UNT North Texan contents UNT North Texan feature stories UNT North Texan eagle tale UNT  North Texan alumni news UNT North Texan feedback
MoreUNT North Texan time tracksUNT newsUNT North Texan contact usUNT North Texan past issues

The Schoolhouse Rocker : Bob Dorough educates with a song and an animated dance


story extras
Writer's note: Rufus Xavier and Big Bird
Schoolhouse memories
Fans' comments

web links
Schoolhouse Rock
Bob Dorough

other features
Waiting to Inhale
Great Debate
What a Quack


Bob Dorough
photo James Katz, Blue Note Records

WITH SCHOOLHOUSE ROCK AND "CONJUNCTION Junction,” Bob Dorough (’49) found his function.

Between 1973 and 1985, when he served as music director for ABC Television’s Schoolhouse Rock, Dorough’s nasal renditions of “Three is a Magic Number” and dozens of other memorable educational ditties became Saturday morning anthems for millions of youngsters. The songs he wrote and performed for the animated series gave its grammar, math, history and science lessons for children a strong lyrical appeal.

The show’s innovative format — three-minute snippets of music and animation aired between other programs — left a lasting mark and made it a national icon. For Dorough, it started as a way to help kids and earn a paycheck while he was attempting to support a jazz musician’s lifestyle.

“I had no idea that the show would become so big,” he says. “All I knew was that I had a chance to reach children and I liked that idea a lot.”

The influence of this unique series is undeniably evident today. Schoolhouse Rock was recently named one of the “Greatest Rock and Roll Moments on TV” by VH1. It inspired two popular musicals — Schoolhouse Rock Live! and Schoolhouse Rock Live Too! — and tribute albums by a host of modern-day rock stars.

The series is also enjoying a resurgence among today’s children. ABC is once again airing segments in its Saturday morning lineup, and Rhino Records has released a four-CD box set of its songs.


A magic number

Dorough says the original concept for the series — a set of educational records — was much simpler than the eventual animated sequences. It began when advertising executive David B. McCall realized his little boy couldn’t seem to memorize the multiplication tables but knew the words to every Rolling Stones song.

McCall hired Dorough to write 11 multiplication songs. Artist Tom Yohe drew up a few storyboards for the song “Three is a Magic Number” to show ABC executive Michael Eisner, who took an immediate interest and decided to turn the concept into an animated series.

Dorough recorded a set of number songs called Multiplication Rock. Because of the popularity of this initial set, the Schoolhouse Rock team wrote and produced songs for Grammar Rock, America Rock and Science Rock sets.

Besides “Conjunction Junction” and “Three is a Magic Number,” Dorough wrote songs like “Lolly, Lolly, Lolly, Get Your Adverbs Here,” “Elementary, My Dear,” “Rufus Xavier Sarsaparilla” and at least a dozen others. As musical director, he also supervised the audio production, sang and played piano for a number of the songs.

It wasn’t until a year after the initial launch of Schoolhouse Rock that Dorough had some idea of the series’ impact.

“I did an assembly at an elementary school and opened with ‘Three is a Magic Number,’” he says. “Almost immediately, I could see some of the kids poking each other and saying, ‘It’s him.’ And then, they started to sing along with me.”

Dorough did 13 concerts at elementary schools in rich and poor neighborhoods throughout New York, just to see if anybody was watching the series. Each time, it was like that first magical moment.

During its heyday, Schoolhouse Rock earned four Emmys from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.

Despite the immense role of the series in the hearts of children and in American culture, Bob Dorough never became a household name.

“I guess a lot of people have heard me and not known it,” Dorough adds.


Favorite heroes

Children have not been Dorough’s only audience. He also has a highly acclaimed jazz career. His albums include Devil May Care, Too Much Coffee Man and Right on My Way Home.

Miles Davis was a big fan. Dorough is the only vocalist who ever performed on his recordings, and Dorough recorded two of his own songs with Davis, including “Blue Xmas.”

Dorough also wrote lyrics to Charlie Parker’s “Yardbird Suite,” as a tribute after Parker passed away. During his time in the 1950s New York jazz scene, he had a rare opportunity to perform with Parker. His Parker tribute is considered a jazz classic.

Never losing his sense of humor about his semi-stardom, Dorough just says, “I was in the right place at the right time — it was jumpin.’”

He became enamored with jazz stars like Parker, Thelonius Monk and Dizzy Gillespie while earning his bachelor of music degree at UNT. He’d served three years in a Special Services Army Band unit, getting his first taste of jazz, and he remembers arriving on campus positive that he’d be the “hippest” person there.

“But jazz was rampant on the campus,” he says. “When I got there, everybody knew what I knew — bebop.”

Most of all, Dorough remembers the camaraderie. He wrote compositions for some of the lab bands and was among the many to promote instituting a jazz program. There was a great jazz clique around the campus, he says.

“Every time someone would send away to New York or Chicago for a new Charlie Parker record, you’d hear about it in the unofficial jazz course we all shared as students.”


It’s great to learn

After graduation, Dorough traveled to New York to be a part of the jazz scene he’d dreamed of at North Texas.

He remembers playing in jam sessions with many of the greats, touring Europe and the United States and writing. But he knows he’ll always be known for Schoolhouse Rock, and it’s a legacy he’s proud of.

“I see a lot of the kids who grew up listening to me in the clubs I perform in today,” he says. “Depending on the crowd, I’m bound to get a request for ‘Conjunction Junction.’”

Dorough still performs as a jazz vocalist, and he travels to Texas occasionally to hear his daughter, Aralee, perform as principal flutist with the Houston Symphony Orchestra.

He enjoys life in Mount Bethel, Pa., where he teaches music at a local university.

As the kids who grew up with Schoolhouse Rock become parents hoping to share some of the joys of their childhood, the series prospers.

And Dorough says he’s happy that kids are still learning from his work.

“If I’m going to be remembered as anything,” he says. “I’d like to be remembered as a teacher.”

Darn! That’s the end!

UNT home UNT calendarCampaign North TexasNorth Texas Exesathletics