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Bob Dorough: Bebop Crusader & Original Hipster

Roseanna Vitro interviews the unique jazz vocalist and composer

Bob Dorough

Bob Dorough is as unique as the original Arkansas diamond. His lyrics are clever and his melodies are full of twists, turns and modulations, leading your ears on a roller coaster ride through several keys. There’s no better example than one of his most famous compositions, “Nothing Like You Has Ever Been Seen Before,” recorded with Miles Davis on The Sorcerer, lyrics by Fran Landesman. Bob’s voice is intense and hushed. Imagine a breathy Edward G. Robinson with a southern lilt, coated with buttermilk and cornbread soul. He caresses every word and draws you in with his energy and command of his craft.

I’ve been listening to Bob since 1978. In those days, the musicians who adopted me into jazz music in Houston turned me on to Blossom Dearie, Jackie Cain and Roy Kral and Bob. If you were good enough to channel your way through “Nothing Like You …” without changing keys, it was a mark of good musicianship. I took the challenge and recorded “Nothing Like You…” on my first album with Kenny Barron’s trio. A short list of Bob’s classics might start with: “Devil May Care,” “I’m Hip,” “Love Came on Stealthy Fingers,” “But For Now,” “Small Day Tomorrow,” and the coolest, “Blue Xmas.” They’re all classics and recorded by countless jazz vocalists around the world. In the ’70s, Bob became the voice of School House Rock. No one but Bob could have written, “Three is the Magic Number.” A new generation learned multiplication tables from the original Bebop Crusader, Mr. Bob Dorough. I spent two hours interviewing Bob recently and listened intently, knowing I’m hearing stories from a true original.

RV: What are your earliest memories of music that inspired you and was there anyone in your family who encouraged you to be a musician?

BD: Not my mother or father, even though they sang in church and Dad could play “The Old Rugged Cross” on the piano. My Uncle Fred, the youngest of the Lewis clan, was still at home those days. And he would sit on the front porch and play the guitar and sing songs, mostly cowboy tragedy songs. I’d sit and listen; he was like my big brother. Grandpa Lewis had a farm we used to visit on holidays and summers. It was what they called a hard luck farm, in the southwest corner of Arkansas, not far from Texarkana. In his house was an old pump organ, and that intrigued me a little.

My Dad was a salesman-cars and insurance mostly. He thought he was a city slicker, but he was a high-class country boy. We moved around a lot for his work. In my early childhood we lived briefly in Mena, Hot Springs, Little Rock, De Queen, Hope, and Texarkana, Arkansas. Eventually we moved to Plainview, Texas, and my real inspiration came in the Plainview High School Band.

Back in Arkansas, we used to go to the movies on Saturdays and they’d have an amateur contest. My Aunt Florence took me there to sing a couple of songs and I won second place. There was a fiddler who won first place. When I was four or five years old I used to sing two songs like, “My Blue Heaven,” verse and chorus a cappella and the second song was “When Annie Was a Little Girl,” a school song. When I sing “I Get the Neck of the Chicken,” I remember learning it as a five-year-old with my mother playing the radio. We didn’t have television or a record player. It was a pop tune and she said on the fifth day they played it, I sang along with them.

I played some violin and piano and I always played the mouth harp. There was a Mrs. Keene, the piano teacher who also owned a store and owed my dad money. He was selling bread and she was behind on her bread bill. She bartered lessons to pay my dad back. She had a piano in the back of her store and taught me piano on the barter system. She loaned me pop sheet music and she’d let me take the music home and bring it back the next week.

RV: So you discovered you had the discipline and desire to practice?

BD: I didn’t have the discipline to practice like the great instrumentalists and I don’t consider myself a great piano player. I practiced a little. She gave me five-finger exercises and sent me home with songs like “Underneath the Harlem Moon.” I was trying to read the sheet music but I couldn’t quite cut it reading, so I’d analyze the harmony and make up my own arrangements. Because we moved a lot, sometimes we would have a piano, and sometimes we wouldn’t. After we moved to Plainview, Texas, there was a spinet piano that was considered mine. I was twelve years old and in the eighth grade.

RV: Plainview is where you really started to develop. What style of music did you play in those early days?

