The Voice Of 'Schoolhouse Rock' On The Series At 40

Jan 7, 2013
Originally published on January 6, 2013 9:02 am

Believe it or not, Schoolhouse Rock is 40 years old. If you're a child of the 1970s or '80s, you probably sat in front of a television on Saturday morning watching those little animated lessons that told us why that scrap of paper was loitering on the Capitol steps or the finer points of grammar.

To mark the anniversary, Weekend Edition Sunday spoke with Bob Dorough, who composed, conducted and even sang much of Schoolhouse Rock's music. Dorough's career didn't begin in children's television; a skilled singer and pianist, he started out playing with some of the biggest names in jazz, including Miles Davis.

"There I was in New York City, just trying to make a living," Dorough tells NPR's Rachel Martin. "My jazz work was a little slow, and I was dabbling in advertising music, just to make ends meet. By then I was married and had a daughter, and so I needed that bread."

That's when his boss came to him with a problem: "My sons cannot memorize their times tables — yet they sing along with Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones, and they get their words," Dorough recalls being told.

He was given a challenge: Set the multiplication tables to music. And what was meant to be a record-and-workbook package blossomed into "Multiplication Rock," the very first series of Schoolhouse Rock shorts. To hear more of the story, click the audio link on this page.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

If you're a child of the 1970s or '80s, you probably sat in front of a television on Saturday morning and at some point saw this:

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SCHOOLHOUSE ROCK")

MARTIN: Those little animated lessons that taught us why that scrap of paper was loitering on the Capitol steps or the finer points of grammar.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Or should that and the finer points of grammar.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

MARTIN: Believe it or not, "Schoolhouse Rock" is 40 years old. And to mark this rather frightening occasion, we reached Bob Dorough. He composed, conducted and even sang much of "Schoolhouse Rock." But he didn't start in children's music. Dorough started playing with some of the biggest names in jazz, including Miles Davis.

BOB DOROUGH: Oh, there I was in New York City just trying to make a living. Actually, my jazz work was a little slow and I was dabbling in advertising music just to make ends meet. And by then I was married and had a daughter, so I needed that bread.

MARTIN: His boss came to him with a problem.

DOROUGH: My sons cannot memorize their times tables yet they sing along with Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones, and they get their words, so why don't we put the multiplication tables to music, and we'll call it "Multiplication Rock." What do you think, Bob?

MARTIN: And what did you think?

DOROUGH: Well, I was a little hesitant, but originally it was just an idea for a phonograph record in a workbook. We eventually wound up on television.

MARTIN: What was the first multiplication song that you did?

DOROUGH: Well I went home and I studied it a little bit and I got the idea of three is the magic number. Then I looked in a magic book and, sure enough, three is one of the magic numbers.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Can you sing us a little bit of that first song, "Three is the"...

DOROUGH: Oh, yes. (Singing) Three is the magic number. Yes, it is. It's a magic number.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

MARTIN: I have to say, Mr. Dorough, you can sing pretty darn well.

DOROUGH: I know.

(LAUGHTER)

DOROUGH: Well, you see, I was a jazz singer when they found me.

MARTIN: When you were writing these songs, you had a young daughter. She was in grade school at the time, as I understand. Did she...

DOROUGH: She was.

MARTIN: ...did she help you with this? I mean, did you know how to write a kid's song?

DOROUGH: She did. Well, I'd always sort of heeded the children, paid attention to them. And I had seized upon this idea there's a chance to communicate with children. Most of all, I had no idea it would end up to be on television.

MARTIN: You also, not just about math, you wrote songs about grammar that helped kids kind of understand the parts of speech. We mentioned "Conjunction Junction," which is a personal favorite of mine. Was it easier for you to write math songs or grammar songs? Or was there a difference?

DOROUGH: Math is much easier. I discovered there was no such thing as a grammar rule. I mean, we were all reading grammar books and, you know, what is grammar? I wrote a song they didn't buy. It was called "Grammar's Not Your Grandma. It's Your Grammar."

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: They didn't buy that one, huh?

DOROUGH: No, they didn't buy it. I did a demo and everything.

MARTIN: Oh, shoot.

DOROUGH: Finally, they just said let's just do the eight parts of speech, you know.

MARTIN: Well, you've written so many tunes over the years. I know they all probably hold a special place in your heart, but I will still ask. Do you have a favorite?

DOROUGH: Well, I sort of like "Lolly, Lolly, Lolly." That's one of the grammar songs. And it began with me just sort of thinking lolly, lolly, lolly as a little refrain. Like you might say tra la la. Lolly, lolly, lolly, get your adverbs here.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOLLY, LOLLY, LOLLY")

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOLLY, LOLLY, LOLLY")

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOLLY, LOLLY, LOLLY")

MARTIN: You can hear Bob Dorough at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. tonight, where he's leading a sing-a-long in honor of the 40th anniversary of "Schoolhouse Rock." Mr. Dorough, thanks so much for talking with us.

DOROUGH: Thank you, Rachel.

MARTIN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.