Thursday, June 5, 2014

“Schoolhouse Rock” interview: songwriter/singer Bob Dorough

Introduction to the Schoolhouse Rock interview series (including the list of interviewees).

Among Bob’s greatest Schoolhouse Rock hits:

M = wrote music
L = wrote lyrics
S = sang song

  • “Three Is a Magic Number” – MLS
  • “Ready or Not, Here I Come” (fives) – MLS
  • “Figure Eight” – ML
  • “Conjunction Junction” – M
  • “Lolly, Lolly, Lolly, Get Your Adverbs Here” – MLS
  • “Verb: That’s What’s Happenin’” – ML
  • “Mother Necessity” – MLS (among other singers)
  • “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World” – MLS
  • “Sufferin’ til Suffrage” – M

How old were you when you began writing/singing for
Schoolhouse Rock?

I would have been already 50 years old in December of 1973. By this time,
Schoolhouse Rock had been on television since February. So as I began those songs, I was perhaps 47 or 48. I was never overly-conscious of age, per se, so it didn’t matter.

What else were you doing professionally at the time?

I was engaged in creating some advertising music, having already produced and arranged for two or three LPs of the hot group Spanky and Our Gang. Plus, doing any jazz engagements I could scare up.

Where were you living at the time?

Where I live now, with one foot still in Long Island City, where I previously lived. One of my advertising pieces made me enough money for the down payment on my Pocono house. Legally I had changed my residence to Pennsylvania by 1966, i.e., before I’d met David B. McCall [the advertising executive who conceived of
Schoolhouse Rock].

What did you think of the
Schoolhouse Rock concept when it was pitched to you?

I was excited but cautious. I thought the idea was a bit puerile but then McCall added a line that shook my timbers. He said “But don’t write down to the children.” I was excited by the idea of being able to write for children (I was already a father myself) [but] cautious [in case] they wanted simplicity, like a jingle or something. (It seems he’d already sought the help of other NYC jingle composers.) His second line opened the floodgates of my life and experience in jazz, blues, and pop music.

How were you hired? Were you originally hired to write multiple songs, or just one?

There was no hiring. When they heard “Three Is a Magic Number” they (McCall and his executives) said “Oh, that’s what we’re looking for. Do some more.”

Did you have any say in which topics you got to write about?

It started as an idea to put the multiplication tables to “rock” music and call it “Multiplication Rock.” McCall wanted to finance an LP recording of the songs but, of necessity, we only went one song at a time. The recording process did begin rather early with the first session and I was being paid as an arranger and band leader in the union-approved sessions.

Did you propose any songs/topics that were rejected?

Actually, the first session tackled two songs I had written for them, “Three Is a Magic Number” and “Do Your Sevenses.” Later on, “Do Your Sevenses” was rejected. There were no “topics” at this point—just numbers.

How long would it take you, on average, to write a
Schoolhouse Rock song? Did you do your own research or were you presented with which facts to include?

The first presentation consisted of me traveling to their NYC office with a cassette or tape of my song. After McCall’s challenge, I took two weeks before I brought in the “Three” song. During this two weeks, I did my own research. I had a collection of diverse math books, including one on “The New Math.” I was a sort of amateur mathematician. I imagine most musicians are into numbers quite naturally. After the animation phase began, there were hired researchers for subjects like grammar, history, and science. There was also more control in the song subjects and, of course, other songwriters at hand.

You are single-handedly responsible for many of
Schoolhouse Rock’s greatest hits. Which song you wrote was your favorite and why?

I’d have to say, although it’s like asking a mother to name her favorite child, that “Three Is a Magic Number” would be my fave, since it literally got me the job. By default I was eventually hired as musical director of the projects.

Schoolhouse Rock song was your favorite to sing?

“Lucky Seven Sampson,” my second song about seven, was and is a favorite—a signature song of mine because, in a way, it is the story of my life.

What is your favorite
Schoolhouse Rock song you did not write?

“The Tale of Mr. Morton” by Lynn Ahrens. She has the knack for telling a story that also gets the message through.

Of all songs you have written (not just
Schoolhouse Rock), which is your favorite?

Again, do I have to finger one of my children? I love “Nothing Like You,” which I wrote to a Fran Landesman lyric and which was recorded by Miles Davis.

Any funny stories from the recordings?

Sessions are always funny because musicians are a funny lot. However, it (the session) is also serious business. I had an opportunity to hire some of my friends and to become friends with some musicians I hadn’t known before. There was the pleasure of providing them with work in the studio.

What did you think of the finished animated musical shorts?

Well, imagine me, a 50-year old veteran of World War II and a hodgepodge musical career, watching Saturday morning cartoons. I was thrilled to hear my voice on the mysterious telly.

How were you paid—salary, flat fee per song, royalty per song, other?