BD: I sang simple songs like “Red River Valley”- it was Texas after all. The key of G was my favorite key. I could play in other keys but I was figuring out harmony on my own. I was drafted into the band. The director was a professional trumpet and clarinet player in Chicago who’d moved to Plainview for his asthma. It was a lucky blow for me. Robert Coleman Davidson was his name, but we called him Chief. There was an aptitude test in high school. It was an ear training profile test around 1938, and I scored high and Chief came to get me. He knocked on our door and said to my mom, “Your son is very talented and I think he ought to be in the band.” He looked at me and said, “I think you look like you could play clarinet.” So, that’s what I played in high school. There was a huge marching band in football season and in the spring we had concerts and ensemble contests.

RV: Since Chief played trumpet and came from Chicago, did he play any jazz?

BD: He didn’t like jazz. He said, “That jazz stuff will ruin your lip.” He had me playing classical stuff, like Mozart and Verdi. Lucky for me, one of the drummers said, “Robert, let’s start a jazz band!” We were hearing Harry James and Benny Goodman on the radio. We had a Downbeat and ordered stock arrangements like “In the Mood” and whatever was popular. I didn’t have a sax, and I noticed that most of the solos were in the 2nd tenor part, so I’d play the 2nd tenor part on the clarinet. It was an octave higher, but we had fun.

RV: I can see this was your pivotal turn into jazz when you heard Benny Goodman and Harry James music. You were lucky, I didn’t hear any jazz until I left Arkansas in the early 70’s. How did your parents feel about your becoming a musician?

BD: In the band, everyone was playing something different, so I dug in and learned the 3rd clarinet part. Robert C. Davidson gave me free lessons and, after two weeks, I informed my parents, “I’m gonna become a musician.” They didn’t put up a fight. Mother said, “That sounds nice.” My father said, “Well, as long as you do it good, I guess that’s all right.”

Somehow I got hooked up with a combo, an attempt at a big band with two or three saxophones and a couple of trumpets. We actually played a gig in high school, more of a country thing. I played piano and was the rhythm section, because they needed a beat. I could play pretty well, especially if it was in G! I loved the band so much, that I stuck around and took a high school course after graduation. Chief had promised to institute a course in basic harmony, Bach, and the theory behind the stuff that I had been figuring out on my own.

Before being drafted, I moved on to Lubbock, Texas and majored in band at Texas Tech for three semesters. By this time I was writing music for the big band. In Lubbock there were these hot cats playing clarinet, trombone and rhythm. They played somewhere between Benny Goodman and Jack Teagarden-a little bit Dixie and a little bit Swing. I studied solfeggio at 18 and 19 years old.

RV: When you studied solfeggio, did you prefer fixed do or moveable do? Do you sing numbers (1,3,5,7) or solfeggio syllables, do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do ?

BD: I like numbers, like 1-3-5-7-9-7-5. Did you ever hear my Pedigogical Round that was recorded by Spanky and our Gang? [He sings it.] (check this out)

RV: The addition of scat singing books and programs are growing a new crop of very hip singers. What’s your first recollection of scat singing?

BD: Louis Armstrong started doing it because he couldn’t think of the words. Improvisation was already in my head. When you imitate a horn, you’re scatting.

RV: When I first tip-toed into scat singing, I remember Fred Hersch, (whom I believed could do no wrong at the time) telling me Ella Fitzgerald was singing a lot of licks she’d learned, clichés and wasn’t really improvising on the same level as a great instrumentalist. For me, Ella could do no wrong, but I’m grateful to the musicians who enlightened me along the way. Your musicianship and songwriting have always inspired me.

When did you first start composing? Did you study composing when you were in the Army Band or at North Texas State?

BD: When I was plowing in Plainview, alone with a horse and a plow-they call it harrowing-riding on a sled, spikes scraping the soil, and you’re standing on a platform. The first thing I wrote was:

Sittin’ on the doorstep, with my bride

Sittin’ on the doorstep side by side

Sittin’ on the doorstep

Tonight we’ll do the four-step

Sittin’ on the doorstep with my bride

I’d think about it while plowing then sit at the piano and try to work something out.

Later on, when I was writing songs with a guy in the Army Band, I took it more seriously. I wrote with a hip guy from Los Angeles. Then a guy gave me a Rodgers & Hart songbook and that stimulated my mind. That was a good study of song form. In the Army Band, there were guys from New York, Chicago and Los Angeles that were hipper than the Southerners. There was a quota thing where they had some folks from different regions. There was Black’s Chord Book, before the days of fake books, Blacks was a little book of songs, with chords and slashes for beats. The first song I remember playing was “Out of Nowhere.” Meanwhile a tenor man comes in and asks me what I’m playing and he started playing it with me. I thought it was such a neat chord progression.

