10 Questions For Jazz Legend (and "Schoolhouse Rock" creator) Bob Dorough
Goldmine Magazine 2004
Bob Dorough has made a serious mark as a jazz performer, and has been a highly underrated artist over the last fifty years. There are fans who know him as a unique jazz piano player and vocal stylist, but there are literally millions who know his voice and music very well, yet do not know who he is. These are the people who grew up in the 1970's listening (and watching) to Bob perform his lyrical education on the Saturday morning television series Schoolhouse Rock.
Photos courtesy of Bob Dorough
Dorough was born in 1923, grew up in Texas, (is Arkansas-born) and after getting his music degree from North Texas University in 1949, moved to New York and began musical undergraduate work at Columbia University. He also emerged himself in the rich jazz scene that is New York City. He took any music-related work he could find, from jazz sideman, to singer and arranger for auditioning actors and dancers.
While working auditions at a local tap dance studio, Dorough met boxing legend Sugar Ray Robinson (who was trying to work into show business) and would become his touring musical director from 1952-54. Through this endeavor Bob would share the stage with such musical giants as Louis Armstrong and Count Basie.
In 1956 Dorough released his first solo LP Devil May Care, which featured Bob's vocalese lyrical version of Charlie Parker's "Yardbird Suite". His unique treatment of the piece caused quite a stir at the time. Another highlight for Bob during this period was a vocal performance on Miles Davis' Sorcerer LP, which was one of the rare vocal appearances on any Davis recording.
Throughout the years Bob has recorded albums for several jazz labels, as well as writing for other artists and touring throughout America and Europe. Some of his releases include Just About Everything in 1966, Beginning To See The Light in 1976, Clankin' On Tin Pan Alley in 1986, Right On My WayM/em> in 1990, Too Much Coffee Man in 2000 and his 2004 release Sunday At The Iridium, a live set on the Arbors Records label.
In 1970 Dorough got involved with Schoolhouse Rock, (see ensuing questions) which was actually more like "hard boppin' jazz", than rock. The project took off, with Bob bringing in some of his jazz friends such as Blossom Dearie and Jack Sheldon, to help perform these magical educational songs like "Three Is A Magic Number" and "Figure Eight". Now, how many of you reading this thought you had never heard Bob Dorough?
Joe Milliken: Tell us who your early musical influences were?
Bob Dorough: Coming from the plains of West Texas, I had limited experiences, mostly by radio. I remember a hit record by the Harry James Band, and began to analyze the arrangements ect. I had some musical ability in order to do that and I had childhood experiences with the violin, guitar, and piano. I spent time at the piano whenever I had one or could find one. Then in high school I was playing clarinet, and dug Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw because they were on the radio with their big bands. Shortly thereafter I found my way to Lunceford, Basie, Ellington, and then on to combo music and vocal jazz.
JM: After receiving a music degree in 1949 and then moving to New York City to study at Columbia University, tell us a fond memory or a night that stands out for you from those club days?
BD: The shock of New York City wore off after a few weeks and I began undergraduate work at Columbia. I engaged in many jazz sessions with other young people from all over the nation. My fondest memories were going as often as possible to Birdland. There you could hear a variety of music and of course my (our) favorites were Diz, Bud, Miles, and best of all-Bird. Sometimes you'd scrape up the admission price to see Bird and you'd get an opening act as well, a group of "marginal" musicians who could be still quite amazing to hear. As my friend Phil Woods says(he was attending Julliard) "the real university was in the streets. It was there the education took place".
JM: What would you consider your first "break" or "breakthrough performance" in the music business?
BD: I'd say the real "break" was getting the go-ahead to record my own album for Bethlehem Records. I'd already recorded a bit as a sideman and arranger, notably with Sam Most. Some of that stuff has been recently re-released.
JM: How did your tour with boxer Sugar Ray Robinson come about?
