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Bob Dorough has had one of the most varied careers in jazz and pop music. From his days as piano player for ex-boxer Sugar Ray Robinson to being main writer and male vocalist of the acclaimed “Schoolhouse Rock!” television series to his solo jazz albums, Dorough has always been a hep cat. And from his beginnings in Arkansas — Dorough was born Dec. 12, 1923, in Cherry Hill — he knew music was his thing.
“My early days in Arkansas were a long time ago,” Dorough admits. “But I remember Uncle Fred used to sit on Grandpa Lewis’ farm porch and play the guitar. He liked cowboy songs, I think. I used to know some by memory that he did. I guess I had a little knack for music … and I had violin lessons, but it was very unsatisfying to me, because it was 30 kids all playing the melody together. Had I known about string quartets or symphony orchestras, I might have gone further, but I just sort of fluffed it off. And we had to pay for it, so I think we decided it wasn’t worth it. And there was a fiddle around the house all the time that my father had somehow inherited. So I would fool with that, and I played the harmonica.”
After the family moved to Texarkana, Dorough discovered his instrument when his father, then driving a bread truck, bartered a half-dozen piano lessons in exchange for bread with a grocer who gave instruction in the back of her store. “But she was pretty hip,” Dorough recalled. “She gave me those little finger exercises, but also popular music, sheet music. My first look at sheet music … I think the seeds of jazz were planted there. I had this sheet music on my piano, and couldn’t really play the full score, so I would sort of figure out what chord it was and make my own interpretation –- that’s jazz!”
By high school, Bob and the Dorough family had moved again, to Plainview, Texas, and Bob was drafted into his school band. He says he came home from his first week of band and told his father he was going to be a musician. That he did — including after being really drafted in 1943.
By the early 1950s, he found himself in one of many odd musical positions in his career. Former boxer Sugar Ray Robinson was putting together a touring variety show, and Dorough became the piano player. For two years, Dorough toured with the revue, where he played alongside Louis Armstrong and Earl “Fatha” Hines, and which featured opening acts like Count Basie. But when Robinson took his show overseas to Paris, it didn’t go over. Soon, Robinson announced the tour, and the show, were over, and to pack for home.
Dorough stayed and worked the jazz clubs. He even played and toured with fellow Arkansawyer Maya Angelou of Stamps, who sang calypso.
After returning stateside in the mid-1950s, Dorough forged out on his own with his first solo album, “Devil May Care,” on Bethlehem Records in 1956. Now considered something of a lost gem, “Devil May Care” also featured Dorough’s vocalese lyrics to Charlie Parker’s future jazz classic, “Yardbird Suite.”
But it would be more than a decade before Dorough’s second solo album. And though he continued recording jazz albums for mostly smaller labels, by the early 1970s Dorough had found an entirely new and unexpected audience for his unique voice and songs — ABC-TV’s series of educational cartoon musical shorts, “Schoolhouse Rock!”
“Anyway, you know, I guess I would have to confess that I wanted to be Igor Stravinsky,” Dorough says. “But instead, I’m just Bob Dorough.”
Stephen Koch’s “Arkansongs” is heard weekly on National Public Radio affiliates across the state.