Bob Dorough was writing jingles for a New York ad agency in the 1970s when the company's president approached him for a special project.
The man's son was having a difficult time learning his multiplication tables, but the father noticed the boy knew all the words to his Beatles songs. The president asked Dorough to write rock songs that reviewed his son's math lessons.
Dorough, now of Upper Mount Bethel Township, was an accomplished jazz pianist, but he gave educational music a shot. The result was "Schoolhouse Rock!," the series of educational shorts that have taught generations of school children about math, science and history.
"It was a bolt of lightning coming down," Dorough said of the series, which aired on ABC during the 1970s, 80s and 90s.
It was a drastic turn of events for the now 89-year-old musician. Dorough had achieved mild fame as a jazz performer in the 1940s and 1950s. He lived in New York City, but he toured the continent and Europe as part of various bands and groups. He was even the musical director for the brief entertainment career of boxing legend Sugar Ray Robinson before his dancing act bombed in Paris.
Music changed in the 1960s. Rock bands like The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix became mainstream, and the demand for jazz dropped off for anyone who wasn't a household name. With the suburbs around New York City too expensive, Dorough moved his family to Upper Mount Bethel, where his daughter, Aralee, started school. Dorough took the job for the ad agency and commuted to New York City as a way to pay the bills.
"I was just trying to make a living. My jazz career in the 60s and early 70s was kind of meager," he said Monday at the Deer Head Inn in Delaware Water Gap, where he's performed for decades.
The idea of Math Rock! quickly changed that. Recordings of his math songs were presented to ABC to air as a possible educational cartoon. Chuck Jones, the legendary animator who directed Looney Tunes and Tom and Jerry, and Michael Eisner, then the head of ABC's daytime programming, quickly signed off on the project. Parental groups had been storming the networks for years, pressuring them to provide more quality programing for children. The cartoons fit the bill perfectly, Dorough said.
"It was an easy sell," he said.
It took Dorough two years to write 11 songs about numbers and math. While the songs centered on situations children would recognize, not every song was on the grade school level. The song "Little Twelvetoes" tells how an alien with twelve fingers probably counts. The math lesson in the song focuses on Base 12, a counting system where the numbers 10 and 11 are single digits. Dorough said the agency had to confirm the math with a college professor before approving it as it was.
"I'm something of an amateur mathematician," said Dorough, who took an advanced math course while studying at Colombia University on the GI Bill.
Even Aralee got in on the action. Dorough said he was stumped trying to come up with a song for the number four. One day Dorough went on a walk with Aralee and her friend, and the girls suggested a song about a four-legged zoo.
"I didn't know quite what that was, but I liked the sound of it," Dorough said looking back. He ran with the idea, and it became the song "The Four-Legged Zoo," which names about 70 quadrupeds in three minutes.
Math Rock! caught on, and more cartoons focusing on history, grammar and science were soon ordered under the name "Schoolhouse Rock!" A team of song writers came on board, and they produced music faster than the animators could draw the shorts, Dorough said. He would regularly tune in with Aralee to watch the new material air, he said.
"Imagine me. I'm already 50 years old and I'm watching Saturday morning cartoons," he said.
ABC kept playing the shorts into the 1980s, and a new batch was ordered in the mid-90s. The cartoons have also been put onto DVDs so new generations can learn about sentence structure and the American Revolution, among other topics.
These days, Dorough is still going strong. He's performing at a jazz festival in Norway this weekend and next month he's the headliner for the Delaware Water Gap's Celebration of the Arts. Erin Harper, the producer behind the independent film "My Best Day," is also working on a documentary on Dorough's career.
Dorough said people will still sometimes approach him at performances and ask him why his voice sounds so familiar. When word gets out he's the man who wrote "Lolly Lolly Lolly Get Your Adverbs Here" and other songs, he usually gets a few "Schoolhouse Rock!" requests. He enjoys it for the most part, but he admitted it can be distracting when people request songs about pronouns when he's at a jazz club.
"Sometimes it does grate on my nerves," he said.
Even with those passing moments of aggravation, Dorough said he's happy to be working the career he chose as a high school student. He's traveled the world and is still willing to, though he's not sure if he'd go as far as Asia for a gig.
"I'd go anywhere if the money was right," he said.
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