Generations of Americans have listened to and watched the “Schoolhouse Rock” cartoons, and, this weekend, generations of Chattanoogans listened to the beloved songs performed by the man who penned them.
Musician and songwriter Bob Dorough was in the Scenic City this weekend for two concerts: Normal-Palooza on Saturday and WTCI’s Family Day on Sunday. This was actually Dorough’s third trip to Chattanooga in the last three years, and for the second performance, he was reunited with previous stage mates, the Shaking Ray Levi Society.
From jazz to television
Before “Schoolhouse Rock” became a staple of American childhood in the 1970s and 1980s, Dorough was working as a jazz musician in New York City. David B. McCall-who co-founded the Madison Avenue advertising agency McCaffrey and McCall-commissioned the piano man and several others to build on his own intriguing solution to an academic problem.
His children couldn’t remember their multiplication tables, but they knew all of the lyrics to a full catalogue of rock ‘n’ roll songs. If the challenging math could be set to music, he hypothesized, the children might have more success in learning the lesson.
Whereas others working on the request dumbed down the music, Dorough explained that he purposefully went in the opposite direction.
“McCall called some jingle writers and asked them to try the project,” Dorough said. “They thought it should be a simple material. I was highly inspired to create more complex stuff. I put more confidence in the children’s ability to learn through music.”
The first song was “Three Is a Magic Number.” The tune was a hit with children and did, in fact, aid in the learning process. The original LPs were marketed and sold to libraries until illustrator Tom Yohe proposed the idea of setting the songs to equally engaging animation.
McCaffrey and McCall took on the project, pitching it to ABC.
The rest is television history.
“Schoolhouse Rock” aired from 1973 to 1985 as a regular cartoon program on Saturday morning and then again from 1993 to 1999. The television show covered civics, economics, grammar, history, math and science in a format that was so appealing to its captive audience that most adults can still whistle the tune to “Conjunction Junction” and “I’m Just a Bill.”
Dorough served as the musical director for “Schoolhouse Rock,” producing all of the audio content and writing a portion of the lyrics and music.
“It became popular and taught a lot of young people,” he said. “They didn’t realize they were learning. They were just enjoying a video, and suddenly, they could recite the preamble of the Constitution.”
Today, Dorough plays with a jazz trio and tours with the group and as a solo artist. The musician, who remains as charming and engaging as his songs, performed a smattering of “Schoolhouse Rock” material to Chattanoogans.