Anyone who was a kid in America during the 1970s and ‘80s will recognize Bob Dorough’s distinctive tenor voice and jazzy piano playing. He was the singer and primary songwriter for ABC–TV’s educational series Schoolhouse Rock!
Conjunction Junction, that’s his function.
Dorough’s in town this week, as one of the judges of the 20th annual American Traditions Competition. He’ll also play a set at the Judges’ Concert Friday, Jan. 18 at the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Ascension.
There’s much more to Dorough’s story than those clever paeans to multiplication, division and the way a bill gets passed in Congress.
He was a mover and shaker in bebop jazz during the late 1940s and ‘50s, and played with some of the biggest names in the history books.
Starting with first album, 1956’s Devil May Care, Dorough wrote and recorded one of the most enduring tunes in the vocalese genre — lyrics sung to an existing jazz melody.
“I heard King Pleasure with Blossom Dearie doing ‘Moody’s Mood For Love,’” Dorough recalls, “and I thought oh, this stuff is great. And I wrote a couple that were never approved.
“So I wrote one about Charlie Parker when he died in 1955, because Charlie Parker was my hero. My god for bebop jazz. In ‘56, it was just a year after he died, and I didn’t want them to shoot me down, so I wrote it as though I didn’t write it. I thought, I’m not even gonna claim it, I’ll just say ‘Yardbird Suite by Charlie Parker.’ There was no credit for the lyric.
“In later years, I got a kind of a half–assed copyright and gave it a new title, ‘Charles Yardbird Was His Name,’ something like that. Now it’s known to be mine, but I doubt if I get any money from it.”
He laughs at the memory.
Dorough, 89, laughs often. His voice retains its mellifluous Arkansas twang.
During an eight–month stay in Paris in the 1950s, he met the great jazz vocalist Blossom Dearie, who recruited him for her eight–member singing group the Blue Stars.
“Blossom and I were the only Americans,” Dorough says. “The other six were French. We did ‘Lullabye of Birdland.’ It was a bunch of pop tunes in French. I stuck out. I was doing my best to get the right accent.”
He worked with Dearie numerous times over the following years.
Dorough was also the musical director — of a sort — for controversial comedian Lenny Bruce.
“I met him when I lived in L.A.,” Dorough remembers. “He loved the jazz cats. He used to hang out with Jack Sheldon, who was a pal of mine. Lenny got me a couple of gigs — he’d say ‘Call this guy. You’ll like his singing.’ So I got a six–month cabaret job, just playing and singing.
“And then I opened for him about four times, including one show he did called A Wonderful Sick Evening With Lenny Bruce. It was a revue he had put together, with some other people, and I was in the pit. I was the band.”
Back in New York, Dorough ran into his old running buddy Ben Tucker — that’s right, Savannah jazz cornerstone Ben Tucker — who asked him for a favor.
“He said hey, I got a hit tune – Herbie Mann at Newport, ‘Comin’ Home Baby.’ You gotta put words to it, Bob.
“It was quite a labor, because I had to re–create it in a way that the words fit the melody he wrote. So I did a kind of Ray Charles–type thing, with the Raylettes saying ‘come on home.’ Ray would say ‘I’m comin’ home baby now.’”
Mel Torme’s rendition of ‘Comin’ Home Baby’ became a Grammy–nominated Top Ten hit, and the song moved into standard territory.
Then there was the Miles incident.
In the early ‘60s, Miles Davis was the number–one name in hipster jazz.
“I used to hear Miles in New York, and he wouldn’t talk to anybody,” Dorough chuckles. “You’d say ‘Miles, that was a great set!’ and he’d grimace, and see who was talking to him, and keep going. He was standoffish. Didn’t want to meet any of his fans or anything.
“One of our mutual friends said Miles came up to her apartment, and there was my album on the shelf. He said [growling like Miles] ‘What’s that?’ and she said ‘That’s my pal Bob Dorough, he sings and plays piano.’ He said ‘Let me hear it.’”
Davis liked the record. “Then we went to see him in a club; this was my chance to meet him. He put me up on the bandstand with his band and says ‘Bob, go up and sing Baltimore Oriole.’ That was a little ballad from my LP. Then he used to make me sing at parties — ‘sing this song!’ — and then never say a word. He’d just lean there on the piano and I’d sing all the hippest songs I knew.”
In early ’62, Columbia Records convinced its top jazz names to contribute tracks to a compilation album, Jingle Bell Jazz.
Recalls Dorough: “Miles don’t want to play ‘Jingle Bells,’ so he calls me and says ‘Write me a song, and you can sing it with me.’ I naturally started thinking well, what would Miles say about Christmas? Sort of like bah, humbug. So I wrote ‘My Blue Xmas,’ which was about the over–commercialization of Christmas.”
With Gil Evans’ cool arrangement, Davis, his band — and Dorough — cut the tune for Columbia’s album. The same sessions produced another Dorough original, “Nothing Like You.” Davis put that one out years later, on an album called Sorcerer.
For many years, Dorough was the only vocalist to appear on a Miles Davis record.
Davis got the singer/pianist a few gigs, and asked him to open a Village Vanguard show. For all intents and purposes, however, their paths never again crossed.
“Eventually, he got so far out, and was doing lots of drugs and changing women every month,” Dorough recalls. “He got kinda weird.”
The 1960s found Dorough writing, arranging and producing records for the pop group Spanky & Our Gang, the agit–comedy poet trio the Fugs, and beat poet Allen Ginsberg.
It was Ben Tucker who recommended him to the creators of Schoolhouse Rock! They were looking for someone to put the multiplication tables to snappy music. “Call Bob,” Tucker said. “He can sing anything.”
Lasting 12 years, it was the steadiest gig he’d ever had.
“I’d already written a bunch of songs about what I call pop art, where you take ordinary lyrics, out of ordinary pieces of paper or something, a traffic ticket or a laundry ticket,” Dorough explains with a friendly laugh. “I wrote an album called This is a Recording, from the phone company’s ‘This is a recording, your call cannot be completed.’
“So apparently that qualified me to apply for this commission.”
American Traditions Competition
Nightly beginning Tuesday, Jan. 15 at Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Ascension, 122 Bull Street
Judges’ Concert: At 8 p.m. Friday, Jan. 18, with Bob Dorough, Anita Gillette and Rod Gilfry
Finals: At 8 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 19 at Lucas Theatre, 32 Abercorn St.
Tickets: $50, $63
Tickets and info: americantraditionscompetition.comAnyone
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