Thursday, December 09, 2010

Bob Dorough: In Appreciation Of The Best Jazz Musician You Never Heard Of

My first face-to-face meeting with jazz legend Bob Dorough was in a booth at a greasy spoon near his home in northeastern Pennsylvania, and while we did eventually get around to talking music, the reason for the sitdown was that he had been good friends with a guy about whom I was writing a book.

The reason I was writing the book was that the guy, a popular bar owner and community do-gooder, had the misfortune of being hacked to death by an ax-wielding madman whom the police had never been particularly interested in finding -- and so didn't. This is because the guy was . . . well, from the wrong side of the tracks and hung out with low lifes like bikers and hippies and jazz musicians like Dorough. That's how the justice system works in those parts.

It's a testament to Dorough's good naturedness that he maintained the kind of grin that so many sweet eccentrics have through a couple cups of joe and some buttered toast although he obviously was uncomfortable discussing this unfortunate slicing and dicing.

And what I didn't know at the time was that my book -- The Bottom of the Fox: A True Story of Love, Devotion & Cold-Blooded Murder -- would touch him deeply, so deeply that he penned a song with an eponymous title that he debuted at a jazz festival in September and is recording for a forthcoming album.

It is a hallmark of Dorough's seven-decade career that many people have heard him but didn't know it.

Dorough, who turns a righteous 87 years old on December 12, a birthday that he shares with jazz vocalist greats Frank Sinatra and Joe Williams, may hold the world record for uncredited appearances on jazz albums, but is best unknown as a voice and primary composer of most of the songs used in "Schoolhouse Rock!," the popular series of educational animated shorts appearing on Saturday morning television in the 1970s and 1980s on ABC television affiliates.

Among Dorough's masterful compositions, which my then young kids and millions of others soaked up with sponge-like enthusiasm, were "My Hero, Zero," "Three Is a Magic Number" and my own fave, "Conjunction Junction."

Many jazz fans first heard Dorough in 1967 and of course didn't know it.

That was because producer Teo Macero never credited him as the piano player on Thelonious Monk's popular Monk album. Gary Giddins also notes in a wonderful Village Voice profile that Dorough's is the "high-pitched, nerdy male voice singing a 115-second panegyric, 'Nothing Like You,' backed by winds and bongos" on Miles Davis's Sorcerer.

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While his piano chops are admirable, it is Dorough's nonpareil ability to interpret lyrics that are his trademark. This includes what is known as vocalese, the singing of lyrics written for melodies that were originally instrumental compositions, usually entirely in syllables. (Think Cab Calloway and Al Jarreau.)

Writing about
Beginning To See the Light, Dorough's 1976 album, Giddins notes:

"Jazz musicians usually come a cropper when they try to get down with rock tunes; yet Dorough begins begins with 'Don't Think Twice, It's All Right' in a version I prefer to Dylan's. The rhythm is exactly right, but what locks it down for me is the way he phrases 'Don't think twice, baby, that's all right' -- the last three words emitted in a rapid bullfrog croak."

How Dorough became a headliner is a story in itself and one that befits an eccentric (he was a youthful 79 when we first spoke and still wore his gray hair in a ponytail.) In fact, somebody needs to write his biography (his wife Sally told me with a practiced roll of the yes that he claims that he'll get around to it), although a documentary film is in the works.

was born in Arkansas, grew up in Texas and played in an Army band during World War II, an experience that fortunately did not dull his enthusiasm for music. He moved to New York City around 1950 and was playing piano in a Times Square tap dance studio when he was introduced to Sugar Ray Robinson, for my money the greatest boxer of all time, who had temporarily left the ring and was putting together a song and dance revue. Dorough became the revue's music director and traveled with it throughout the U.S. and Europe.

left Robinson in Paris and lived there for two years, recording with singer Blossom Dearie, with whom he long collaborated, before moving to Los Angeles where he gigged around, including playing between sets for comedian Lenny Bruce. In 1956, he released his first album, Devil May Care, which included his signature song of the same name, as well as a version of "Yardbird Suite" with his own vocalese lyrics over the famous Charlie Parker song.

Miles Davis liked the album so much that he asked Dorough to write and record a Christmas song. The result was the downbeat "Blue Xmas," released in 1962 on Columbia's Jingle Bell Jazz compilation album. Dorough also laid down the voice track to "Nothing Like You," which it should be noted is one of the very few vocals on Davis's 100-plus albums.

He also has written for Mel Tormé and produced two albums for Spanky and Our Gang, adding jazz-influenced arrangements to their folky sound. Oh, and he has an organic farm in Arkansas.

Dorough, borrowing
a line from the Beatles' "With a Little Help From My Friends," has said that his goal in life is "to sing you a song and have you not walk out on me," and in that he has succeeded extraordinarily well and with extraordinary good cheer.
Photograph by Bud Nealy


Bob Dorough crew said...

We are currently making a movie about Bob Dorough—a story for every artist who refuses to give up.

Please check out the trailer for DEVIL MAY CARE and support the film!

Miles said...

R.I.P. Bob. I for one will miss you immensely.