Bob Dorough, a singer, pianist and composer who was well known for his jazz but even better known for “Schoolhouse Rock!”, an infectious series of song-filled cartoons that conveyed math and grammar principles to young viewers, died Monday at his home in Mount Bethel, Pennsylvania. He was 94.
His wife, Sally Shanley, confirmed the death.
Dorough was a moderately successful jazz pianist and singer when an advertising man named David B. McCall approached him for help with an idea. McCall had wondered why his son was able to memorize lyrics to rock songs but couldn’t learn the multiplication tables. Would catchy math-related tunes be the answer?
The original concept was to make a record and workbook, but when Dorough started producing zippy songs like “Three Is a Magic Number” and “My Hero, Zero,” the vision expanded into a series of animated shorts, which ABC began inserting into its Saturday morning lineup in 1973.
The series continued into the mid-1980s, with several revivals in subsequent decades, the subject matter growing to include civics, science and, perhaps most impactfully, grammar.
“Not to unduly shame the American education system,” People magazine began an article in 2016, “but chances are Bob Dorough has had more of an impact on grammar fluency than any other individual in the 20th century.”
Dorough (rhymes with “thorough”; his wife said Thorough Dorough was a nickname) was music director for the initial series and also wrote and sang some of the most fondly remembered “Schoolhouse Rock!” songs. They apparently stuck in young heads, or parental ones, or both. For the rest of Dorough’s career, it was not uncommon for him to be playing a jazz set and have someone call for a “Schoolhouse Rock!” tune.
“Just about every concert we did we would do some ‘Schoolhouse Rock!’ because people enjoyed it,” Steve Berger, Dorough’s longtime guitarist, said in a telephone interview. The songs, he noted, were deceptively intricate.
“What you’ll notice is, each one of them is musically brilliant, is lyrically brilliant,” Berger said. The key, he said, was Dorough’s respect for the audience.
“He never wrote down to the kids,” he said. “He always brought them up.”
Robert Lrod Dorough was born on Dec. 12, 1923, in Cherry Hill, Arkansas. His father, Robert, was a salesman, and his mother, Alma Lewis Dorough, worked for a time for the Singer sewing machine company.
Music was always an interest for young Robert — violin and piano were among the instruments he studied as a child — but the idea of making a career of it really took hold when, as a clarinetist, he joined the high school band in Plainview, Texas, where his family had moved.
“That was when I fell in love with music,” he told The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette last year when he returned to his home state to play in Little Rock. “There was something about the ensemble, a lot of kids playing different horns, and it all fit like a glove when it was good. I said to my parents, ‘I’m going to be a musician.’”
First came military service, from 1943 to 1945; Dorough performed with and arranged for the Army Band. In 1949 he received a music degree at North Texas State Teachers College, then headed for New York, where he immersed himself in the jazz scene. His apartment on East 75th Street became the site of a regular jam session.
“You had to play early because of the neighbors,” he told The Philadelphia Inquirer in 1998. “They’d start knocking on the walls and floor at 10.”
The musicians, though, didn’t mind; the 10 o’clock quitting time meant they could still drop in on the late-night jazz scene downtown.
Dorough built a résumé that was nothing if not eclectic. In the early 1950s he was the traveling music director for the boxer Sugar Ray Robinson when Robinson tried a tap-dancing career. They were playing in France when Robinson decided to return to the ring in 1955, but the Mars Club in Paris offered Dorough a singing and playing engagement, and he stayed for six months.
He returned to New York and recorded his first album, “Devil May Care,” released in 1956 on the small Bethlehem label. He moved to the West Coast for several years and was playing in a quintet at a Hollywood piano bar when he met Miles Davis, who would later ask Dorough to write him a Christmas song.
The result, in 1962, was “Blue Xmas (To Whom It May Concern),” a wry, somewhat cynical ditty sung by Dorough. (Another track from that session, “Nothing Like You,” was included on Davis’ 1967 album “Sorcerer.”)
Another quirky collaboration was “I’m Hip,” a tongue-in-cheek portrait of someone who is decidedly not hip, written with his fellow singer-pianist-composer Dave Frishberg. It became a signature song for Blossom Dearie.
Dorough also helped produce, arranged for, played on or contributed vocals to albums by an array of artists that included Hoagy Carmichael, the Fugs, Spanky and Our Gang, and Art Garfunkel. He even acted occasionally; he appeared in an episode of the western “Have Gun — Will Travel” in 1959.
By the time he was recruited for “Schoolhouse Rock!” he was well connected in the music world, and thus was able to bring a high-end assortment of talent to that project. Dearie sang “Figure Eight” and “Unpack Your Adjectives.” Frishberg wrote (and the jazz trumpeter and vocalist Jack Sheldon sang) one of the series’ most delightful songs, “I’m Just a Bill,” about the legislative process.
Though Dorough recorded many albums over the years, his major-label debut did not come until he was 73, when Blue Note released “Right on My Way Home.”
In addition to his wife, Dorough is survived by a brother, Gregory; a daughter, Aralee Dorough; and a grandson. His first marriage, to Jacqueline Wright, ended in divorce in 1953. He married Ruth Corine Meinert in 1960; she died in 1986.
Dorough performed constantly throughout his career and was a regular at the Deer Head Inn in Delaware Water Gap, Pennsylvania, where he last played just a few weeks ago. In 2001, when he and Frishberg performed at the JVC Jazz Festival in New York, Ben Ratliff, reviewing the concert for The New York Times, said of Dorough, “He’s all eternal youth and love for life, with a ponytail, a toothy smile and a goofy charisma.”
That persona, complete with Arkansas twang, was no act, Berger said.
“What you saw on the stage,” he said, “was who Bob was.”