RV: Today, a musician buys a fake book app and it’s right on your laptop, iPhone or iPad. (iReal Pro). It’s only the chords, but you can put your song in any key.

Didn’t you play in the Army Band and at what point did you attend college at North Texas?

BD: One of my buddies in the Army Band taught me how to drink. He was a one-eyed trombone player. He had a glass eye so he was unfit to go to war, but he could get into the band. I had a punctured ear drum so I was unfit, too, but I got into the band. One day he asked me what I was going to do when I got out of the Army. When I told him I would probably go back to college, he said, “Why don’t you go to a better one?” He told me about North Texas, in the Dallas-Fort Worth Area. So that’s how I ended up going there.

RV: UNT has a great reputation. Was this the time period you really got into Charlie Parker and bebop? Your lyrics on “Yardbird Suite” are known around the world. (“Yardbird Suite,” 1956 Devil May Care)

BD: After the war, I had a short stay at my folks’ home with my first wife in Amarillo from December 1945 until June 46 when I moved to Denton to matriculate at UNT. I was in Amarillo when I first heard about Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. There was a tenor man whose mother owned a nightclub where we jammed. I was jamming with these two cats from the Air Force Band, who played trumpet and tenor from Chicago and New York. They said, “You play wild piano! Have you heard Bird and Diz?” I had heard about ’em but I hadn’t heard them. So they said, “Come over tomorrow and we’ll listen to records.” They played “Hot House,” and I thought-boy, is that weird! Then they told me it was the changes to “What Is This Thing Called Love.” I said, “Really? Yeah!” I went to North Texas thinking I was gonna snow everybody with my knowledge of bebop, but the first session I walked into, they were playing “Confirmation!” (laughing)

RV: Did you study voice at UNT ?

BD: When I was at North Texas I was in the Grand Chorus. They gave you the basics, but not a lot of voice teaching to the chorus members. We sang Verdi’s “Requiem,” Bach’s “Mass in B Minor,” and appeared with symphony orchestras in Texas. The Dean of the Music Department was a choral director when I was there from 1946-49. One of my buddies, a student, talked him into introducing jazz into the curriculum so you could major in Dance Band Music (a euphemism) and they started the One O’Clock Lab Band in 1947. However, I was majoring in composition and minored in piano, so I stuck with my major. But I unofficially took part in the One O’Clock Lab Band, sometimes subbing on piano and hearing them play my charts. I do believe that’s where it all started- jazz education.

In those days North Texas was NTSTC, a teacher’s college. I knew I didn’t want to be a teacher, so I avoided the education courses. The composition area wasn’t particularly strong at that time, but I did write and hear my compositions performed.

RV: UNT is still one of the best vocal jazz programs around the country. Jennifer Barnes (daughter of famed Swingle Singers member, Don Shelton) took Paris Rutherford’s chair as director of vocal jazz studies. Sounds like your studies at UNT prepared you for New York.

What was it like when you arrived in New York City?

BD: I was a different person in New York, because there, it was all about bebop. To sing would be corny. About the only time I would sing would be when the agent would ask if anyone in the band could sing. I’d sing “Route 66” or “Straighten Up and Fly Right.” But at jam sessions, I would just play. We were all trying to learn all the bebop literature. I came in 1949 as soon as I got my bachelor’s degree. I had a pal from Texas who came up a year before me. I was married to a girl from Arkansas and we’d sing together like Jackie and Roy. She was a natural talent, and learned anything I gave her to sing. I would write these fabulous head arrangements. We played with clarinet or a baritone sax. Often there was no bass player. We had a drummer who played French horn sometimes. That was our secret life. But we would have sessions there where I lived on East 75th St. for about 10 years and cats would come and play. That’s what the scene was about.

RV: Can you tell me about your method for composing? Do you remember your process for writing “Devil May Care?” The lyrics are the coolest to sing and improvise with and your melodies are always interesting and swinging.

BD: For me, the changes come with the melody most of the time, because I’m thinking about the harmony, too. Fran’s lyrics are so good and easy to write with. When you put music to a lyric that’s as brilliant as hers, it sort of writes itself.

I always thought of “Devil May Care,” as my number one song, and it’s one of my earliest. “Devil May Care” was recorded by The Les Elgart Big Band in 1953.

