Bob Dorough, a bebop pianist, composer, arranger and vocalist who was one of the voices of the iconic 1970s educational cartoon Schoolhouse Rock!, died Monday of natural causes in Mt. Bethel, Pa. He was 94.
His death was confirmed by the Associated Press.
Best known for the gentle but distinctive Southern lilt behind Schoolhouse Rock! favorites like “Three Is a Magic Number,” “My Hero, Zero” and “Lucky Seven Sampson,” Dorough was also the writer of the songs and the series’ musical director. By that time, Dorough was already an accomplished musician who was a veteran of both the New York and Los Angeles jazz scenes and had recorded with Miles Davis. He had also worked as an accompanist for poets Maya Angelou, Allen Ginsberg and boxer Sugar Ray Robinson, and as an arranger and producer for the folk-rock band Spanky and Our Gang, in addition to recording albums under his own name.
Robert Lrod Dorough was born in Dec. 12, 1923 in Cherry Hill, Ark. As a child his family moved to Texarkana, Texas. When young Dorough showed early signs of musical talent, his father, a bread-truck driver, arranged to trade bread for piano lessons with a grocer who taught from the back of her store. By high school, Dorough had decided to be a professional musician, beginning his career in a special services U.S. Army band in which he spent three years after being drafted in 1943; he played clarinet and saxophone as well as piano, and learned how to arrange music.
Upon his discharge, Dorough earned a degree in music from North Texas State University, then enrolled in 1949 as a graduate student at Columbia University in New York. It served as his entry point into the then-blossoming bebop scene. In 1954, he was hired by Robinson for the legendary boxer’s attempt at a musical revue. When the show fizzled out in Paris the next year, Dorough stayed in Europe, working with vocalist Blossom Dearie and with then-calypso singer Maya Angelou.
Returning to New York in late 1956, Dorough recorded his first album, Devil May Care, on the Bethlehem Records label. Dorough played piano and sang, including a lyrical rendition of Charlie Parker’s “Yardbird Suite” that anticipated the vocalese singing style. Among its fans was Miles Davis, who recorded “Devil May Care” with his own band in 1962, as well as two songs with Dorough. (One of these, Dorough’s “Nothing Like You,” appeared on Davis’ 1966 album Sorcerer.)
After spending the late ’50s as a journeyman musician in Los Angeles, Dorough returned in 1960 to New York, where he worked as a freelance player, arranger and producer (in partnership with Stuart Scharf), including with Ginsberg and Spanky and Our Gang, as well as beginning again to perform and record under his own name. Upon being hired in 1971 to “set the multiplication tables to music,” Dorough found his way into his most famous gig as a writer, performer and musical director for Schoolhouse Rock! from 1973-85. He was nominated for a Grammy in 1974 for Best Recording for Children.
Dorough continued making his own music during and after Schoolhouse Rock!, including a sequel to his debut, Devil May Care II, in 1982, and 1991’s eccentric This Is a Recording of Pop Art Songs (on which he wrote and sang melodies to “found lyrics” including a telephone operator recording and a $5 bill). His final recording, a collection of mostly standards entitled But for Now, was released on Enja Records in 2015. He was still performing and touring as late as last spring.
Dorough retained a streak of modesty about his own accomplishments. “I guess I would have to confess that I wanted to be Igor Stravinsky,” he told the Arkansas Times in 2007. “But instead, I’m just Bob Dorough.”
He is survived by Sally Shanley, his wife of 24 years, as well as a son, Chris, and a daughter, Aralee, from a previous marriage.