I was paid very well. There was a fee for each accepted song and this fee increased as the years went by. Plus I made union wages whenever I was in the studio as leader/pianist, arranger, and sometimes even as copyist. My pal and partner Ben Tucker often got extra pay as contractor, as well as for playing the bass.

What are your most cherished/funniest
Schoolhouse Rock stories since (a reaction when someone you meet discovers you had a role in it, seeing its influence in an unexpected way, hearing a celeb you admire sing its praises, etc.)?

We all get a thrill when Rachel Maddow talks about “I’m Just a Bill” or “Conjunction Junction.” It’s amazing how the oeuvre has penetrated the national consciousness. Of course I meet countless people in my jazz work that turn out to hear “the
Schoolhouse Rock guy.” It’s like food, all the tribute and love I get from schoolteachers who still use the DVD in their classrooms. I admire all those brave schoolteachers.

What are you working on these days?

Mostly, I work on my jazz singing career/songwriting successes and the like. Without the stimulus of
Schoolhouse Rock, I don’t write as many songs but, now and then, I get an idea and am able to flush it out into a song.


What do you consider your career highlight to date?

Singing with Miles Davis.

Where do you live?

In Northeastern Pennsylvania, just 70 miles west of the Apple.

If you have kids/grandkids, what did they think of your
Schoolhouse Rock songs?

My only child is Aralee. She was just 8 and 9 when I started Multiplication Rock. She was the perfect sounding board and [took] part in several recordings (the children in “The Four Legged Zoo” and the voice in “My Hero Zero”). She is now the principal flutist of the Houston Symphony Orchestra and also plays jazz. I have one grandson and several step-grandchildren and they all think I am the cat’s pajamas.

What did you think when you first heard from me?

Oy vey, another one! I have written several times about my take on the subject and consider it my property—even what I’ve written for you.

Has anyone else ever interviewed about this? If so, when and for what publication?

It’s in all my PR—there was that magnificent Oxford Magazine article. So many—I’ve forgotten.

Do you still have any ongoing connection (professionally or personally) to
Schoolhouse Rock?

I am the only one who speaks for and performs
Schoolhouse Rock. I work in elementary schools in my area and wherever. Sometime I combine a jazz club gig with one of the schools in that (whatever) city. George Newall, Gill Dyrli, and I sometimes work in educational or technological conventions. Dr. Dyrli was hired as a consultant starting with the Grammar days, I think. I called him the “Grammar Guru.” And George Newall was a musician in Mad Men disguise. He majored in composition and played jazz piano in college, as I did; but he was one of McCall’s major advertising writers. Later on, he contributed several songs including the fabulous “Unpack Your Adjectives.”

Have you appeared at any fan conventions to sign autographs? If not, would you?

Yes, the aforementioned educational conventions gave me lots of talks with fans and I have signed many, many autographs for kids from 90 to 2.

What is your perspective on the longevity and legacy of
Schoolhouse Rock?

I think it is here to stay, in whatever form the media take.

How do you look back on the experience?

It is probable that a lot of the kids watching cartoons in the ‘70s grew up and perhaps worked in jazz bars as waiters, working their way through college or something. It was [in such bars], in the ‘80s, that one of them might say “I like your voice. It sounds familiar. Did you ever do any of that stuff called—what was it?
Schoolhouse Rock?” This soon led me to insert the songs from Schoolhouse Rock into my jazz sets.

One of my shows is called
Schoolhouse Rock and All That Jazz. Another, which was never produced, is a personal memoir called How I Wrote Multiplication Rock and Still Swung.


Anything you’d like to add?

I receive more than my due credit as “the creator of
Schoolhouse Rock,” etc. As the most visible representative of Schoolhouse Rock, I am out there, on the line, as it were, where I sing the songs and keep them alive.

But I owe a lot to Ben Tucker. He introduced my music to George Newall, who, as a jazz fan, used to hear Ben playing bass with Billy Taylor and/or Marion McPartland. This led to my first meeting with McCall after Ben told George that I was a guy who could “put anything to music.”

I owe so much to Tom Yohe for his brilliant animation design and to George Newall for his musical support and the fact that he gave me the title for “Conjunction Junction.”

Lynn Ahrens, for her brilliant lyrics and contributions to the project that made it such a classy act. She of course has since distinguished herself as a Broadway lyricist and librettist.

We owe much to the singing of Jack Sheldon. George says he is “the cartoon voice of the century.”

Then there is the songwriter, Dave Frishberg. He got off to a slow start with “I’m Just a Bill” as his sole contribution until we launched a fifth series called “Money Rock” where he practically stole the show.

We have not mentioned the BAM Theater Group—a bunch of “kids” who remembered
Schoolhouse Rock and said, “Hey, let’s do a show.” Schoolhouse Rock Live! is now available for renting and producing in your own school or hometown, just like My Fair Lady or Bye Bye Birdie.

11/10/21 addendum: I neglected to note till now that Bob passed away 4/23/18.

Next: Lynn Ahrens.

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