Editor’s Note: Gene Seymour is a film critic who has written about music, movies and culture for The New York Times, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly and The Washington Post. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Millions of Americans, and many more throughout the world, just lost their favorite civics teacher.
Bob Dorough died Monday at age 94. Although nobody who watched “Schoolhouse Rock” animated shorts on Saturday mornings beginning in 1973 knew his name, they knew their times tables, their American history and their grammar because of the songs he wrote.
At a time when education has been under siege as never before, especially from Washington, don’t you think there’s a desperate need for teachers on the airwaves – and the internet – to make memorization fun? The hipper, the better.
“Conjunction Junction (What’s Your Function?),” “My Hero Zero,” “I’m Just a Bill,” “Three is a Magic Number,” Electricity, Electricity” and more.
Admit it. You’re singing along, right? There are some earworms you don’t mind being stuck in your head for a while. Dorough wrote most of them. (The original series lasted until 1985.)
Before “Schoolhouse Rock” lessons popped up throughout ABC’s weekly cartoon lineup, the only way for you to have known about Dorough was if you were a jazz aficionado. By the 1970s, Bob Dorough’s was a name – and a voice – well known through the groovy corridors of the Very Hip.
Since the 1950s, he’d played the piano and sung with such modern jazz giants as Miles Davis, with whose ensemble he’d recorded his original vocal compositions “Blue Xmas” and “Nothing Like You” in 1962. By that time, the Arkansas-born Dorough had recorded many LPs under his own name. The first one, “Devil May Care,” was released in 1956 on the Bethlehem label.
His voice was thin and soft, almost lighter-than-air in tone. But it was limber enough to bend any syllable or phrase into shapes that could be happy, sad and all the emotions in between. It was the perfect instrument for conveying his dry, witty and deceptively simple lyrics.
There were many other singers who enjoyed letting Dorough’s words roll around in their throats, including Tony Bennett, Blossom Dearie, Al Jarreau and, more recently, the critically acclaimed young vocalist Cecile McLorin Salvant, who, as a card-carrying millennial, more than likely first heard Dorough’s voice through her TV set riffing through the times-two tables.
Most of Dorough’s career was spent as a cult hero, a “songwriter’s songwriter” as much as a “singer’s singer.” He never seemed to have a really dry spell in the professional music vineyards.
But it was sometime in the mid-1990s, when “Schoolhouse Rock” was revived for a new generation, that Dorough’s name was also brought to light as the man behind the “Rock.” Blue Note Records signed him to a contact in 1995 and he subsequently recorded three albums for the legendary jazz label.
He was a master musician, intelligent and resourceful, honored in all echelons of the jazz world, whether cabaret, bebop or avant-garde. Yet Dorough, especially late in life, knew what really rang bells with the people who attended his live gigs, and he never failed to give them a taste from the “Schoolhouse Rock” songbook.
“I’m cool with it being the first thing people see in my obituary,” he told this reporter almost 30 years ago. And so it is – including this one.