The music of Cherry Hill, Arkansas, native Bob Dorough will not sit still. The funky educational tunes he penned for “Schoolhouse Rock!” came to life with 1976 Bicentennial-era animation, shrill pennywhistles, explosion sounds and fact-filled interludes, and his studio albums sizzled with swing and forward momentum — music made for clinking glasses and twirling around with a raucous friend or two. So, it caught me a little off guard when I walked into The Afterthought in 2011 to hear the legend and found a roomful of people frozen in their chairs, eyes and ears fixed unwaveringly on Dorough at the piano. Even at his age — he’s 93 now — the hipster gestures and quips and laughs easily, his mind kept sharp from decades of playing bebop rhythms and complex chord modulations. He’ll perform at 7 p.m. Friday, May 19, in the Central Arkansas Library System’s Ron Robinson Theater as part of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies’ Arkansas Sounds series with the polished Ted Ludwig Trio as his backing band.
You said once that you wanted to be Igor Stravinsky, but instead, you’re “just Bob Dorough.” I, for one, am glad you’re not Igor Stravinsky, but that said, what is it about his work that made you say this?
I was studying all kinds of music — classical before I studied jazz, even — and I’ve just admired Stravinsky. He had a great work ethic. A lot of people laughed at him. They used to say he had manuscript paper on the wall, and he would get up in the morning and start in the east wall and fill up a page, then go to the north wall, do another page, west wall. Come hell or high water, he was gonna do his pages. And then he had lunch. (Laughs).
Could you tell me about your middle name, Lrod? I understand your aunt suggested it, and it’s pretty unusual.
Yes, it is. I never got old enough to ask her about it, I think she died when I was young, but my mother said, “She said that’s the way it’s spelled.'” I had to be careful in high school because if they found out, they’d kid me. They’d say, “Eeeehhhhlllll-Rod!” I could’ve been a rock star if I’d stuck with Lrod and gone to Nashville instead of New York.
Your cadence on the “Schoolhouse Rock!” stuff is a little straighter, rhythmically, less lilting and less wandering. Was that a conscious effort on your part, since you were writing for children?
The beats were 2/4, even eighth notes. In jazz, everything’s triplets, and the gentleman wanted me to write “Multiplication Rock,” like rock ‘n’ roll music. Even though it wasn’t real rock, I was sticking to a simplified up-and-down rhythm instead of my style in jazz, which is more of a swing style. It was a different music and a different beat, so I sang it that way. I couldn’t take too many liberties — every song had to be three minutes! No more, no less.
You took a lot more freedom with your own stuff, like “This Is a Recording of Pop Art Songs by Bob Dorough.” You recite “found lyrics” verbatim from a draft card notice, a weather report, a recipe for apple pie and the definition of the word “love” from “Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, la la la la la.”
As far as inspiration, it was another person that brought the idea to me. … Andy Warhol was on his mind, I think. Even Picasso would pick up a piece of driftwood and after a few minutes, it would become art.
A lot of people may not know that you spent some time acting. Did you ever think of that as a possibility for a second career, or was it just for fun? Or for a paycheck?
Well, I lived in L.A. for a while, and I did my kind of singing. You know, mostly all alone, just piano and voice in a little club or coffeehouse. A lot of actors would come by and listen to me. Eventually, they might say something like, “Do you have an agent?” And I’d say, “No, no, no, I don’t have an agent.” They sent me on a couple of readings, where you read and if they like you, they’ll hire you. I got in an episode of “Have Gun, Will Travel.” with Richard Boone, and I played a bad man with James Coburn, who was a pal of mine. … Later on, Tommy Wolf begged me to be in his new musical with Fran Landesman called “A Walk on the Wild Side,” based on a Nelson Algren novel. I always say it was typecasting; I played an ignorant teenager in Texas.
Songs like “Three Is a Magic Number” and “Electricity, Electricity” are credited with introducing generations of kids, myself included, to important concepts like multiplication, science and grammar, and definitely considered sort of a success story in terms of getting kids to “eat their spinach.” How do you feel about the political climate — the prospect of cutting government funding for PBS, for example, or Obama’s “Let Girls Learn” programs?
Well, that’s terrible. Of course, I didn’t vote for Donald Trump, and I’m watching more news lately than I ever have in my life, just trying to see what the hell is going on. I deplore most of the moves he makes. Of course, there’s not too much I can do about it personally at my age now. So, I keep hoping something will happen and he’ll disappear.
In an interview with NPR in 2013, you mentioned a song you wrote for “Schoolhouse Rock!” that was never picked up, called “Grammar’s Not Your Grandma, It’s Your Grammar.” What was it about?
It was about the words that you might meet in grammar class, you know. Like, “Syntax doesn’t mean send money to the government. It’s your syntax. You know the order of the words!” I wrote several songs, Stephanie, that they never bought. I had one on the square. [sings]
I made little boxes one by one/I used one square and it was fun
Made little boxes two by two/four squares and I was through
Made little boxes three by three/Nine squares filled it up nicely
…well, it goes on and on.
You should release them on an album! Bob Dorough’s B-sides.
“Songs They Didn’t Buy.”
Visit arkansassounds.org to purchase tickets to see Bob Dorough in concert 7 p.m. Friday, May 19, at Ron Robinson Theater, $15 for people 13 and older and discounted to $5 (Dorough’s idea) for kids 12 and under.