Arkansas-born jazz musician Bob Dorough died Monday at the age of 94. While he was an acclaimed bebop pianist who was part of the 1950s New York jazz scene, Dorough reached his widest audience writing and singing songs designed to make learning fun for kids.
He was one of the primary musicians used in the Schoolhouse Rock! short films that aired between Saturday morning cartoons in the 1970s and ‘80s. The three-minute lessons were set to music and taught mathematics, grammar, civics and science.
"I’m very proud of the songs I wrote and actually of the whole project," Dorough said in a 2006 interview with Arkansongs host Stephen Koch. The original concept, he said, came from a New York advertising executive whose son was having trouble learning his multiplication tables, but readily sang popular songs of the day.
"At the time they sold it to ABC there was a big uproar from parental groups, you know, writing letters, 'You’re giving our children this crappy stuff every Saturday morning. Can’t you do something good?' Then we walked in with this story board of 'Three Is a Magic Number."
That song ended up being featured on the first of 64 episodes that were produced for Schoolhouse Rock!, which debuted in 1973.
"Suddenly it’s like I was in television and all the songs had to be exactly three minutes and it was like I was in a factory," Dorough said.
He was born in 1923 in the west Arkansas town of Cherry Hill. As a kid, Dorough’s family moved to Texarkana. He took part in violin classes, but said they were rather unsatisfying. It wasn’t until Dorough got one-on-one piano lessons that he said the music began to click.
After graduating from the University of North Texas in 1949, Dorough moved to New York City for graduate school. There he began performing at nightclubs and making a name for himself as a musician. He also got to know people he would later include in the TV segments.
"He was part of this great jazz scene from the ‘50s with Blossom Dearie and all these people that he got to be on Schoolhouse Rock! to sing," said Koch. "He taught so much and hit so many lives, not even as a jazz man but he also did pop, he was good at commercials and jingles and all that, he was just a consummate musician and super, well-loved man."
He sang for trumpeter Miles Davis’ "Blue Xmas," displaying a humor similar to what would be featured on the television series.
It was through Schoolhouse Rock! that Dorough’s voice reached practically an entire generation of people who grew up in the 1970s, whether they knew his name or not. Dorough said writing for children came naturally to him.
"It’s a childlike attitude that I have myself in a way that you can get down at their level, where they are, but it was a great challenge to, you know, think that I could write multiplication tables and educate them as well as entertain them. And in my mind I thought, why not educate and entertain all ages," Dorough said.
Even after the program went off the air, Dorough continued to occasionally produce music for children. He also periodically returned to his native Arkansas, most recently performing in May 2017 at the Central Arkansas Library System’s Ron Robinson Theater.
His family says Dorough died Monday at Mount Bethel, Pennsylvania of natural causes. The Associated Press reports a funeral is tentatively scheduled for Monday, April 30 in Mount Bethel.
KUAR also reported nationally on the death of Dorough, with Michael Hibblen filing this report for NPR's All Things Considered.