Oh, many, but my clients are loyal and the only harm has been to my pride. On one of my very first audiobooks, a reviewer on Amazon said she couldn’t stand my voice and couldn’t listen to the rest of the book. Ouch. I later found everybody gets these occasionally, so I just worked on that thick-skin-sense-of-humor trait…but also modified a couple of things based on her other comments. I can learn from the nastiest of reviewers as well as the positive ones.

And, of course, I look back on some of my earlier work and cringe at things sometimes, but I do try to never stop growing and learning and honing my voice and my craft. I always learn from coaching sessions with Pat Fraley, Johnny Heller, Carol Monda, Marc Cashman, Paul Ruben and other narrators I really admire.

Next: juggling multiple personalities without going crazy.

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.

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

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?