BD: I couldn't deny that the two years with Sugar Ray Robinson's show was also a break because I worked with many musicians, leading bands for the show, and opposite the likes of Earl Hines, Louis Armstrong, and Count Basie. Its just that I was an accompanist/composer and had little chance to play jazz and no chance to sing at all.
As a pianist about the city I played auditions for singers and actors, accompanying and arranging for acts, and hanging out regularly at Henry LeTang's Tap Dance Studio. It seems the boxer had decided to try show business and he came to Henry's to learn tap routines. One day Henry sent me into their studio and the rest is history.
JM: When your first album, Devil May Care was released in 1956, "Yardbird Suite" created quite a stir. Tell us something significant from that recording?
BD: I planned and rehearsed quite avidly towards my recording date for Bethlehem. I'd written a vocalise on Lester Young's Alladin recording of "You're Driving Me Crazy", and also one on Charlie Parker's Dial recording of "Yardbird Suite". Without the help of a high-priced attorney I sought the blessing of the publisher of the former piece and was denied the right. I decided to ignore my contribution to the Charlie Parker gem and made the song a sort of epitah or history of Charlie "Yardbird" Parker. I didn't dare ask for any credit or shared copyright for fear of being denied that also, just when I was preparing my
repertoire for the LP.
JM: Tell us a fond memory from working with Miles Davis, and how you came
to meet him?
BD: It was this recording that brought Miles' attention to me. In 1959 or 60(I was in Los Angeles for three years) Miles came to the coast, and at the home of a mutual friend he saw the stunning cover (Devil May Care) on her shelves and said "Who's that?". His next words were "Put it on a minute". When she told me he'd listened again the next day and to the whole LP, (!) I took her down to the club to hear him. He was off the stand as the band played on and after introducing me he took my wrist and whispered in my ear "Bob, go sing Baltimore Oriole". That's the way he was. Everything was a command. He became a fan of mine and always wanted me to sing for him at parties or in his New York City home.
In 1962 he commissioned a "Christmas" song from me and I recorded with him, with the estimable aid of Gil Evens, "Blue X-Mas" and "Nothing Like You". He was the same way in the studio, in complete control and sure of his every step.
JM: Tell us about some of your teaching endeavors and what you enjoy or draw from that experience?
BD: I've never endured the drudgery of teaching and my admiration for teachers is limitless. My degree is a Bachelors Of Music (in Composition) and that was one reason I expended the rest of my GI Bill time at Columbia doing mostly undergraduate work. But through the medium of television, I have become a teacher and the payback comes in the form of countless young 30-somethings who thank me these days for School House Rock.
JM: In 2002 your current trio toured Latin America through a State
Department-sponsorship. How did that come about and how did it all turn
BD: My current bassist Pat O'Leary encouraged me to apply for one of the Ambassadorial trips that the State Department sponsors. We applied, and out of 70 or 80 applicants we were invited to audition. We were chosen to be one of seven trios to tour, and our particular assignment was South America where we visited 6 countries. We played schools, concert halls, and ambassadorial residences.
JM: You probably know that I have to ask (because I was a kid in the 70's) about how your sensational creation of School House Rock came about, and yes, what is your favorite song from the series? (mine is the one about exclamation points!)
BD: This unique program on ABC-TV came about from my meeting with George Newall, who was an advertising man in the employ of McCaffrey & McCall. He was also a musician and jazz lover, and his night prowling led him to bassist Ben Tucker, my pal and partner. George's boss, the late David B. McCall, had the idea that putting the multiplication tables to rock music would help children learn their math and he commissioned me to do that.
This project became the Emmy-winning show that has reached so many Saturday morning, cereal-eating children. My favorite will always be the first song that launched a thousand ships - "Three Is A Magic Number".
JM: I appreciate your time Bob and I'll leave you with this. Name a musician whom you admire and would like to collaborate with?
BD: I admire many musicians and couldn't name just a few. I am always truly amazed at how musicians who've never played together are able to get on a bandstand and achieve their jazzical wonders.