Bob Dorough may just be the only 75-year-old hillbilly singer,
composer and bebop piano player with a ponytail and a seven-album
record deal. And just how many of his kind would you say have worked
with Lenny Bruce, Miles Davis and Sugar Ray Robinson?
many years he flew around the United States paying a senior citizen
tariff he calls "a geezer pass." He worked with his buddy
the late bassist Bill Takas as a duo. They enjoyed working alone
together and, frankly, anyway, they could not afford a drummer. This
did not bother Dorough all that much because, as that other hillbilly
jazzman Chet Baker once said: "It takes a very good drummer to be
better than no drummer at all."
But it appears that his
scrimping days are over. His album, the first of the seven, "Right
on My Way Home," was released by Blue Note, and "Schoolhouse
Rock," his educational production dating back to the '70s, was
newly packaged into a 4-CD box by Rhino Records.
who once loved his voice singing "My Hero Zero" over
animated cartoons on Saturday morning television are now in their 30s
happily paying music charges in the jazz clubs Dorough appears in.
They elbow each other with nostalgia.
A club called Birdland
in the theater district on West 44th Street was packed two nights
running last year when Dorough made one of his rare New York City
appearances. (Notable names dropped in, including the filmmaker Robert
Altman, the artist Al Hirschfeld and actor Gary Goodrow.) Dorough had
worked regularly at the Village Gate and the musicians hangout
Bradleys, but they both closed.
He likes to "harbor
stray animals" on his farm in Pennsylvania's Pocono Mountains, a
90 minute drive from the city. The area reminds him of the hills,
rivers and creeks near his home town of Cherry Hill, Arkansas. He had
been "scoring heavy advertising bread" recording jingles
like "Sing a Can of Beer," so he bought the place.
nothing urgent to go for in New York, it was perhaps a bit too easy to
get into the habit of lying back with the philosophy expressed in a
song he wrote with Fran Landesman: "I've Got a Small Day Tomorrow
(and there's a car I can borrow)." His voice has been compared to
"Nat King Cole doing a Louis Armstrong impersonation."
somehow manages to wear his heart on his sleeve, laugh, wink, keep his
tongue in his cheek, sing and finger two-handed bebop piano at the
same time. "In the old days," he said, with his old-days
Arkansas Traveler twang: "I was a bebop student trying to learn
'Half Nelson' like everyone else."
He ran jam sessions
with people from Detroit, including Thad and Elvin Jones, in his East
75th Street four-flight walk-up. Financially, Dorough had fallen on
what he calls "evil days."
He was working Henry Le
Tang's Times Square tap dance studio for $3 a class. One day, Le Tang
said "I've got a five dollar gig for you." He jumped at it.
Le Tang introduced him to the boxer Sugar Ray Robinson, who had
retired from the ring and was building a song and dance act. Tap
dancers are like drummers with legs and Dorough could handle that just
When Le Tang said "play 'Green Eyes' for Sugar
Ray," he knew exactly what to do. Afterward, wiping his brow,
Robinson said: "You're going on the road with us." Dorough "took
it as a command."
They traveled with Robinson's hairdresser, valet and road
manager; playing theaters in Detroit, Washington, Philadelphia and the
Apollo in Harlem on the same bill with attractions like The Dominoes.
"I toured our continent on Count Basie's bus, hung out in Louis
Armstrong's dressing room, and I met 'Fatha' Hines in Providence."
a smile that somehow combined lechery with childlike enthusiasm,
Dorough recalled: "Oh, all those beautiful dancing girls. It was
wonderful." Robinson took his revue, billed as "The Champ,"
to Paris with Dorough as musical director. They sailed over first
class (doing their act to sing for their supper as it were en route)
on the Ile de France.
But they bombed in Paris ("Larry
Adler stole the show"), and when Robinson and his retinue sailed
back (second class), Dorough stayed in Paris to work at the Mars Club
for the French franc equivalent of $11.65 a night. It went a long way
in Paris in the '50s. He sighed: "I was in pig heaven."
Back in the USA, Lenny Bruce was "a jazz lover but an
autocrat too" and after not too long a period of time, Dorough
decided to stop accompanying "A Sick Evening With Lenny Bruce."
After hearing Dorough's vocalese version of Charlie Parker's
"Yardbird Suite," Miles Davis called "out of the blue"
and said: "I want you to write a Christmas song for me."
Dorough took that as a command also. He wrote the anti-Yuletide lament
"Blue Xmas," which Miles recorded. One thing sure - he was
taking orders from some sharp cats.
Little Brother Montgomery
taught a young white singer named Elaine (Spanky) McFarland about the
blues and she started the rock group Spanky and Our Gang, with Dorough
producing. Their "Sunday Will Never Be the Same" was a hit.
In addition to advertising exposure and rock hits came a
commission to set the multiplication tables to a back-beat. An agency
account executive he knew came up with the challenge: "My little
boy can't memorize the multiplication tables, but he sings along with
Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones."
Dorough had taken
an elective called "The New Math" at Columbia University -
he knew about the commutative law and he liked the Stones too and he
soon realized that he knew more about rock than the account executive.
It led to the successful body of work called "Multiplication Rock"
including "Little Twelve Toes" ("If man had been born
with six fingers on each hand, he'd also have 12 toes, or so the
The premise was expanded to "Schoolhouse
Rock," including grammar, America (history and civics) and
science - Dorough producing once more. Dave Frishberg wrote a song in
the American history department that began: "I'm just a bill, yes
I'm only a bill, and I'm sitting up here on Capitol Hill."
folky grammar song by Lynn Ahrens explained: "A noun is a person,
place or thing." And Dorough sang his "real rocky"
science number called "Electricity." All of which might or
might not explain why Bob Dorough has been inducted into the Arkansas
Jazz Hall of Fame.