Mention “Conjunction Junction” to a group of twentysomethings and the response is an unmistakable “what’s your function?” Same goes for “Lolly Lolly Lolly” or any similar name repeated three times: It’s always followed by a resounding “get your adverbs here!” Even foreigners whose history hasn’t been turned into a musical can sing the chorus of “I’m Just a Bill” after the first listen. For all the kids planted on the couch during early-’70s Saturday-morning cartoons, Schoolhouse Rock was all about fun, but for parents and teachers, it was the three-minute miracle.
What the Gen Xers don’t know, though, is the that the Rock’s foundation is actually jazz. Bob Dorough, who wrote the bulk of the exactly 180-second ditties, is an accomplished pianist in his own right. He began his recording career in 1956 with a record called Devil May Care and has had a steady following among vocal jazz enthusiasts ever since. One of his records of the late ’60s, Pop Art Songs, presented tuneful versions of minutiae—“I’d written an album of songs where I sing ordinary pieces of paper,” he boasts—such as a mattress label in “Do Not Remove This Tag” and a dictionary entry in “Love (Webster’s Definition).” A few years later, Dorough’s partner at the time, Ben Tucker, heard about a project to teach kids mathematics with music. He figured Dorough’s Pop sensibilities made for a perfect match, so he recommended his friend for the job.
In 1973, New York advertising agency McCaffery and McCall came up with the idea for a series of songs that would teach multiplication by rote. (David B. McCall’s son can actually take the credit. He couldn’t learn his times tables but could sing every word ever howled by Mick Jagger. Thus, his father thought, “Why not put the numbers to music?”) The firm found a genius, in the form of Dorough, to write them, and took them to ABC, where some hotheaded kid named Michael Eisner (same one) was looking for a series of the very kind. Eisner thought Multiplication Rock was a hit and got the group to do more: Grammar Rock, America Rock, Science Rock, Scooter Computer and Mr. Chips, Money Rock, and—as “My Hero Zero” would say—“Et cetera, ad infinitum, ad astra, forever and ever.”
Dorough’s main accomplishment for Schoolhouse was his 1974 Grammy for Multiplication Rock, the only songs issued as an LP as well as a TV series. He went about writing them in a way different from any jazz piece. “I wouldn’t let myself write for a couple of weeks. I thought. I looked in some math books I happen to be a collector of. I’m sort of an amateur mathematician,” he says. But the world’s most melodic mathematician did have some concerns: “All of the multiplications tables have the same rhythm pattern, right? How would I ever get some variety in it?”
It was McCall who gave him the best advice: “He said, ‘Don’t write down.’” So Dorough didn’t condescend. He wrote straight on, never compromising his credibility. And the kids bought it, listening to his familiar drawl, learning and singing along to lyrics like “now the ride of Paul Revere set the nation on its ear” from “The Shot Heard ’Round the World.” He became everyone’s favorite uncle from Arkansas—just the right kind of guy to be Schoolhouse Rock’s music director.
It says something about both Dorough’s amiability and his diligence that he once persuaded a group of friends to learn a foreign language for a practical joke. The dupe was a friend from L.A; “a smart, intelligent guy, and every time he’d come to New York, we’d take him to Chinatown for dinner.” The friends from the right coast decided to get the guy by speaking in Mandarin during an entire meal. “Us four New Yorkers, we [were] studying the language for three or four or five years.”
The guy from L.A. “came to New York, and we set up an evening at a Chinese restaurant. When we sat down, no one said any more English of us four. So we ordered the dinner, and the waiter says ‘Hen-hao,’ which means ‘Very good, we’ll get right to it,’ and he cut out and [the friend] still thought it was a joke. Suddenly they started bringing these dishes,” Dorough laughs. “Finally we had to admit to him we had been studying the language….He was flabbergasted. We made him pay for the check.”
It’s just as delightful that Dorough’s perfectly orchestrated songs have had such an impact on an audience that awoke sleepy-eyed to the TV. The most obvious example of that impact was the horrendous tribute released this past April, Schoolhouse Rock Rocks (see Discography, 4/12), featuring remakes of the original classics by Xers like Evan Dando and Blind Melon. Although Dorough didn’t mind the nod, that record, he says, “wasn’t the real thing. It’s a novelty to me, and you know, some of my fellow songwriters got mad.” But the list of those paying homage is longer still. De La Soul rewrote and sampled (some might say stole) “Three Is a Magic Number” for a similarly titled song on the group’s debut album, Three Feet High and Rising, and Soul Coughing has pretty much taken the entire chorus of “Ready or Not, Here I Come,” for Ruby Vroom’s “Casiotone Nation.” Granted, it’s just the fives chanted rhythmically, but without Bob Dorough, it’s doubtful anyone would have thought of it. Add that to the T-shirts, baseball caps, postcard books, CD-ROMs, and official guides, and you’ve got yourself a marketing miracle that’s fueled by a grass-roots phenomenon.
The box set includes every single song of each Schoolhouse series, which began in 1973 and continues today, and also features a few takes from the aforementioned tribute record. Of course, it includes non-Dorough tracks like Lynn Ahrens’ “Interplanet Janet” and Dave Frishberg’s “I’m Just a Bill.” And there are the songs Dorough wrote but didn’t perform, like “Sufferin’ Till Sufferage” by Essra Mohawk (who has since written for Cyndi Lauper) and, perhaps the most notable, “Figure Eight” by Blossom Dearie. Dorough, though, is best remembered for the tunes he lent his own voice to, such as “Three Is a Magic Number” and “The Good Eleven,” which, along with “Conjunction” (originally sung by Jack Sheldon, it’s Dorough’s most popular Rock song) are a part of his jazz act. “I was playing in nightclubs,” he says, “and young people would start coming over and say, ‘Your voice sounds familiar. Did you do this, did you do that?’ And of course, I admitted readily.”
Unfortunately, the box set will be out of date as soon as the newest series, Geography Rock, debuts next year. According to Dorough, the new selections will surely include a number on the state capitals. Also, Dorough has a jazz record in the can that he did with his bass player, Bill Tackas, over the course of three evenings. Although it’s been done for a year, no label has expressed interest in putting it out; he can rely on the Rock, though: “[There’ll be] no more waitin’ around, now that I’m famous,” he says.
Dorough’s role as the pied piper of the 13th Generation is one he throughly enjoys. It’s all about the fun of the music, an attitude he finds in the theme song of his favorite Multiplication Rock character, a rabbit called Lucky Seven Sampson: “‘Singing and dancing, that’s my game/I never did a whole day’s work in my life/Still, everything seems to turn out right…/I was born ‘neath the lucky stars.’ That’s how I think of myself. I like the last line, when he says, ‘Be good to your friend, and maybe I’ll pass this way again.’”
When asked how his own kids feel about Pop’s contribution to pop culture, Dorough is just as humble. “I only have one child, but of course I’ve ‘adopted’ quite a few,” he says. Those kids have gone on to do things like run record labels and publishing companies; some have even become children’s TV programmers, ensuring that Schoolhouse still rocks the Saturday-morning airwaves. As surrogate parent, Dorough is proud: “Well,” he says, “I knew that my kids would grow up.”CP