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He worked with Miles Davis and Allen Ginsberg, and his adventurous style was an influence on Mose Allison, among other singers. He is perhaps best known as a voice and primary composer of many of the songs used in Schoolhouse Rock!, a series of educational animated shorts appearing on Saturday morning television in the 1970s and 1980s on ABC affiliates in the United States. Dorough composed, conducted and played much of the "Schoolhouse Rock!" music. He has released vocal jazz albums periodically over the last 50 years; his latest, Small Day Tomorrow, came out in 2006. He worked with Nellie McKay on her 2007 album, Obligatory Villagers as well as her 2009 release, Normal as Blueberry Pie - A Tribute to Doris Day.
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.
Dorough was the vocalist for "The 44th Street Portable Flower Factory," recording cover versions of popular music for the Scholastic Records in the early 1970s.
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 Schoolhouse Rock!. Dorough remained with the show from 1973 to 1985.
From 1985 to 1993 he toured several times Europe with the saxophone player Michael Hornstein, bassist Bill Takas and drummer Fred Braceful.
Bob Dorough was honored by East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania in December 2007 with the honorary degree of Doctor of Fine Arts. In 2005 and 2008, Circumstantial Productions published two editions of the book, BLUE XMAS, the story of Dorough's song, with illustrations by Christian Farner.