Times were lean for jazz pianist and singer Bob Dorough in the early 1970s when he got an unusual request from an advertising executive. Could Dorough write songs that might help children learn their multiplication tables?
Intrigued, especially by the executive’s idea that the songs not condescend to their young audience, he agreed.
Soon, starting with “Three Is a Magic Number,” Dorough had penned a handful of clever, math-themed tunes that would become the basis for ABC’s Emmy-winning “Schoolhouse Rock” series.
The short, animated educational films, slipped between Saturday morning cartoon shows, ran from 1973 to 1985, becoming a cultural touchstone for a generation. The series was reprised in the 1990s.
Dorough, whose distinctive, reedy voice was featured on many of the series’ popular songs and who was also its musical director, died Monday of natural causes at his home in Mount Bethel, Penn., his family confirmed to the Associated Press. Dorough was 94.
He wrote all the songs for the series’ first season, which focused on math, and many for its subsequent seasons, which covered grammar, history and other topics. Among his best known tunes, in addition to “Three Is a Magic Number,” were “My Hero, Zero” and “Conjunction Junction.”
The songs were catchy and would take on a life of their own, following Dorough throughout his years as a jazz performer. Gen-Xers who grew up on “Schoolhouse Rock” would often recognize his voice — which one critic compared to “Nat King Cole doing a Louis Armstrong impersonation” — when he was performing more standard jazz fare.
Dorough’s reach was vast, rippling beyond generations and jazz circles to include contemporary musicians and Hollywood players.
“He’s a jazz cat, but he’s also a jazz kitten,” quirky singer-songwriter Nellie McKay, who collaborated with Dorough, remarked in a trailer for “Devil May Care,” a documentary about her mentor. “He approaches everything with a sense of delight.”
Singer Kelly Hogan, known for her work with Neko Case, the Decemberists and the Flat Five, penned a poignant appreciation of Dorough for Magnet in 2013.
“He’s got a soft Southern dangle to his vowels (Bob’s from Arkansas, don’t ya know … ), and to me there’s always a sweetness — a sweet sincerity to his delivery,” Hogan wrote. “And humor, too. I swear you can hear him grinning, even during his piano solos.”
And producer and writer Judd Apatow paid his respects on Twitter earlier this week: “Bob Dorough was a giant talent who made so many of us so happy as kids with Schoolhouse Rock,” he wrote.
Bob Dorough was a giant talent who made so many of us so happy as kids with Schoolhouse Rock. Listen to Three Is A Magic Number and try to not get emotional. He sang and wrote it along with all the math ones and others too. He worked with Miles Davis and Lenny Bruce. Amazing! https://t.co/Ba0o5QZBrv— Judd Apatow (@JuddApatow) April 24, 2018
Dorough’s great gift to young people was making learning fun.
“Dorough not only helped teach kids in a creative way, but brought the tradition of cool jazz to television so they were learning about the subject at hand — grammar, history or something else — but also learning about music,” Ron Simon, curator of television and radio at the Paley Center for Media in New York, said in a 2013 interview. Dorough was a memorable guest at 1996’s PaleyFest.
.@paleycenter salutes #BobDorough, creator of #SchoolhouseRock, & joins the generations in thanking him for teaching us grammar & math. We are happy to share his 1996 appearance at #PaleyFest, moderated by Paley television curator @RonSimonPaley.— Paley Center (@paleycenter) April 25, 2018
WATCH: https://t.co/HpEUqNSAoc pic.twitter.com/ZKXB2ExhIu
Even by the broad standards of jazz, Dorough’s career was anything but conventional.
In addition to his work for children, he had gigs as an accompanist for comedian Lenny Bruce and as music director for boxer Sugar Ray Robinson when the latter was trying a new career as a song-and-dance man.
Dorough also was one of the few vocalists to record with Miles Davis; their holiday collaboration, “Blue Xmas (To Whom It May Concern),” was saluted in “Jingle Bell Rocks!,” Mitchell Kezin’s 2013 documentary about Christmas music and some of its more obsessive collectors.
As a jazz artist, Dorough did not achieve great commercial success, although he put out nearly 30 solo albums and was featured on numerous recordings by other artists. He also wrote the lyrics for “Comin’ Home Baby,” which became a hit for Mel Tormé.
But his voice, his songs and the hipsterish manner he carried into his final years earned him a loyal following among aficionados of distinct, offbeat entertainers such as his friend and occasional collaborator Blossom Dearie.
“His work is happy and humorous and swinging. Jazz is a happy music, and Bob Dorough makes it that way,” singer Annie Ross told The Times in 1997.
Robert Lrod Dorough was born in Cherry Hill, Ark., on Dec. 12, 1923. His father was a salesman and his mother a housewife. Growing up mainly in Texas, he learned to play piano, violin and clarinet.
Drafted during World War II, he served in an Army band, which gave him valuable training as an arranger, composer and all-around entertainer. After his discharge, he earned a bachelor’s in music in 1949 at what is now the University of North Texas.
New York’s electrifying jazz scene beckoned, and it was there that Dorough decided he wanted to be a singer. But as Dorough once told the Boston Globe, “It wasn’t hip to sing” at the time.
In the early 1950s, he took whatever gigs he could find. He worked at a studio accompanying tap dancers, then was hired as Robinson’s musical director, a job he had for two years.
Robinson took the show to Europe, where it bombed, but Dorough stayed on in Paris. He played piano and sang at the city’s Mars Club, a favorite of American performers.
By 1956, Dorough was back in New York and had recorded his first album, “Devil May Care,” for Bethlehem Records. His version of Charlie Parker’s “Yardbird Suite” caught the attention of Davis, who asked him to write a Christmas song for a multi-artist compilation album; that song turned out to be “Blue Xmas.” Another Dorough number, “Nothing Like You,” from the same session, wound up unexpectedly on Davis’ 1966 album, “Sorcerer.”
The ’60s were tough years for Dorough, who turned to more commercial jobs, including working as a producer for the folk-rock band Spanky and Our Gang.
“Schoolhouse Rock” changed all that. And years later, many of the series’ songs were covered by artists such as the Lemonheads, Blind Melon, Moby, Daniel Johnston and the rapper Skee-Lo for a tribute album called “Schoolhouse Rock! Rocks.”
Dorough’s recording career had a revival starting in the late 1990s when Blue Note, a major jazz label, released his “Right on My Way Home,” followed by “Too Much Coffee Man” in 2000 and, the same year, “Who’s on First?,” a duo project with Dave Frishberg, his fellow musician and longtime friend. Dorough recorded nearly till the end, including a duets collection in 2012 and a final album, “But for Now,” in 2015.
Dorough was married three times. Survivors include his wife, Sally, and his daughter Aralee.
In summing up his career, Dorough told The Times in 1997: “It’s all been a quest to sing my songs. I’d say overall I’ve been a lucky man .… I would have loved it if I’d had a more brilliant, high-profile career. But I’m not bitter. I’ve made a little money off my songs. I can’t complain.
“There’s a joke in the music world,” he added. “If you just stay alive long enough, the world will catch up to you.”
Trounson is a former Times staff writer.