NEPA jazz and ‘Schoolhouse Rock’ musician Bob Dorough dies at 94, leaves lasting legacy
Singer, songwriter, pianist, and composer Bob Dorough may not have been born in Northeastern Pennsylvania, but he was well-known and well-loved in the many years he spent here.
Dorough died of natural causes yesterday in his home in Mount Bethel at the age of 94, leaving behind a legacy that includes many classic “Schoolhouse Rock!” songs like “Conjunction Junction,” “Three Is a Magic Number,” “My Hero, Zero,” and “Electricity, Electricity,” as well as a catalog of influential jazz albums and even recordings with the legendary Miles Davis.
Entertaining children and adults alike in his own electric, inimitable style, he continued to perform live locally right up until his death with the same passion and energy he had decades before. His official bio sums up his memorable career:
Bob Dorough, born in Arkansas and “raised” in Texas, immediately fell in love with music upon joining the Plainview Texas High School Band. He served three years in a Special Services Army Band Unit, gaining much professional experience as arranger, clarinetist, saxophonist, pianist, and entertainer (1943-45).
After earning a Bachelor Of Music degree at the University of North Texas (1949), he made a beeline for New York City, where he took classes at Columbia University and immersed himself in the volatile jazz scene then taking place there – the bebop revolution. In 1952, he turned his back on the academic scene to devote himself to jazz performance, specializing in piano/vocals.
After years of accompanying, conducting, arranging, and playing, he made his first recording as a leader (1956) for the Bethlehem label, “Devil May Care,” having written the title tune three years earlier. He is known as “the only singer to record with Miles Davis.” While this may not be 100 percent true, he did record two vocals with Davis in 1962, “Nothing Like You” and “Blue Xmas,” both of which he composed. Davis also recorded an instrumental version of Bob’s classic song “Devil May Care” that same year.
In 1971, he received a commission to “set the multiplication tables to music.” This led to a small industry, being the beginning of ABC-TV’s “Schoolhouse Rock!” Saturday morning cartoons that entertained and instructed unsuspecting children during the years 1973-1985. The impact of this media exposure was unpredictably immense. The show came back for another five years in the ’90s and is now enjoying its 40th anniversary with a DVD edition of the entire, five-subject series, for which Dorough worked as the musical director.
In 1995, he signed a contract with the prestigious jazz label Blue Note Records and has done three CDs for them: “Right on My Way Home,” “Too Much Coffee Man,” and “Who’s on First?”
Now residing in Pennsylvania, he has received honors from that state (the Governor’s Artist of the Year Award) and from his native state (the Arkansas Jazz Hall of Fame.)
In 2002, his trio was chosen to represent the State Department and Kennedy Center as an Ambassador of Jazz and Blues. The one-month tour saw them play some 22 workshops and concerts in 13 cities in six different countries.
Currently recording on Arbors, Candid, and his own label, Bob Dorough continues to perform, often for children too, in jazz clubs and schools wherever he can.
Just last year, Dorough spoke and sang about the impact of “Schoolhouse Rock!” and the value of music in education at a TEDx Talk in Stroudsburg:
He will be missed by many in the local music scene, particularly by his longtime NEPA bandmates, and news of his passing has made headlines in all the major publications around the world, inspiring many to break out those old CDs and DVDs to remember how they learned math and grammar and, hopefully, pass those earworm lessons down to a new generation.
See NEPA Scene’s photos of Dorough performing a free show with his local Schoolhouse Rock Band on Lackawanna County Courthouse Square in downtown Scranton on July 14, 2012 below:
by Rich Howells
Rich is an award-winning journalist, longtime blogger, photographer, and podcast host. He is the founder and editor of NEPA Scene.