Schoolhouse Rock creator and Arkansas native Bob Dorough dies at 94

by George Jared ([email protected]) 3,339 views 

Editor’s note: Talk Business & Politics reporter George Jared interviewed Robert “Bob” Dorough in early April prior to his death, possibly one of his last interviews.
McCaffrey and McCall Advertising President David McCall had a problem. His son could remember the lyrics to any Rolling Stones song, but struggled to learn his multiplication tables. He hired several “jingle writers” to compose a song to help his son remember, but none of them were good. He called lauded jazz pianist Robert “Bob” Dorough and asked him to write a song.

Dorough, an Arkansas native, wrote “Three is a Magic Number.” Schoolhouse Rock!, the cartoon series that has educated millions of children through at least three generations was born in that moment. Dorough passed away Monday (April 23). He was 94. Dorough told Talk Business & Politics earlier this month his musical roots sprouted during his Depression-era childhood in Cherry Hill, located in Perry County, near Perryville. When he heard ensemble music for the first time, he knew his destiny.

“The magic of ensemble music. … I proudly told my parents I was going to be a musician,” he said.

The man who would write and perform many of the songs for the Schoolhouse Rock! cartoon franchise including “Conjunction Junction What’s Your Function?” and “I’m Just a Bill,” started life in a humble small town in the Natural State.

Dorough and Arkansas Jazz Heritage Foundation secretary Alita Mantels were friends. She told Talk Business & Politics she was close to the jazz musician, and he would visit the state about once a year. He did free concerts to support the Foundation, and he has been a member of the Arkansas Jazz Hall of Fame since 1998. His last concert in the state was May 19, 2017, in the Ron Robinson Theater in Little Rock, she said.

Mantels said she thinks Dorough’s last concert was March 31 at the Deer Head Inn, a jazz and blues club in Delaware Water Gap, Pa. It’s the oldest continuously operating jazz club in the U.S., and might be the oldest in the world, she said. He is well-known throughout the world for the Schoolhouse Rock! franchise, but he is an international jazz icon, she said. He had battled prostate cancer the past several years, and she spoke with him on the phone last month, she added.

“He was a truly unique and multi-talented jazz vocalist, pianist and composer,” she said.

Dorough’s father was a traveling salesman and the family moved often when he was a child, he said. The Depression made his childhood tough, but he learned how to play multiple instruments including the violin, harmonica and the clarinet.

A woman who owned a local grocery store in Cherry Hill owed Dorough’s father money, and she offered to give the budding musician piano lessons to pay off the debt. Dorough received six lessons, and it was the only formal musical training he got during his youth. He learned how to sing during church services on Sundays. The family eventually moved to Texas and during high school Dorough played in the band. Some of the places they moved had a piano, and some didn’t, he said. During this time, he primarily played the clarinet.

After high school, Dorough attended Texas Tech University in Lubbock. He majored in music, and was exposed to the technical aspects of music making, and this is where his love of jazz music began to sprout. He hadn’t graduated when World War II started, and he was drafted. Good fortune found him one night while he was training in southern Texas.

A jeep pulled up near him, and a man snarled “Get in there!”

“I said ‘holy smoke what’s going on,?” Dorough said.

One of his college professors made some calls and ensured Dorough would not go to combat. He was placed in a military band and entertained soldiers. He spent years in the military bands, honing his craft. Doctors discovered he had a punctured ear drum and he would have been disqualified from battle combat, anyway. He even spent a stint in his home state, playing for injured vets in Hot Springs.

“It was like going to a conservatory for me,” he said.

The war ended, and Dorough returned to Texas. He enrolled at the University of North Texas and completed his degree. Dorough then moved to New York City and began classes at Columbia University. In 1952 he met world champion boxer Sugar Ray Robinson, who was at the time pursuing an entertainment career. The two hit it off, and Robinson hired him as a music director. They toured Canada and Europe together. When Robinson decided to return to the ring, Dorough remained in Paris for a time working at the famed Mars Club.

It was during this time he recorded his first hit song “Devil May Care.” Miles Davis, the famed jazz musician, heard the song and the two became acquainted. They attended dinner parties and other social events together. Davis tapped Dorough to write a Christmas song for him in 1962, “Blue Xmas,” and the two collaborated on songs several years later. Davis’ rampant cocaine addiction and paranoid persona caused them to drift apart.

“He kept changing his phone number. I could never keep up with him,” Dorough said.

Dorough continued to play jazz music, and his life changed forever when he got the call from the advertising agency. The jingle writers who tried to write the songs before Dorough used simple words, and it was a mistake, Dorough said. The number three resonated with Dorough, he said.
“It’s a pinnacle number … there’s a mother, father, and child; there is the Trinity,” he said.

It took him about two weeks to write the song, and when David McCall heard the song he instantaneously knew we had something, he said. They decided to produce an album. Dorough wrote eight of the 11 songs for an album that would become Multiplication Rock. Michael Eisner, then the vice-president for programming at ABC, heard one of the songs on the album and became intrigued, Dorough said. Eisner, now the CEO at Disney, had a problem. His Saturday morning cartoon line-up was weak. When he heard those songs something sparked, Dorough said.

“I mean they flipped out. … He wanted to make cartoons based on the songs,” Dorough said.

Dorough was hired as the musical director for the cartoon series. It soon expanded into other subjects such as grammar, science and American history. He wrote, and helped write many of the songs on the show and directed the musical direction on others. The hours were long, but the work was fulfilling, he said. One of his more notable songs that he wrote was “Conjunction Junction, What’s Your Function?”

Before his death, Dorough told Talk Business & Politics he suffered from poor health, but didn’t give any specifics. He said he still liked to perform, but he could no longer fly, meaning he had to stay close to his Portland, Pa., home. Dorough owed his fame in large part to one group of people – teachers, he said.

“I can’t tell you how much teachers have meant to my career,” he said.

Through the years, Dorough wrote and performed many songs. He promised Talk Business & Politics a 15-minute interview, and when those minutes had lapsed he said he had to go. But one final question: Which was his favorite song?

“Three is a Magic Number. It has to be that song. It started it all,” he said.