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Return of a Class Act : Bob Dorough Finds His 1970s 'Schoolhouse Rock' Tunes Are Standing the Test of Time

April 09, 1997|BILL KOHLHAASE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Audiences can discover jazz singers in unexpected ways. Who would have thought that Tony Bennett would develop a following with the MTV generation because of a single "Unplugged" session, or that Mel Torme would score with the same crowd by appearing to dive off the roof of a Las Vegas casino in a TV commercial for a soft drink?

Same story with vocalist-pianist-composer Bob Dorough, who appears Thursday at the Coach House with a show entitled "Schoolhouse Rock and All That Jazz."

Dorough had nearly disappeared to all but the most devoted jazz fans until last year, when Rhino Records released a four-CD set of the music from "Schoolhouse Rock," a series of animated shorts that ran on ABC-TV in the '70s.

They taught lessons in grammar, math, science, history and politics through the use of catchy tunes, most of which were written, and many sung, by Dorough. Suddenly in the '90s, Dorough became a star with the Generation X members who had grown up with his "Schoolhouse Rock" songs.

"There's a joke in the music world," Dorough, 73, said in a phone interview from his home in rural Pennsylvania. "If you just stay alive long enough, the world will catch up to you." Then, with characteristic irony, he added, "Just think how big Mozart or Charlie Parker would have been if they had lived longer."

The "Schoolhouse Rock" project wasn't the first that brought him notoriety. In the '60s, he was pushed into the jazz public's eye by a single song on Miles Davis' 1966 album "Sorcerer."

That tune, "Nothing Like You," a vocal number that Dorough sang, confounded critics and Davis' fans. Recorded some years before the other material on "Sorcerer," and with a different band, the tune seemed at odds with the evolving, thoroughly modern direction the trumpeter was taking with the quintet of Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter and Tony Williams.

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The tune, probably inserted as filler by Davis' label, Columbia, was part of a larger session that drew Dorough briefly into the trumpeter's world. In 1962, Columbia had asked Davis to take part in a multi-artist Christmas jazz album, and the trumpeter was looking for a way to do it in a way that wouldn't undermine his reputation as an artist who went his own way. That's when he thought to include singer-songwriter Dorough, who wrote and sang "Blue Xmas" for the project, with Davis on trumpet.

Dorough had recorded probably his best-known album, "Devil May Care," in 1956 for the Bethlehem label, and its wit and lively rhythms had won a devoted following.

Davis had heard the album in the home of a friend of Dorough, singer Terry Morel, who can be heard singing background to Jack Sheldon's lead on what may be the single most famous "Schoolhouse Rock" number, "Conjunction Junction."

"She lived in Philadelphia at the time, and when Miles took the quintet there, he saw my album at her place and heard it," Dorough said. "He came back the next day and asked her to play it again. He listened to the whole thing.

"Miles was a real music lover," Dorough continued in chummy tones still spiced with Southern inflection from his childhood in Arkansas. "He had great eclectic tastes and listened to rock, Spanish music, everything. I'd heard him back in New York but had never gotten close to him. With her introduction, I went down to the club, and he made me sing [Hoagy Carmichael's] 'Baltimore Oriole' from the album with his band."

Davis' attorney later called Dorough and told him the trumpeter wanted him to write and sing the Christmas tune. "Gil Evans was involved, and he and I and Miles sat up all night looking at the tune and sorting it out," he said.

"Blue Xmas" seemed to fit Davis' cool, detached persona perfectly. Two other tunes were recorded at that session, including "Nothing Like You," which was not heard again until the release of "Sorcerer." When it was issued, Dorough found himself a personality.

"It must have gained me a lot of fame," Dorough said. "Jazz musicians all over the world were puzzled. I didn't even know it was coming out." (All three from that session were included on the 1996 album "Miles Davis and Gil Evans: The Complete Recordings.")

Nor was that the first association that gained Dorough an audience. One of his first gigs after attending New York's Columbia University in the early '50s was as accompanist for Sugar Ray Robinson when the boxer went on the road as an entertainer. He traveled to Paris with Robinson in 1954 and ended up staying a couple of years. That's where he teamed with vocalist Blossom Dearie, who also wound up singing "Schoolhouse Rock" songs.

Over the years, Dorough has worn a number of hats to keep his career going, including running his own record label, Laissez Faire, producing such pop acts as Spanky and Our Gang, and doing commercial jingles in the '70s.

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