Terry MacDonald Remembers Bob Dorough
December 12, 1923-April 23, 2018
This one’s personal for me. I met Bob Dorough in 1969, and we stayed in off-and-on contact ever since then, recently via Twitter.
It was my career in advertising that led me to Bob. In the late ’60s, I was helping to launch the fledgling Boston advertising agency Pearson and MacDonald, Inc. One of our small clients at the time was a restaurant named Boraschi’s, on Boylston Street. Our theme for the restaurant was a long one: “Some people say Boraschi’s is a great Italian restaurant. Some people say Boraschi’s is a great American restaurant. Who are we to argue?” I had the idea to produce a radio advertising campaign, each commercial in which would be mostly voice over, with music under, and the lyric sung at the end. I contacted my friend Bernie Drayton, a New York music producer, and told him what I was looking for. Oh, and also that we had a budget of just $1,000 for the music. “There’s a guy named Bob Dorough,” Bernie told me. “He’s very hip, and he can make music out of any set of words you give him.” Given our long theme line, that sounded good to me. “I’ll send you the demo reel,” Bernie said.
Sure enough, this guy Bob Dorough could make music out of any set of words. One track on his reel, in fact, was of him singing and playing (on piano) from a page in the Manhattan telephone book. Around that time, Bob was also appearing on-camera in a tv commercial for Budweiser Beer, which I saw. He played the part of a cocktail pianist, sitting there playing cocktail music, then discovering the bottle of Bud sitting on the piano in front of him, and going on to sing the spiel that was written on the bottle’s label. Very hip. The guy was perfect.
A couple of weeks later, I flew from Boston to New York for the recording session, where I met Bob and his bassist for the session, Ron Carter. (“Oh, my god, it’s Ron Carter!”) (Boraschi’s Commercial) Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised by Carter’s presence on the date: As I was learning, Bob was far more than a jingle writer for commercials. His jazz resumé was dazzling, and included the days in New York beginning in the late ’40s when he hosted jam sessions in his walk-up cold-water flat on East 75th Street, sessions that were attended by Pepper Adams, Thad and Elvin Jones, and many others. By 1969, Bob had recorded with Miles Davis—twice in fact—singing his originals “Nothing Like You” on the Sorcerer album and the sardonic “Blue Xmas” on another album.
These are some of the memories that floated up when I learned on April 24th that Bob Dorough had died the day before at the age of 94. And now the story of this unique and wonderful artist and his career is the subject of obituaries on the pages of all the major newspapers and broadcast outlets all over the country.
Bob Dorough grew up in Arkansas before moving with his family to Texas, where he discovered jazz playing clarinet in the high school band. He went on to study at North Texas State Teachers College in Denton (“the Berklee of the Southwest”). Later he was drafted into the service, where he played saxophone and piano in an Army band.
It was after leaving the Army that he relocated to New York in 1949 and attended Columbia University. During that time, he hosted those jam sessions and became part of the New York jazz scene. The period was followed by one of travel, launching him on his own in Paris in 1954, where he performed at the Mars Club, polishing his singing style, working with with Maya Angelou, and also with singer Blossom Dearie, with whom he was lifelong friends until her death in 2009.
Returning to New York, Dorough got to record his first album as leader in 1956, Devil May Care. The album included his version of Charlie Parker’s “Yardbird Suite,” his lyrics expressing a heartfelt tribute to the then-recently deceased Bird. (Yardbird Suite)
In the years that followed, Bob collaborated with Dave Frishberg to give us “I’m Hip,” with Ben Tucker to give us “Comin’ Home, Baby,” and with Fran Landesman to give us “Small Day Tomorrow,” among many others. He also signed a contract in 1997, then in his 70s, with Blue Note Records, which resulted in the production of three new albums: Right on My Way Home, for which he brought together Joe Lovano and Christian McBride; Too Much Coffee, Man, which teamed him with Phil Woods and Joe Cohn; and Who’s on First?, a first-time recorded collaboration with his old friend, pianist/composer/lyricist Dave Frishberg.
In 2001, he launched a weekly Sunday brunch at the Iridium jazz club in New York, a long-running gig that he continued into his 80s.
And lest I forget, in 1973, Bob was approached by another ad man, David McCall, a principal in the New York advertising agency McCaffrey & McCall, who probably found Bob Dorough the same way I did. McCall, though, had a different objective: His kids, he noticed, could remember the lyrics to all the Rolling Stones songs, but couldn’t remember the multiplication tables. Could Bob Dorough write lyrics that would make the mutliplication tables memorable for kids? The answer, of course, was yes, and the conversation led to the ABC Television Series Multiplication Rock, which is no doubt what Bob Dorough will be best known for. (Three is a Magic Number) The program ran on ABC and later PBS right up until 1985 and was rerun in the 1990s and expanded to include lyricized lessons in grammar and even civics (“I’m Just a Bill”). The program was later re-launched as “Schoolhouse Rock.”
