Bob Dorough, the veteran jazz performer who helped define the sound and style of educational animation mainstay Schoolhouse Rock!, has died. The author of such tunes as “Three Is A Magic Number” and “Conjunction Junction,” Dorough served as musical director for the long-running series of interstitial shorts, helping to recruit other notable writers and musicians to the show, and playing a major part in establishing its jazzy, often-impressionistic approach to musical education.
Born in Arkansas in 1923, Dorough played for several years in various Army bands before returning to college for more formal study. Working in Paris, and in the New York jazz club scene, he worked for and with a number of notable names of the day, playing in between Lenny Bruce sets, recording with Miles Davis, and, perhaps most bizarrely, playing in a band for boxer Sugar Ray Robinson during a brief foray into jazz.
Dorough got his start in educational TV when he was approached in the early ’70s by advertiser David McCall, who was looking for ways to use music to help math education “stick” in children’s heads. (McCall had noticed that his own son had a far easier time remembering lyrics than he did the dry facts of the times table.) Rather than a simple recitation of facts and figures, though, Dorough came back with the experimental, sometimes poetic “Three Is A Magic Number,” rapidly redefining what McCall and his co-producers thought their show could be. Dorough proceeded to write all the songs for the show’s first season—now dubbed “Multiplication Rock”—including, “My Hero, Zero,” and “Naughty Number Nine.”
Although the series worked to recruit new songwriting talent, Dorough continued to serve as its musical director for the next several years (and even into the occasional modern revival project), most notably contributing “Conjunction Junction” to the canon of the show’s second season, “Grammar Rock.” By setting the template for what a “Schoolhouse Rock! song” could be, meanwhile, he helped lodge facts about math, politics, science, and more into an uncounted number of kids’ heads (even if they might not thank him for the occasional inescapable earworm along the way).
Dorough died yesterday in his Pennsylvania home. He was 94.