Bob Dorough passed away on April 23, 2018 at the age of 94. That’s not a name most people recognize, but if you are an American between, say, 30 and 50, you are intimately familiar with his work and may not even realize it. In fact, you may owe him a debt of gratitude.
Dorough toiled as a jazz musician for years in moderate obscurity, primarily as an arranger and conductor who played a bit on the side. He had a few releases of his own, but it wasn’t until he started collaborating with others that he could claim a few success stories. He worked with a guy named Miles Davis (you may have heard of him) in 1966, composing “Nothing Like You” with Davis and adding the distinctive vocals.
From there Dorough went on to record producing rock and roll with a side of jazz arrangement, working with a pop group whose sound, I think, personified the late 1960s, Spanky and Our Gang. He produced the 1968 LP Like To Get To Know You, which contains the title track. I’ve thought about starting a sub-series on this blog called “Pop Perfection,” and I’d submit “Like To Get To Know You” as the first entry. The instrumentation is that wonderful. Dorough left his signature all over the LP – in fact, if you listen very closely, you’ll hear Dorough’s distinctive voice at the end of the album version of “Sunday Morning,” which is a track that I recommend you give a listen to anyway if you’re not familiar with it.
And then, lightning struck. In 1969 ABC was looking to add some educational programming to its Saturday morning cartoon lineup. Dorough was among the musicians asked for ideas, specifically with setting the multiplication tables to music. His first effort, “Three is a Magic Number,” may be one of the most memorable of all of the math compositions that later became known as Schoolhouse Rock. (Although I will argue that Little Twelvetoes looks an awful lot like Tom Petty in the mid 80s.) Dorough got the nod to direct the entire series, which he did from 1972 to 1996. He started with “Multiplication Rock” and added “Grammar Rock,” “America Rock,” and so on.
There’s an awful lot of Schoolhouse Rock that I could pick to talk about. The short pieces on the show were far more memorable than the cartoons they surrounded, and in one case allowed a bunch of us to graduate high school. In our junior year we were required to pass a test on the Constitution in order to graduate high school. (Ah, the days of required civics education, which desperately needs a comeback.) One of the questions on the exam required us to write, from memory, the Preamble. As if on cue, the room began humming the melody from the episode of “America Rock” where Dorough, jazz musician Blossom Dearie, and others sang the words. We all passed, demonstrating the power of television as an educational device.
The songs were just damned good. “Conjunction Junction” is a jam, and at random times “Rufus Xavier Sarsaparilla” will pop into my head, usually when saying nouns over and over really brings me down. The math songs are legendary, too, and find me a person in their 40s who doesn’t hear “Interjections” and shout “Hooray! I’m for the other team.” In 1996 a collection was released called Schoolhouse Rock Rocks, featuring grunge bands covering the songs. You’ll never hear “Three Is a Magic Number” the same way again after hearing Blind Melon do it.
So why the song in question? I indicated that Bob Dorough’s voice is a distinctive one. It seemed appropriate to single out the song where he does all of the singing, if sped up a little bit for the part of the young kids. I’m also in final exam grading season, a time when students are turning in papers and essays, and I’m seriously considering bringing the entire “Grammar Rock” series with me to campus when I return in the fall. I honestly think that we were better writers because of Schoolhouse Rock, and an entire generation has Bob Dorough to thank for it.