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Class Act

January 23, 2012

Anyone still under the illusion that that other guy is “The Hardest Working Man In Show Business” quite apparently has never met, or perhaps is unfamiliar with the fascinating career of Robert Lrod Dorough, Bob to his friends.  And the man has many friends.  He can best be identified by Gen X’ers as the hip and familiar twangy voice on beloved original numbers like “Conjunction Junction”, “My Hero, Zero”, and “Three Is A Magic Number” – as intrinsic to our Saturday mornings growing up in the seventies and eighties as sugary breakfast cereals and the din of quarreling parents headed for divorce.

Dorough & Coleman in St. Louis


I had the honor and pleasure of meeting Bob again recently on the occasion of his performance here in St. Louis, two sets of selections from the Fran Landesman songbook.  Bob is hard to miss when entering a room – though diminutive in physical size, he is striking in all black with his silver hair pulled neatly into a pony tail.  But it is his Spirit that really leaves an impression.  He literally illuminates the space he occupies with his knowing smile and easy laughter.  Folks naturally gather around him – not to hover as starstruck fans, but simply to bask in his warm character and share a bit of conversation, which he quite apparently enjoys.  The man is generous with his time.  And I found this  refreshing, considering his far reaching impact on the pantheon of Jazz and songwriting specifically, and popular culture generally.  The trappings of his own “significance” seem to be beautifully lost on Bob as he moves about, chatting and mixing with any and all whom honestly approach him.  He is, as his Gaelic ancestors might say, “Anam Cara” – a soul friend.  We had met briefly five years prior (amazingly, he remembered the details of that encounter) and I was immediately made to feel as one.  He is one of the great joys of modern music.  A true force of nature, standard bearer of the concept of  “heart and soul” – hipster saint (though rounding the bend on ninety, he still kicks it like he’s twenty five) and all around righteous teacher.  He’s like some kind of giant smile that rose with the sun eighty-some years ago and stayed up there in the sky, shining down for all to see.  A living treasure.

Dorough was born in Arkansas and grew up in Texas.  He played in an Army band during World War II, then went to North Texas State University, where he majored in composition and minored in piano.  He moved to New York City around 1950 and was playing piano in a Times Square tap dance studio when he was introduced to the boxer Sugar Ray Robinson, who had temporarily left boxing and was putting together a song and dance revue.  Dorough was hired and later became the show’s music director; the revue traveled to various U.S. cities and then to Europe.

Dorough left Robinson in Paris and lived there from 1954 to 1955, recording with singer Blossom Dearie during that time.  He returned to the United States and moved to Los Angeles, where he played various gigs, including a job between sets by comedian Lenny Bruce.  Dorough released his first album, Devil May Care, in 1956.  It contained a version of  “Yardbird Suite” with lyrics by Dorough over the famous Charlie Parker song.

Trumpeter Miles Davis liked the album, so when Columbia asked Davis to record a Christmas song in 1962, Davis turned to Dorough for lyrics and singing duties. The result was a downbeat tune called “Blue Xmas,” released on Columbia’s Jingle Bell Jazz compilation.  During that session Dorough recorded another song for Davis, “Nothing Like You,” which appeared a few years later at the end of the Sorcerer album, making Dorough one of the few musicians with a vocal performance on a Miles Davis record.

“Comin’ Home Baby”, written by Dorough and bassist friend Ben Tucker, was a Top 40 hit for Mel Tormé in 1962, and earned Tormé two Grammy nominations.

Dorough had a producing partnership for many years with Stu Scharf, and were best known for producing two albums for the folk/jug band Spanky and Our Gang, adding jazz-influenced arrangements to their sound.

Through Tucker, Dorough was approached in the early 1970s by advertiser David McCall and asked to put multiplication tables to music. The result was “Three Is a Magic Number”, the first song for what would become ABC Network’s Schoolhouse Rock!.  Dorough remained with the show from 1973-1985. (Wikipedia)

Bob has always been known as a “musician’s musician” and his influence on acts both disparate and obscure, as well as mainstream, cannot be underestimated.  Reference Elliot Smith’s haunting version of “Figure Eight” for a decent example, or perhaps even more surprising, Captain Beefheart’s outré 1969 masterpiece Trout Mask Replica.

The story goes, that during an extremely fervent brainstorming period prior to it’s conception, Beefheart was constantly absorbing stimuli that would later be resourced and recycled into his magnum opus.  One weekend he paid a visit to his friend and occasional bassist Gary “Magic” Marker in Venice, CA.  Gary was then a fairly in demand Jazz session player, and had sat in with most of the greats of the era – he had been responsible for personally introducing Beefheart to Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Ornette Coleman, among others.  Apparently, Gary was listening to Jazz Canto Vol. 1 (Pacific Jazz, 1957), an album featuring Dorough on a number of key tracks, when Beefheart (Don to his mom) entered.  The mashup of beatnik poetry and cool jazz on the long player caused Don to go, in a word, ape shit.  It ultimately ended up becoming a key influence on the TMR codex.  But then again so did Negro country blues field recordings, Steve Reich, and sea shanties.  So there you go.

