Bob Dorough and the Magic Number

Bob Dorough
Bob Dorough. Photo by Tom Copi/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Bob Dorough, who died this week, was instrumental in teaching my generation about math, and language, and civics. He expressed these ideas in the universal language of music, and the fact that Gen X kids were able to memorize entire multiplication tables was because Bob Dorough could write a hook.

“Schoolhouse Rock!” started with that very mandate — teaching multiplication through music, and Dorough’s first contribution is one of the series’ best, “3 Is a Magic Number.” “Somewhere in that ancient mystic trinity,” Dorough sings, as much for the parents as the kids,

You get three as a magic number

The past and the present and the future

The faith and hope and charity

The heart and the brain and the body

Give you three as a magic number

“Schoolhouse Rock!,” and Bob Dorough as its musical director, presented these animated gems as just another Saturday morning cartoon, and we ate it up. The music was irresistible, bypassing the brain and heading straight for the heart. It expressed a casual mastery, a deep sense of connection, and — to borrow a modern phrase — “baked-in diversity.”

“Verb: That’s What’s Happenin’” gives us not only an insanely catchy song, but a black superhero. The cartoon aired on September 22, 1973, a scant six years after the Black Panther debuted in the Fantastic Four comic book series. Zachary Sanders sang it, but Bob Dorough wrote it.

Blossom Dearie, Dorough’s friend and collaborator since the mid-’50s, sang his delicate and melancholy “Figure Eight.” Again, Bob looked for the meaning behind the number: “Place it on its side,” he wrote, “and it’s a symbol meaning infinity.”

Before all that, though, Bob Dorough was a solid jazz player who managed a rare vocal on a Miles Davis record. His singing was vulnerable and idiosyncratic, expressed with a charming Southern drawl — definitely not what was considered popular at the time, especially in the mid-1950s, when Dorough released his first solo album, Devil May Care (his own website describes one performance as having “the soft-spoken tones of a hip elf”).

This was Bob Dorough’s first, and possibly greatest achievement: he helped us accept an individuated, conversational singing style — and in this, he was very much a child of Hoagy Carmichael. Without Bob Dorough, we wouldn’t have had Mose Allison, or as much Blossom Dearie as we do, or artists like Elliott Smith, who covered “Figure Eight” in his own vulnerable, wispy way:

Without Bob Dorough, we wouldn’t have such marvelous, intimate, and whimsical versions of “Midnight Sun” and “‘Tis Autumn”, each definitive of the song.

As one astute YouTube commenter (it can happen) pointed out, Bob Dorough’s singing was demotic: “of or relating to the ordinary, everyday, current form of language [or] everyday people.” He spoke to us, about some extraordinary things, as if we not only could understand, but wanted to. It feels as if, though it might be nothing more than creeping cynicism, that we’ve lost more than just the man. Thank god what he left us is deathless.

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Tom Maxwell is a writer and musician. He likes how one informs the other.