I lived in this fabulous cold water flat on East 75th Street and on the ground floor was LaNoue Davenport, a brilliant Texas cornet player who fell in love with early music. He was playing recorders, sackbuts, crumhorns (capped-reed instruments from the Renaissance period) and veilles (stringed instruments). He got me to sing in his a capella choir doing 13th-Century motets. On the second floor was another Texan, Terrell P. Kirk. He was sort of an amateur musician, and he made his own banjo and flew airplanes. I was on the fourth floor. T.P. would often knock on my door with his cup of coffee. He was in a composition class and he wanted to write pop songs. We wrote a lot of songs that never got out of the trunk. We’d go to the Brill Building with our commercial song ditties. One day he said he had an idea for a song-“Devil May Care.” I told him that had probably already been written. He went to the library and learned that there were six of them. I imagined they all said, “You don’t love me anymore, you’re so devil may care.” Right. Okay, we’ll write a different one. T.P. had a fragment of the melody-the first line-and I wrote most of the rest, but we shared it. We shopped it. TP stimulated my song writing abilities. When I divorced my first wife in 1952, I went home to Amarillo to cool it a little bit. I wrote the bridge on that visit to my folks’ place.

When I returned to New York, I’d write at 10 pm, the quiet hour. I had a damper on my piano so I could work quietly. I’d practice my singing. I still have the very piano I jammed with in New York. Lots of greats played it: Bill Evans, Tommy Flanagan, and Bob Brookmeyer, to name a few.

Anyway, that’s when I wrote “Love Came on Stealthy Fingers.” I had a little tape recorder so I would practice my singing and accompanying myself.

RV: When did you first meet Blossom Dearie?

BD: Well, I met Blossom in Paris. She came to hear me at The Mars Club and I already knew who she was (that girl who sang “Moody’s Mood” with King Pleasure). She asked me, that night, on the spot, to join her vocal group. That turned out to be the Blue Stars and we recorded 4 songs, one of which was “Lullaby of Birdland” en Francais, with Michel LeGrand at the helm of the big band. I came back home shortly after that and the group did more until they sort of ousted Blossom as the leader and evolved into other groups. Blossom and I went our own ways for years. She became a widow and returned to NYC. She told me she was hanging out with Bill Evans a lot and I’m sure she got some of her elegant piano voicings from him. On one occasion we did a radio show in Durham, North Carolina, with the three of us-Dave Frishberg, Blossom Dearie and me. There was some talk of doing a national tour, but we never could get our three acts together. We did work quite a few jobs in California and Europe with two of us at a time in various combinations: Bloss and me, Dave and Bloss, Dave and me. She spent her last years mostly at Danny’s Skylight and I saw her often and sometimes sat in for a duet. She devoted much energy to her label, Daffodil Records. I had four duets with her on her label. We hated to lose her but bad health took its toll. She was the consummate singer/pianist cabaret artist.

RV: Did you meet your best bass partner, Mr. Bill Takas, in New York City? I remember hearing you and Bill when I first arrived in New York City, in 79′. You guys were quite the team.

BD: Yes, Bill’s playing on “Devil May Care.” He was a wonderful, wasn’t he? Bill was a great guy. He would memorize everything I gave him. I never had to carry music with me when we were working together. Nowadays when I have a gig I always have to sort through the music and bring charts for everybody. With him everything was easy. He was so free.

In the summer of ’57, I paid money and went to a jazz camp in Lenox, Mass. Hod O’Brien was there along with Dizzy and Jimmy Giuffre. I had a few piano lessons with Oscar Peterson, who scared me to death. I studied composition with John Lewis. I’d been thinking about it for a while, so for my “thesis” (the performance project at the end of camp), I wrote three songs to the poetry of Langston Hughes and sang them on the concert with the Jimmy Guiffre Trio.

Jimmy’s bass player was Ralph Peña. When I got to LA, he heard about me being there and he called me up one day and said, “Hey man, I’m doing this jazz and poetry record with Lawrence Lipton, and I told him about your songs. He wants to talk to you.” Lipton was known as the “Poet of the Beats” and I talked with him and sent him a couple of things. He said, “I keep telling the poets they should sing and their delivery should be musical.” I thought my things were more like art songs in a jazz mode or something, but he said he wanted them on his recording.