Among the many years I knew Bob, I collaborated with him on lyric-and-music productions in every decade, from the ’60s to the 2000s. One of these experiences, an especially engaging one, began in the late ’70s. By that time, Pearson and MacDonald had grown, and now had larger and more prestigious clients, who in turn had bigger budgets for music. One of our clients was The Boston Herald American. We had an assignment for this client to promote the contents of its Sunday Magazine section—every single week. What was tricky about this was that the contents of the Sunday magazine wouldn’t be known until the Thursday before, and our radio commercials needed to be on the air all day Saturday. Could Pearson and MacDonald create radio commercials beginning on Thursday mornings and have them recorded and on the air on Saturday mornings, promoting the magazine’s next-day content? Not only could we do that, I told the client. We could sing the contents!
And thus began a weekly event that was exciting, great fun, and one of the most memorable experiences of my career. I assigned a junior copywriter, Rick Cohn, to attend The Herald’s Thursday-morning Editorial Committee meetings to learn the contents we’d be promoting. As soon as he returned to the agency, we went to work to develop a script promoting those contents. We would then fax the script to a New York recording studio, where Bob would be waiting for the script. About an hour later, I’d get a phone call from Bob, sitting at the piano in the studio, and he’d sing me what he’d composed. (Boston Herald American Commercial)
Well, we repeated that performance every week for the next several weeks to great success. Then one day Bob called me. He and his bassist partner Bill Takas were going on the road. Uh-oh, now what, I thought. “I’ve got it all figured out,” Bob assured me. He told me that, when he arrived in a new city, he’d find a recording studio there, set up a recording session and phone me the contact information. Sounded ambitious, but okay.
The next week, I got a call from Bob in Toronto. The system worked: We recorded on Thursday afternoon, I approved the final take over the phone, and the radio stations had their tapes on Saturday morning. Whew. Next week it was Portland, Oregon, then San Francisco, and then Los Angeles. I got a note in the mail from Bob a few days after the Los Angeles recording session. “We opened at Vine Street last night. Henry Mancini and his wife came in with Pete Rugolo and his wife. I sang “Moon River” for Henry, and he loved it!” Heady stuff.
In 2009, Larry Simon, the man behind the then-annual weekend-long Jazzmouth poetry-and-jazz series in Portsmouth, got in touch with me. He’d heard I knew Bob Dorough and wanted to know if I had contact information for him. Well, Larry went on to book Bob for Jazzmouth that year, and another adventure began.
At that time, I was hosting my radio show “Jazz Straightahead” on the local community station. On the Wednesday before the Jazzmouth weekend, I interviewed Bob over the phone on my show. Two days later, on Friday, a little before noon, Bob arrived in Portsmouth and came to my house, where he and Peg (my wife) and I had lunch (hot dogs). Next day, Saturday, Bob delivered a “Schoolhouse Rock” performance for a group of kids at Seacoast Rep, following which he came to The Press Room, to which I’d invited him. In those days, Larry Garland was presiding over a midday gig in the downstairs venue, and I was playing drums in the group. Larry sang Bob’s original “Devil May Care” for him, and he obviously loved it. “Larry sang ‘Devil May Care’!” he told his wife Sally when she arrived a little later. The legendary David Amram also came in that afternoon—he and Bob were old friends from Paris!—and we all made music together. Talk about a memory for this avocational musician.
That night, Bob Dorough and his trio were the featured performance in The Press Room’s upstairs venue. In a great act of generosity, Larry Simon asked me if I would please introduce Bob and the trio. Would I!
Sometime later, I had an idea for a little weather jingle for my radio show: “Whether it’s cold, whether it’s hot, you’ve got to have weather, whether or not. On Jazz Straightahead.” I wondered if Bob could be prevailed on to put music to the lyric and record it. No problem! He wrote the music, sent me a little home-produced audio clip of it for approval (are you kidding?) and, next time he was in a recording studio, he recorded my weather jingle. A freebie! And a pure Bob Dorough jingle it was, ending in a long and very hip, somewhat sardonic, descending line. (Weather or Not)
Bob lived in Mount Bethel, Pennsylvania, since 1966, where he counted a number of other jazz musicians as neighbors, including Phil Woods, Urbie Green, and Dave Liebman, and with the nearby Deer Head Inn serving as a focal point for a local jazz scene that has even held the occasional jazz festival in that Delaware Water Gap region. Dorough was named Pennsylvania's Artist of the Year in 2002, and has taught music at East Stroudsberg University. On April 23rd, 2018, with Bob Dorough surrounded by his wife Sally and only daughter Aralee, this remarkable, very hip life ended.
On a flatted fifth, I’d like to think.
Sources: New York Times