Anyone whose childhood began in or after the early 1970s probably knows at least one or two “Schoolhouse Rock!” songs, the ones that taught children multiplication tables, civics lessons and basic grammar. In fact, reading that sentence probably has you humming one right now, maybe “Conjunction Junction” or “Electricity, Electricity,” and it now will be stuck in your head all day.
Sorry about that.
But even “Schoolhouse Rock!” devotees might not know of Bob Dorough, the accomplished musician and composer behind most of those tunes. Dorough died Monday at his home in Mount Bethel, Pa.
His 94 years of life were packed with a Forrest Gump-esque career that brought him in contact with several historical icons and eventually launched him into writing educational earworms for ABC in between experimental jazz records.
He was born in Arkansas and mostly raised in Texas, but his life eventually brought him through Paris, New York City and Los Angeles. He played between sets for Lenny Bruce. He was the musical director for Sugar Ray Robinson, when the boxer — considered one of the sport’s all-time bests — decided to give music a go. He played with Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. He worked with beat poet Allen Ginsberg on an album of poems by Ginsberg and William Blake set to music.
He was a successful if under-heard jazz musician. But his commercial break came in 1971, when he was first asked to “set the multiplication tables to music.”
David McCall, a New York advertising executive, had noticed his young son remembered all the lyrics of pop songs — but not his multiplication tables. Mixing the two was a fresh idea, and after trying out a few jingle writers, McCall settled on Dorough to pen the first song: “Three Is a Magic Number,” which teaches a little bit of everything about the number three, incorporating geometry, reproduction, multiplication and time.
The song, along with the many more that Dorough and other musicians wrote, was set to animation for “Schoohouse Rock!” a show that originally aired on ABC from 1973 to 1985. Sometimes, the musicians would perform their own tunes. Sometimes, guests were called in to sing them.
Dorough proved exceedingly adept at composing these educational ditties. His songs included such hits as “Conjunction Junction,” a meditation on the usage of “and,” “or” and “but”; “The Shot Heard Round the World,” which traces the beginning of the American Revolution; and “Electricity, Electricity,” a catchy lesson about various sources of power. (He did not write the famous “I’m Just a Bill,” which is by Dave Frishberg.)
Tension sometimes existed between his musical instincts and his “Schoolhouse Rock!” work, as evidenced by the strikingly somber tune about the number 8, called “Figure 8.” The music beautifully but sorrowfully plods along, juxtaposing strangely with mundane lyrics such as “If you skate, you would be great/ If you could make a figure eight,” making a listener — writer’s note: at least this listener — wonder why he’s suddenly teary-eyed about the multiplication tables of the number 8.
During the writing process for the song, he sat at the piano in his home and played it again and again. His wife “kept hearing me and said, ‘What is that melody?’ And I said, ‘Oh, that’s a new song about eight.’ And she told me, ‘Oh no, that’s too good to be a Schoolhouse Rock song!’ ” as Dorough told Porkchops & Applesauce.
So he tried to keep it for himself.
“I started trying to write a different song, which combined four, six, and eight, but they didn’t buy it,” he continued. “They said they wanted one for each number. So I said, ‘Well, I’ll give you this ‘eight’ song; I don’t know if you’ll like it or not.’ And they flipped.”
“It is kind of a sad song, isn’t it?” he added.
The songs were immensely popular. “Schoolhouse Rock!” has been revived twice for television and has twice been staged as a musical theater adaptation. It was nominated for eight Emmy Awards, winning four.
Rap trio De La Soul even sampled Dorough’s “Three is a Magic Number,” for its 1990 Billboard-charting single “The Magic Number.”
Despite the popularity of songs such as “Conjunction Junction,” an elder generation better knew Dorough as a highbrow jazz musician and composer.
Author and critic Gary Giddins — who wrote that “many people over the past 50 years have heard Bob Dorough without knowing it” — summed this dichotomy up perfectly in the Village Voice in 2000:
I was having a high old time listening to Bob Dorough’s new record, Too Much Coffee Man (Blue Note), which may be his best, when my assistant Elora walked in and exclaimed with a slight interrogatory, “Schoolhouse Rock!?” She had never heard of Dorough, but she recognized the voice. I had never heard of Schoolhouse Rock, so she brought in her four-disc Rhino set and played her favorites, including a masterpiece, “My Hero, Zero,” noting, “You will not find anyone of my generation who does not know the words to ‘Electricity Electricity’ and ‘Conjunction Junction.’”
The exposure that “Schoolhouse Rock!” brought to Dorough allowed him to continue focusing on his passion: jazz. In 1995, he signed with Blue Note Records, a distinguished New York jazz label that’s produced records by John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk and Art Blakey. Seven years later, the State Department and the Kennedy Center chose him as an “ambassador of jazz and blues.”
Still, he was mostly known for those songs that still educate legions of children today. And he didn’t seem to mind.
“I attempted to write songs that would entertain anyone, from ages 2 to 92,” he once said, pointing out that later in life, the kids grow up “and now they go to bars and drink! And they discover me again, playing at bars!”