I asked him to let me do a jazz and poetry thing-what I think jazz and poetry is. He asked me what I would do and I told him “Dog” by Ferlinghetti. “The dog trots freely through the streets and sees reality. And the things he sees are bigger than himself. Like drunks on lamp posts, chickens in Chinatown windows, their heads…” It becomes very political. I used to read Evergreen Review and I saw that poem and thought, “Wow, that’s got rhythm!” So I just recorded a blues background and did 4 tracks on Jazz Canto Vol. 1. There was never a volume 2. The story of my life-(chuckling) every record company I worked for went out of business.

In 1958, I couldn’t get a job anywhere. The record producer Red Clyde, who’d been with Bethlehem Records, was producing on the West Coast for a new label, Mode Records. He said, “Why don’t you come on out to LA and make a new record?” I said, “Well, what about my contract with Bethlehem?” He said, “Aw, they’re going under.” They had just produced a big package of Porgy and Bess, with Mel Torme as Porgy and Frances Faye as Bess. We all laughed about it and said, “Mel should’ve been Bess and Frances should have been Porgy!” So Red lured me to Los Angeles to go record with Mode Records, and ended up producing a lot of records. As it turned out, I never did that record for Mode.

I put in my transfer with the musicians union, so I started getting some work. It was a hot time out there. Paul and Carla Bley were married and playing modern music. I was in a session one day and suddenly I heard this saxophone with a sound like I’d never heard before. I turned around and it was Ornette Coleman, with a plastic alto. I asked the drummer who that was and he said, “That’s Ornette!” He was putting his quartet together. We used to go to sessions with Billy Higgins and all those guys.

So I lived a double life out there, with the cabaret gigs and the bebop gigs. Jack Sheldon and Joe Maini were especially tight with Lenny Bruce. I knew Lenny from a day when I was visiting the offices of Mode Records with a friend of mine from Philly, who’d moved to LA. Her name was Terry Morel, and we became buddies in my LA days. Lenny buzzed into the office that day and he was talking real fast and then abruptly left. I said, “Who was that?” She said, “That’s Lenny Bruce! He has a gig at a strip club in Hollywood.” We’d all go there and hang out and jam with Joe Maini, Jack Sheldon, and those guys. It was special because I got to know Lenny. I opened for him several times on the West Coast.

One day Lenny said, “I got a job for you, Bob-the way you sing and play the piano!” He sent me down to the Twelfth Knight Club and I got myself a cabaret gig and worked there on the grand piano five nights a week for about six months. The owner was a drummer. He’d get drunk and play the last song every night, but it was worth it. It was a great gig! I was making about $70 a week and loving it. Meanwhile, I was practicing and doing a few gigs with a quintet that I joined, who were into Horace Silver’s music. I wrote some charts for them. I was having a lot of fun with the quintet and I did a lot of singles around LA. I went there to make a record and only made part of a record.

RV: When did you meet Miles Davis? Your association with Miles transformed your career.

BD: The same friend, Terry Morel, used to keep my album, Devil May Care, on her shelf in front of the others in her attic apartment above Roberta Bright’s place. Terry was a cabaret singer who had made a Bethlehem LP, and she knew everybody. Miles Davis knew her, and one day he was visiting her when he was in town on a three-week engagement. I wasn’t going to go hear him, because it cost so much money, and I’d heard him a lot in NYC. He saw my LP on Terry’s shelf, and said, “What’s that?” Terry said, “That’s my pal Bob Dorough. He plays piano and sings and writes some nice tunes. He said, “Play me a little.” She played it for him and told me the next day that he heard the whole album! I took her to his gig that night, and as we walked in, Miles was wandering around the club, having played his solo. Other cats in the band were blowing (John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Jimmy Cobb, and Paul Chambers). Terry introduced me to Miles and you’d think he’d say something like, “I liked your LP, Bob” or, “Nice to meet you.” Instead, he whispered in my ear, “Bob, go up and sing ‘Baltimore Oriole.'” Dragging me up to the bandstand, he stopped the guys and told them to take a break because – “Bob’s gonna sing one.” I knew everybody in his band except him. So everybody but bass and drums left the stand and I did my version of “Baltimore Oriole.” That was the end of the set. We kind of became pals in LA while Miles was there for the three weeks. I gave him rides, and he gave me his number, and eventually we all ended up back in New York.

RV: Tell me about your relationship and writing with Fran Landesman? She was one of my favorite lyricists. “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” (written with Tommy Wolf) is one of her best known works. Where did you meet?