When I asked Bob if he was at all familiar with Don Van Vliet, he drew a blank.  But when I drew the connection between Van Vliet and Captain Beefheart, he responded with “Yeah, I do remember now.  Interesting stuff.  Never met him, though…is he still doing his thing?”  I informed him that Don had passed away two years earlier from the effects of Multiple Sclerosis.  “Hmm…yeah.  Sad.” he said.

Jazz Bistro, St. Louis, 15 January 2012

Like any nascent photographer, I am learning never to leave home without my camera, and the evening of 15 January was no different.  I slung my Canon on and headed out to the Jazz Bistro with a clear intention of meeting and photographing Dorough, a living legend, in action.  As I pulled into the parking lot and took a space, my heart jumped a bit, and I had a brief sense of self consciousness come over me concerning walking into the club with a camera.  I quickly shook it off, and entered.  The host informed me that they had had me on the list for the early show, but that it wouldn’t be an issue as attendance had not been what they had expected.  In fact, they we’re inviting people who had bought tickets for the early set to stay for the second.  I was then escorted to my table – which was directly in front of Bob’s piano, at the foot of the band riser.  I felt like a rock star.

After settling in and checking my camera adjustments, I noticed Bob.  He had been wandering around chatting with friends and fans, but now had taken a seat alone at a quiet table near the stage with a cup of coffee.  I mustered enough courage to walk over and sit down on the stage next to his chair.

Me: “Hello, Bob.  Would you object to being photographed by me this evening?”

Dorough: (Taking my hand and shaking it) “Not at all.  What did you say your name was, again?”

Me: (after introducing myself properly) “Bob, I won’t be using a flash unit tonight, I don’t want to disturb you while your playing – I’ll be using the ambient light in here.”

Dorough: “A purist.  I can dig that.  Say, we’ve met before haven’t we?”

We collectively determined that we had met five years previous when he was in town for Jorge Martinez’s 75th Birthday Bash, and I had attended the performance with my friend Clement – an acquaintance of his drummer from way back.  Bob has ties to the River City that go all the way back to his friendship with American Lyricist Fran Landesman and her husband Jay.  He cut his teeth in their fabled music theatre in St. Louis’s old Gaslight Square – The Crystal Palace.  We agreed to talk again after the show.

After the second set, when most of the people began to thin out, I had a few more moments with Bob.  I mentioned Jazz Canto, Vol. 1 – “How do you know about all this stuff, man?” he said, “I’ve been told Dylan does ‘Dog’ (a Dorough track on the album) when he plays out.”  I then produced a copy of The Portable Flower Factory, a rare seven inch recording of Dorough doing cover versions of rock hits that originally came in Scholastic magazine.  Few exist.  “I haven’t seen one of these in a LONG time.”  He then graciously signed it.

I stuck around for a bit longer and was introduced to some of Bob’s old St. Louis friends, and eventually was asked to be the official photographer of the evening, of sorts.  I ended up taking a number of group pictures of Bob and his inner circle – some of which I was able to use.  I mentioned to Bob on my way out how good it had been to see him again, and how well he appeared to be doing.  Earlier his guitar player told me that he had been quite sick the day before, and that he had been nursing him with herbal tea and natural remedies.  In spite of this, Bob insisted on doing both sets the next night – he did admit to me after the show that in retrospect the second set had kind of taken it out of him, he needed to rest.  “Michael, life’s been good to me.  I have been very fortunate.  Very lucky.” he told me.

As the show was ending, and Bob was leaving the stage, Master of Ceremonies Jorge Martinez stated that it was unlikely that Bob would return to St. Louis again, as the crowds were small and it would not likely be cost effective for a return engagement.  “The man is just TOO HIP.” was his summation.  He continued:  “Leonard Feather (renown Jazz critic) said that people like Bob will never be widely known, as they are so unique.  They occupy a special cadre, and are appreciated – adored even – by a small, and extremely hip audience.  Consider yourselves part of that group.  A very fortunate few.”

~ Michael Sean Coleman


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  1. Diana Casey permalink

    Great blog and video Mike.
    Love you, Diana

  2. Denise permalink

    Mike, I LOVE your new website! I do feel that this is the beginning of a book about to be written. Something that many have been waiting to read for some time now. And I want a signed copy!

    • Sorry it is taking me so long to reply to your comment, Denise. I have ceased posting long commentary on FB and instead, have begun inserting link to this blog. When the book comes out, I’ll hand deliver your signed copy. Sending love.

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