From Miles Davis to ‘Schoolhouse Rock:’ Remembering Composer Bob Dorough

Jazz musician Bob Dorough is best known for songs that made it fun to learn about grammar, numbers and civics – on Saturday morning.

By Rhonda Fanning & Leah ScarpelliApril 25, 2018 1:49 pm

For many Texans of a certain age, learning civics and math and grammar began as we sat cross-legged on the floor in front of a big cathode ray tube on Saturday mornings. In between Scooby-Doo, Josie and the Pussycats and Super Friends, we learned lessons that have stuck with us all our lives.

“Conjunction junction, what’s your function? Hooking up words and phrases and clauses…”

Lots of people, even those who are a little too young to have heard them the first time they appeared on TV, can recite all the words to that song and many others. “Schoolhouse Rock” was more than a phenomenon: it was proof that even with all the junk food television offered, it was possible for nutritious value to exist on TV, too.

The man behind the music, Bob Dorough, passed away this week at age 94. About 20 years ago, Jeff McCord, music director at our sister station KUTX in Austin, wrote a memorable piece in Texas Monthly called “My Hero Dorough.” McCord says Dorough was born in Arkansas but grew up in Plainview, Texas.

Dorough, who took up music young and eventually found his way to the kind of jazz whose influence you can hear in “Schoolhouse Rock,” had done nothing in his career that would have indicated he would change so many kids lives.

“It’s just the oddest thing, because he was the most unlikely person to end up doing what he did,” McCord says.

McCord reminds generations raised on cable and streaming media that Saturday morning cartoons were the only game in town for kids’ entertainment in the 1970s, when “Schoolhouse Rock” songs were introduced as short segments aired between the animated series.

“It was conceived as an album, really,” McCord says. “They couldn’t really find anyone to write songs about math. And Bob had made this weird record with sound collages. And one of the guys working on this series happened to like it. And he goes, ‘Call Bob Dorough. He can write anything.'”

McCord says the producers working on “Schoolhouse Rock” convinced a skeptical Dorough that he didn’t have to “write down” to compose music for kids.

At the time “Schoolhouse Rock” went on the air in 1973, ABC was under pressure to add some nutritional value to its Saturday morning TV offerings.

“It was just such a fluke that it even got on television at all,” McCord says. The show stayed on the air for 12 years.

Before Dorough put words to how a bill becomes law, he was a jazz musician whose career was erratic. But he had managed to attract famous fans.

“Some guy had his album in the apartment when Miles Davis was there, and played it for Miles. And Miles just became infatuated with it,” McCord says.

Then Davis asked Dorough to write a Christmas song. It found its way onto one of Davis’ albums.

Dorough played his last gig at age 92. After “Schoolhouse Rock,” he continued to play jazz, and scored a major-label album debut at 73. He married his jazz and Saturday morning careers in later life, arranging “Schoolhouse Rock” songs to be performed as jazz.

“I think he was grateful,” McCord says “but at the same time, a little sad that he didn’t make it on his own terms. I saw him play a straight-up jazz gig. The joy on his face, compared to when he was at the elementary school, not the same at all.”

Written by Shelly Brisbin.