BD: I’d been living in LA for almost three years when I met Tommy Wolf and I knew who he was. He said, “Fran and I are writing a musical out of this novel by Nelson Algren, A Walk on the Wild Side. You could play Dove Linkhorn.” He twisted my arm and I went to St. Louis to be in the play. I told him I wasn’t an actor, and was used to singing on a mic. But he wanted me to do it. So I studied voice with Giovanna D’Onofrio, who taught me about the diaphragm and gave me some exercises. She did give me some insight into vocal production. I only lived in St. Louis for three months because our play closed just after three weeks. I didn’t have much money, so I got a solo gig for a short while. Then I left to go back to NY. I had all my stuff in the car. That’s when I first worked with Fran, in 1959. As I was leaving St. Louis, Fran said, “Here, let me give you a few of these,” and she reaches into a bureau drawer and grabs four or five sheets of lyrics and pressed them into my hand. I said, “Won’t Tommy be jealous?” She said, “He can’t keep up with me. I write all the time.” I put “Nothing Like You…” on top and I took it home with me. Later on, I put the music to it in New York. That was the first song of many I wrote with Fran.

RV: When did you first become associated with the famous Deer Head Inn, located in the Delaware Water Gap? You’ve been performing there for many years with your buddies Phil Woods and drummer, Bill Goodwin. It’s still a great scene. Keith Jarrett and countless great jazz musicians have performed at the Deer Head Inn and there are still jazz shows every week.

BD: When I got back to New York, the first thing I did was call my blowing buddy, Bob Newman, the tenor man. When I told him I was back from three years out in LA, he asked me if I was working. I said, “No man, I just got back in town.” Right then he had a gig for me at none other than the Mt. Airy Lodge. He was their first bandleader, and I was the first piano player. Later on, Dave Frishberg was in his band, and wrote a tribute to Bob. Then they started booking big bands and they’d call New York City, and get a bunch of cats to come out for one or two shows. That’s how a lot of people got turned on to the Deer Head Inn. We’d play the show and he’d say, “As soon as we play a cha-cha and a ballad for the dancers, we’re gonna cut out.” We’d pile into his VW bus and go over to Delaware Water Gap to hear John Coates, Jr.’s last set at the Deer Head Inn. Bob would sometimes sit in with Johnny, but I didn’t sit in, because John was too fantastic.

RV: Wasn’t it around this time period that you recorded your famous “Blue Xmas” with Miles Davis?

BD: I finally quit the Mt. Airy Lodge and went back to New York City. I had returned for a summer gig in 1962 with my second wife and infant daughter. So I’m up there in the country and the phone rings. “Bob, it’s Miles, and I want you to write me a Christmas song.” It was for a composite for Columbia records. His lawyer came on the line and explained it to me. Columbia wanted Miles on this Christmas record, and he didn’t want to play “Jingle Bells,” so he called me. He said, “And I want you to sing it with me, Bob!” So I got the idea of calling it “Blue Xmas” instead of “Christmas.” Columbia records had everybody; Carmen McRae and Paul Horn. Paul Horn was a very good friend of Miles’ and we’d met in LA that night he made me sing “Baltimore Oriole.” We had picnics and swim parties at Paul’s house. Miles would drag me into the house and have me play and sing for him. That’s when I played him “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most.” He loved the way I did that and told me he thought I was the only one who should ever sing it. He would just say, “Sing me a song.” And then he wouldn’t say a word. That was just the way he was. He would just listen. You’d never know if you’re getting to him or not. He would listen, but he wasn’t the kind of a guy who would sit around long. Back East, I also played him my song, “Nothing Like You…” with Fran’s lyrics. I called Miles and told him I’d written the song, and he said, “Come over and play it for me.” When I got to his house on 77th St., there was Gil Evans. I already knew Gil, too, from days we played piano opposite each other in the Village. I played “Blue Xmas” over and over while Gil took notes. Then Miles said, “Do that other one! “Nothing Like You.”

Next day the session was at 12 noon at Columbia Records. So I’m there early, naturally, like I am always early. I see the cats coming in: Paul Chambers, Jimmy Cobb, and no piano player. I’m thinking, “Gee, maybe I’m gonna play.” He was supposed to have JJ Johnson but instead he had Frank Rehak on valve trombone. Instead of John Coltrane, in comes Wayne Shorter on his first date with Miles. He said, “What are you doing here?” I said, “Well, I guess I’m gonna sing with Miles. And you?” He said, “This is my first date with Miles.” Looking back, I could’ve said, “This will be my first date, too. And my last one!”

