‘I Want To Sing You A Song,’ Sez Bob Dorough, ‘And Have You Not Walk Out On Me’
My first face-to-face meeting with jazz legend Bob Dorough was in a booth at a greasy spoon near his home in the Pocono Mountains in northeastern Pennsylvania, and while we did eventually get around to talking music, the reason for the sitdown was that he had been good friends with a guy about whom I was writing a book.
The reason I was writing the book was that the guy, a popular bar owner and community do-gooder, had the misfortune of being hacked to death by an ax-wielding madman whom the police had never been particularly interested in finding — and so didn’t. This is because the guy was . . . well, from the wrong side of the tracks and hung out with low lifes like bikers and hippies and jazz musicians like Dorough. That’s how the justice system works in those parts.
It’s a testament to Dorough’s good naturedness that he maintained the kind of grin that so many sweet eccentrics have through a couple cups of joe and some buttered toast although he obviously was uncomfortable discussing this unfortunate slicing and dicing.
And what I didn’t know at the time was that my book — The Bottom of the Fox: A True Story of Love, Devotion & Cold-Blooded Murder — would touch him deeply, so deeply that he penned a song with an eponymous title that he debuted at a jazz festival in 2010 and made it onto one of his zillion albums.
In the intervening years, Dorough and I have become neighbors and dear friends. He’s toured Germany and Japan this year, and turns a righteous 93 years old on December 12, a birthday he shares with music greats Dionne Warwick, Joe Williams, Grover Washington Jr., Tony Williams and a Sinatra by the name of Frank.
We and a couple hundred of his closest friends will be helping him cut a cake at the Deer Head Inn, where he plays three or four times a year with Steve Berger on guitar, Pat O’Leary on bass and special guest Aralee Dorough, his daughter, on flute.
It will be a reaffirmation of a sort of the extraordinary local jazz scene. At one time the Pocono Mountains probably had more jazz clubs per capita than any city or town anywhere, and an incredible number of world-class jazz musicians have made their home in and near the Delaware Water Gap. (This is because of the cheap housing, bucolic setting, the Deer Head and the area’s relatively close proximity to New York City recording studios and performance spaces.) That number was sadly diminished by three during the year with the deaths of Rick Chamberlain, Eric Doney and Phil Woods.
It is a hallmark of Dorough’s seven-decade career that many people have heard him but didn’t know it.
Dorough may hold the world record for uncredited appearances on jazz albums, but is best unknown as a voice and primary composer of most of the songs used in Schoolhouse Rock!, the popular series of educational animated shorts appearing on Saturday morning television in the 1970s and 1980s on ABC television affiliates.
Among Dorough’s masterful compositions, which my then young kids and millions of others soaked up with sponge-like enthusiasm, were “My Hero, Zero,” “Three Is a Magic Number” and my own fave, “Conjunction Junction.”
Hooking up words and phrases and clauses
In complex sentences like:
“In the mornings, when I am usually wide awake,
I love to take a walk through the gardens and down by the lake,
Where I often see a duck and a drake,
And I wonder as I walk by
Just what they’d say if they could speak,
Although I know that’s an absurd thought.”
Many jazz fans first heard Dorough in 1967 and of course didn’t know it.
That was because producer Teo Macero never credited him as the piano player on Thelonious Monk’s popular Monk album. Gary Giddins also notes in a wonderful Village Voice profile that Dorough’s is the “high-pitched, nerdy male voice singing a 115-second panegyric, ‘Nothing Like You,’ backed by winds and bongos” on trumpeter Miles Davis’s Sorcerer.
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. Davis liked the album, so when Columbia asked him to record a Christmas song in 1962, he turned to Dorough for lyrics and singing duties. The result was a downbeat tune called “Blue Xmas,” making Dorough one of the few musicians with a vocal performance on Miles Davis’s 100-plus albums.
Blue Xmas, when you’re blue at Christmastime
you see right through,
All the waste, all the sham, all the haste
and plain old bad taste
Sidewalk Santy Clauses are much, much, much too thin
They’re wearing fancy rented costumes, false beards and big fat phony grins
And nearly everybody’s standing round holding out their empty hand or tin cup
Gimme gimme gimme gimme, gimme gimme gimme
Fill my stocking up
All the way up
It’s a time when the greedy give a dime to the needy
Blue Christmas, all the paper, tinsel and the fal-de-ral
Blue Xmas, people trading gifts that matter not at all
What I call
You can’t listen to classical jazz station for very long without hearing Dorough or one of his songs, and “Devil May Care” (video here) probably comes as close to his signature song as any.
I know that he who frets, loses the night
For only a fool, thinks he can hold back the dawn
He was wise to never tries to revise what’s past and gone
Live love today, love come tomorrow or May
Don’t even stop for a sigh, it doesn’t help if you cry
That’s how I live and I’ll die
Devil may care
“Devil May Care” has been covered by Diane Krall and Jamie Cullum, among many other artists, and kicked off the set sung by Arianna Neikrug, the winner of the 2015 Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition.
While his piano chops are admirable, it is Dorough’s nonpareil ability to interpret lyrics that are his trademark. This includes what is known as vocalese, the singing of lyrics written for melodies that were originally instrumental compositions, usually entirely in syllables. (Think Cab Calloway and Al Jarreau.)
Writing about Beginning To See the Light, Dorough’s 1976 album, Giddins notes:
“Jazz musicians usually come a cropper when they try to get down with rock tunes; yet Dorough begins with ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right’ in a version I prefer to Dylan’s. The rhythm is exactly right, but what locks it down for me is the way he phrases ‘Don’t think twice, baby, that’s all right’ — the last three words emitted in a rapid bullfrog croak.”
Indeed, Dorough’s voice is something of an aquired taste.
“Anyone who’s ever taken a singing lesson resents the hell out of Bob Dorough for having the nerve to pass himself off as a vocalist,” writes Will Friedwald in Jazz Singing (1990).
How Dorough became a headliner is a story in itself and one that befits an eccentric (he was a youthful 79 when we first spoke and wore his gray hair in a ponytail and still does.) In fact, somebody needs to write his biography. (His wife Sally told me with a practiced roll of the yes that he claims that he’ll get around to it.)
Dorough was born in Arkansas, grew up in Texas and played in an Army band during World War II, an experience that fortunately did not dull his enthusiasm for music. He moved to New York City around 1950 and was playing piano in a Times Square tap dance studio when he was introduced to Sugar Ray Robinson, for my money the greatest boxer of all time, who had temporarily left the ring and was putting together a song and dance revue. Dorough became the revue’s music director and traveled with it throughout the U.S. and Europe.
Dorough left Robinson in Paris and lived there for two years, recording with singer Blossom Dearie, with whom he long collaborated, before moving to Los Angeles where he gigged around, including playing between sets for comedian Lenny Bruce.
He also has written for Mel Tormé and produced two albums for Spanky and Our Gang, adding jazz-influenced arrangements to their folky sound. Oh, and he has an organic farm in Arkansas.
Dorough, borrowing a line from the Beatles’ “With a Little Help From My Friends,” has said that his goal in life is “to sing you a song and have you not walk out on me,” and in that he has succeeded extraordinarily well and with extraordinary good cheer.
“BLUE XMAS” © MAD MUSIC, “DEVIL MAY CARE” © SINCERE MUSIC CO.