I was having a high old time listening to Bob Dorough’s new record, Too Much Coffee Man (Blue Note), which may be his best, when my assistant Elora walked in and exclaimed with a slight interrogatory, “Schoolhouse Rock!?” She had never heard of Dorough, but she recognized the voice. I had never heard of Schoolhouse Rock, so she brought in her four-disc Rhino set and played her favorites, including a masterpiece, “My Hero, Zero,” noting, “You will not find anyone of my generation who does not know the words to ‘Electricity Electricity’ and ‘Conjunction Junction.’ ” She proved the point with a recitation augmented by a description of the animation that accompanied the songs when the short instructive cartoons appeared on television. Dorough was the series’ music director and wrote most of the songs. “I learned the multiplication tables from him,” Elora marveled. “We had great TV then.”
Well, every generation thinks it had great TV. But it occurred to me that many people over the past 50 years have heard Bob Dorough without knowing it. He has cast a pretty long shadow since he left Cherry Hill, Arkansas, got a degree in composition at North Texas State, moved to New York to be part of the jazz scene, and served two years as music director for—no kidding—Sugar Ray Robinson. In the ’60s, for example, he pulled strings for Spanky and Our Gang and Chad Mitchell, wrote arrangements for the Fugs, and helped create Allen Ginsberg’s wheezing album of William Blake’s poetry.
I can tell you exactly how a few thousand young jazz fans first heard him in 1967. For some reason, producer Teo Macero was putting out jazz records without personnel listings. This had its comical side: After I loaned a friend Monk., he called excitedly to tell me how wonderful Monk was, adding, “I like the piano player, too.” With Miles, however, who was recording erratically with his new quintet, the absence of info lent an air of mystery. You had no idea what to expect of Sorcerer, with its drop-dead cover profile of the then little-known Cicely Tyson and a Ralph J. Gleason, um, poem on the back. Not much longer than 30 minutes, the album was a strangely sleepy collection of originals, and Miles didn’t even play on one. Then, just as you were nodding out to “Vonetta,” you heard a high-pitched, nerdy male voice singing a 115-second panegyric, “Nothing Like You,” backed by winds and bongos. I like to think of Miles fans in dens and bedrooms across the country saying in perfect unison, “Hunh?”
We later learned that the singer was Bob Dorough and that the track was left over from a 1962 Davis session arranged by Gil Evans; it required 45 takes to get right. Davis had admired Dorough’s debut album on Bethlehem, the 1956 Devil May Care, and when Columbia insisted he participate in a Christmas album, he tracked Dorough down in California and asked him to write a Christmas song (“Blue Xmas”). Dorough flew to New York and they recorded three tunes. Listening to Sorcerer now, I find that Dorough’s use of diminished chords sort of fits in with the pieces by Wayne Shorter, who, coincidentally, had played on the “Nothing Like You” date, two years before joining Miles’s band. Gil Evans liked the tune enough to record an orchestral version for a 1964 Verve album, though no one knew about it until it turned up on the 1988 CD The Individualism of Gil Evans.
Shortly after Sorcerer, I came across the 1966 Just About Everything, on Focus—Dorough’s first album (except for a Music Minus One project) since Devil May Care, and the last until his self-produced Beginning to See the Light in 1976. That was his recording schedule for the first 30 years of his career—one album per decade, like clockwork. Just About Everything is irresistible. Jazz musicians usually come a cropper when they try to get down with rock tunes; yet Dorough 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, it’s all right”—the last three words emitted in a rapid bullfrog croak. Dorough is every bit as eccentric a singer as Dylan; one comes from Woody Guthrie and the other from Charlie Parker, but they strike me as fraternal small-town outsiders. When I first heard Dylan’s Self-Portrait, it reminded me of Just About Everything, which includes four distinct originals (not least the weirdly echoing “The Message,” written with bassist Ben Tucker), as well as “The Crawdad Song,” the best rendition ever of “Baltimore Oriole” (though the Tangipahoa is in Louisiana, not Baltimore, as Dorough interpolates), and ” ‘Tis Autumn,” all of which he makes sound like eccentric originals.
I suppose it’s the eccentricity that inclines me to approach Dorough in an autobiographical mode. The trouble with eccentrics is that you can never be sure if they know how strange they seem, and for a long time I was uneasy about whether I was always laughing with him. Then, toward the end of what turned out to be his Schoolhouse Rock days (1973-85), he made a few appearances in New York, and I got really uneasy. He is now 76, but he has not changed appreciably in the past 20 years and maybe a lot longer—witness the cover of the 1976 reissue of Devil May Care, retitled Yardbird Suite (he sings Parker’s theme and solo delightfully), on which he poses with the original jacket. He has always been rail thin, his face an open, eager, goofily boyish circle, occasionally split by an Alfred E. Neumanish grin. I assume he didn’t have the ponytail in the 1950s, but he’s had it the few times I’ve seen him. Backed by the late Bill Takas, his longtime bassist, he revealed laudable bop piano chops, confirmed my impression that he was at home with diverse rhythms, and sang with creaky indifference to conventional musical protocol.
But after giggling at Dorough’s craggy swoops and idiosyncratic melodies, which have Escher-like loops, I was invariably brought up short by “Winter Moon” or “Lazy Afternoon,” both mined for much unexpected emotion. He can interpret a lyric as though it were an anecdote. When he goes into bopping swingers, he seems almost indifferent to how much energy he can generate. The whole effect has freaked many, and he has endured some of the most scathing reviews I’ve ever read. It’s not just because he spent so much time writing songs explaining multiplication that Dorough is only infrequently booked in the nightclubs he once hoped to make his habitat. In his notes to his 1997 Blue Note album, Right on My Way Home, he gives as one of his ambitions “to sing you a song and have you not walk out on me.”
Had I known Schoolhouse Rock, I’d have been hipper sooner. What finally convinced me he was totally in on the joke was his indispensable self-produced 1990 album entitled This Is A Recording of Pop Art Songs By Bob Dorough and friends produced and copyright by Scharf/Dorough for distribution on their label, Laissez-Faire Records. The songs combine classical, jazz, and pop settings with found lyrics: He sings, verbatim and with no embellishments, a weather report, a collection letter, a recipe for apple pie, a draft card notice, a social security card, Webster’s definitions of love, and three particular favorites—a laundry ticket (“Not Responsible for Shrink”), airline passenger instructions (“Should the Need Arise”), and an upholstery label (“Do Not Remove This Tag”). At no time does he even hint that any of this is funny.
Dorough’s new album, which he is promoting this week in a rare appearance at Deanna’s (an attractive room on Rivington), opens like a house afire with “The Coffee Song.” His jumping recitation is as serious as, say, “A Plea of Guilty” (his traffic ticket song), complete with the aside “thought I told you” when the lyric is repeated. One big reason the record roars is the presence of Phil Woods. Too bad he’s only on four tracks, but he is inspired on all of them, including a new version of “I’ve Got Just About Everything.” Dorough’s more recent pieces include a dedication to his wife, “Wake Up Sally, It’s Saturday,” constructed to resolve on a froggy two-note ribit phrase; a solo meditation, “Yesterday, I Made Your Breakfast”; and the heavily caffeinated title number, “Too Much Coffee Man.” Best of all, though, is a performance of “Fish for Supper,” by Cootie Williams, though I don’t think he ever recorded it, with Woods, Ray Drummond, and Billy Hart. The lyric goes, “We got fish for suppah, first one thing then anothah,” and damned if Dorough doesn’t make it rhyme; after a very smooth piano solo, he and Woods interject Tadd Dameron’s “Good Bait.” The nerd of yesteryear is one of the last hipsters standing.