So we recorded two tunes. We spent most of the time on “Blue Xmas,” then we did “Nothing Like You…” I’ve told this story in more detail in a little book I wrote called, “Blue Xmas.” It’s available and includes a CD track of my third recording of “Blue Xmas” with the Dave Liebman Group.

RV: What an incredible journey you’ve taken in your life. Your talent and spirit are inspirational to all who know you. Would you tell me a little bit about writing “Nothing Like You …,”? It cycles through so many keys.

BD: It moves through a lot of harmonies. But it’s famous because Miles put it on The Sorcerer. When I wrote it, I was thinking, “This is gonna be a fabulous long melody, and I want to write a melody that soars.” Once I got the beginning, that ascending scale, I had to pretty much find a way to get up and out there and find my way back. You gotta get back at the end.

RV: I watched you perform recently with Phil Woods’ big band at the Deer Head Inn. I was struck by your ability to reach out and grab the audience, pulling them into your lyrics. You phrase like a horn, but you deliver the story like an actor. Does this come naturally to you?

BD: Well, when I’m singing to a bunch of drunks that don’t want to hear it, I’m thinking, “How am I gonna get their attention?” They’re all drunk, and don’t want to hear it. “Play something we know!” I played a lot of Hoagy Carmichael in New York trying to entertain in bars. “Old Buttermilk Sky” and “Up a Lazy River” are some good tunes they could get into. (Laughing) I recommend everybody go through a course of singing for a bunch of drunks.

RV: Ah, “Singing for Drunks 101!” Yes, people go through school and learn music theory and analysis, but there’s no course in singing for drunks or connecting with an audience that’s eating and drinking. Most musicians have a list of war stories. I recall singing with Fred (Hersch) at Christy’s Skylight Gardens in the West Village and a woman threw up right in front of me. Man! You just keep on singin’.

Who were the singers that influenced and inspired you?

BD: The blowers that sang: Jack Teagarden, Trummy Young, Louis Armstrong. Joe Mooney-singing musicians. Nat King Cole Trio gave me a lot of inspiration. It was great to hear a guy sing and play piano with arrangements like that and make it. I wanted to name my first LP A Jazz Man Sings because I wasn’t a very good singer back then, but we ended up calling it Devil May Care. That was in 1956. I put out a vocal album, and the producer said, “No, no. Let’s name it after one of the songs on the album. That had 3 of my songs: “Devil May Care,” “You’re the Dangerous Type of a Girl for Me,” and Charlie Parker’s, “Yardbird Suite,” with my lyrics.

RV: I know students of jazz will want to read your history and see the upcoming documentary about your life (Devil May Care). I hope you talk about composing in the film.

What do you recommend for students who want to pursue songwriting today?

BD: It’s much harder now, I think. There are so many songwriters, songs, genres, styles and so many great writers. It’s harder to get an idea that hasn’t already been written. I think a songwriter who wants to write words and music must master the elements of music. We know Dave Frishberg studied English literature. So you must master words-the language-too. That may not mean Shakespeare; it could mean street language-whatever. But you’ve got to have it all at your disposal.

Then you have to find an idea that tempts you and inspires you and keeps your attention. You have to do the work. There’s always the Rodgers and Hart syndrome, i.e. the theatrical guys, where it’s usually two people writing words and music.

Then you have the case of a jazz musician who wants to collaborate. Like Ben Tucker came to me and said, “I got a hit tune. You gotta put a lyric to it.” And I wrote a song out of his blues riff, “Comin’ Home Baby.” It’s my most sellable song. There are over 500 recordings of it, not all of them vocal. But Ben and I share the money whether it’s vocal or instrumental. I worked really hard with that lyric, because nowhere in the riff can you say, Comin’ Home Baby. It was already an instrumental hit. I thought of Ray Charles and the Raelettes. So I wrote a counter melody and wrote lyrics for both, the counter melody and the main theme that was already known. That was a unique job.

Then I write for people who have lyrics, like when Dave [Frishberg] gave me “I’m Hip.” He said, “I can’t do anything with this. I don’t know if it’s just a joke, or what.” I took it home and came back three days later with my melody and he liked it. When he and I did our live recording for Blue Note (Who’s On First? ), we recorded another collaboration -“At the Saturday Dance.” We also wrote a song for Carol Fredette when she recorded Everything I Need-Songs of Dorough and Frishberg. That was “I Could Care Less.” Dave wrote the lyrics without my help, or me looking over his shoulder. Dave sent the lyrics to me and I wrote the melody. (That’s the way Fran and I worked.)

We tried to write together many times, but ended up with only three that worked. I ended up telling him, “You don’t need me, Dave.” He’s got them both covered. He knows the music. He knows the literature.

RV: I love your tune, “But for Now, (Let me say I love you). I first heard Marlena Shaw sexily purr it on her Blue Note recording in 1973, From the Depths of My Soul. What was your inspiration for writing that song?

BD: She had IT! Well, in 1962, I met Corine, the mother of my only daughter. I decided I was going to write a love song. I ended up writing two love songs (one is fast, and one is slow), “I’ve Got Just About Everything I Need,” and “But for Now,” both thinking of her. I wrote both lyric and melody. On “But for Now,” I just fooled around and found a melody I liked. Then I wrote the little refrain on the piano. When I had the line, “But for now I’ll just say I love you,” I had to go back to the verse that introduces that and find some words to go along with the little ostinato theme.

On “I’ve Got Just About Everything I Need,” I wanted to write a really hip, fast song that goes and goes and goes. I first got the lyric, then found a melody. Then it got thicker and thicker and more problematic, and I finally got one chorus, and I thought, “Oh, shit! I gotta have a second chorus. More work.” In a way, I’d say those are my two best songs. I don’t really think I’m a great songwriter, yet. I’ve had a lotta luck!

RV: I think you’re pretty good, Bob. I recall our old friend Ray Passman knew all of your songs.

BD: Well, thank you very much. I’d say my output is small.

RV: I have to mention your extended work with School House Rock. From 1973 to 1985 ABC television kept you quite busy. How did that experience shape your songwriting?

BD: That was one of the lucky breaks of my life. That came out of an ad agency. Ben Tucker and I were trying to earn some money doing jingles and he found this advertising agency whose president wanted to make an album of multiplication songs for his and others’ children. Ben had played them an album I’d made of found lyrics. I’d made these songs out of ordinary words, and named it This Is a Recording. Ben used it at the agency to prove that I could make songs out of anything. So I had an interview with David B. McCall and he told me of his desire. He said, “Let’s call it Multiplication Rock, okay? But don’t write it down.” He had approached the other jingle composers to do his bidding, but they all assumed somehow that children couldn’t handle anything heavy, and so they delivered dribble-drabble; little simple rhymes, rhythms, and lyrics. I always had a knack for numbers, and I loved being commissioned. I took about two weeks to write, “Three Is a Magic Number,” and that got me the gig. It took me about two years to write the whole album of multiplication songs. They gave me the money to record them: “Zero, My Hero; Two Elementary My Dear; Four-legged Zoo; Five, Ready or Not, Here I Come; I Got Six; Lucky Seven Sampson; Figure Eight; Naughty Number Nine; Good Eleven; and Hey Little Twelve Toes” -not necessarily in that order!

RV: Are there any books that you would recommend for today’s students?

BD: Books don’t mean as much anymore, because you’ve got the internet, right? If you want to learn orchestration, you can Google it.

RV: Yes, my home is full of books and music, but I can go online and find resources for any kind of scale I want to work on. Who are the singers performing today that speak to you and why?

BD: Roseanna Vitro, J.D. Walter, Carol Fredette, Mary Foster Conklin… Jamie Cullum is hip. He recorded “Devil May Care” and “But for Now.”

RV: Tell us about your new album, Eulalia.

BD: Joe Peine produced Eulalia. He asked me to write a new bebop tune for the project. I stole the title from Diz and wrote, “To Be or Not to Bop,” which is the title of his book, I believe.

RV: I highly recommend your new album. I listened to it in the car all the way back home from our interview. Thank you so much for all the time you put into this interview. Your story is a lesson; we never stop creating til’ the last chords are played. You’ve lived such an inspiring life. If we could bottle your energy and resolve, more artists would be happy and creative on stage. What you bring to the jazz table is what it takes to be a real Bebop Crusader.

For information about Bob’s upcoming performances and many recordings, visit

Check out Bob’s latest recording: Eulalia on Merry Lane Records, featuring his daughter Aralee on flute.

Originally Published