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Sons of Miles
BOB DOROUGH: A Hillbilly Bebopper on a Geezer Pass
by Mike Zwerin
22 April 1999


Bob Dorough may just be the only 75-year-old hillbilly singer, composer and bebop piano player with a ponytail and a seven-album record deal. And just how many of his kind would you say have worked with Lenny Bruce, Miles Davis and Sugar Ray Robinson?

For many years he flew around the United States paying a senior citizen tariff he calls "a geezer pass." He worked with his buddy the late bassist Bill Takas as a duo. They enjoyed working alone together and, frankly, anyway, they could not afford a drummer. This did not bother Dorough all that much because, as that other hillbilly jazzman Chet Baker once said: "It takes a very good drummer to be better than no drummer at all."

But it appears that his scrimping days are over. His album, the first of the seven, "Right on My Way Home," was released by Blue Note, and "Schoolhouse Rock," his educational production dating back to the '70s, was newly packaged into a 4-CD box by Rhino Records.

The kids who once loved his voice singing "My Hero Zero" over animated cartoons on Saturday morning television are now in their 30s happily paying music charges in the jazz clubs Dorough appears in. They elbow each other with nostalgia.

A club called Birdland in the theater district on West 44th Street was packed two nights running last year when Dorough made one of his rare New York City appearances. (Notable names dropped in, including the filmmaker Robert Altman, the artist Al Hirschfeld and actor Gary Goodrow.) Dorough had worked regularly at the Village Gate and the musicians hangout Bradleys, but they both closed.

He likes to "harbor stray animals" on his farm in Pennsylvania's Pocono Mountains, a 90 minute drive from the city. The area reminds him of the hills, rivers and creeks near his home town of Cherry Hill, Arkansas. He had been "scoring heavy advertising bread" recording jingles like "Sing a Can of Beer," so he bought the place.

With nothing urgent to go for in New York, it was perhaps a bit too easy to get into the habit of lying back with the philosophy expressed in a song he wrote with Fran Landesman: "I've Got a Small Day Tomorrow (and there's a car I can borrow)." His voice has been compared to "Nat King Cole doing a Louis Armstrong impersonation."

Dorough somehow manages to wear his heart on his sleeve, laugh, wink, keep his tongue in his cheek, sing and finger two-handed bebop piano at the same time. "In the old days," he said, with his old-days Arkansas Traveler twang: "I was a bebop student trying to learn 'Half Nelson' like everyone else."

He ran jam sessions with people from Detroit, including Thad and Elvin Jones, in his East 75th Street four-flight walk-up. Financially, Dorough had fallen on what he calls "evil days."

He was working Henry Le Tang's Times Square tap dance studio for $3 a class. One day, Le Tang said "I've got a five dollar gig for you." He jumped at it. Le Tang introduced him to the boxer Sugar Ray Robinson, who had retired from the ring and was building a song and dance act. Tap dancers are like drummers with legs and Dorough could handle that just fine.

When Le Tang said "play 'Green Eyes' for Sugar Ray," he knew exactly what to do. Afterward, wiping his brow, Robinson said: "You're going on the road with us." Dorough "took it as a command."


Bob Dorough


They traveled with Robinson's hairdresser, valet and road manager; playing theaters in Detroit, Washington, Philadelphia and the Apollo in Harlem on the same bill with attractions like The Dominoes. "I toured our continent on Count Basie's bus, hung out in Louis Armstrong's dressing room, and I met 'Fatha' Hines in Providence."

Wearing a smile that somehow combined lechery with childlike enthusiasm, Dorough recalled: "Oh, all those beautiful dancing girls. It was wonderful." Robinson took his revue, billed as "The Champ," to Paris with Dorough as musical director. They sailed over first class (doing their act to sing for their supper as it were en route) on the Ile de France.

But they bombed in Paris ("Larry Adler stole the show"), and when Robinson and his retinue sailed back (second class), Dorough stayed in Paris to work at the Mars Club for the French franc equivalent of $11.65 a night. It went a long way in Paris in the '50s. He sighed: "I was in pig heaven."

Back in the USA, Lenny Bruce was "a jazz lover but an autocrat too" and after not too long a period of time, Dorough decided to stop accompanying "A Sick Evening With Lenny Bruce."

After hearing Dorough's vocalese version of Charlie Parker's "Yardbird Suite," Miles Davis called "out of the blue" and said: "I want you to write a Christmas song for me." Dorough took that as a command also. He wrote the anti-Yuletide lament "Blue Xmas," which Miles recorded. One thing sure - he was taking orders from some sharp cats.

Little Brother Montgomery taught a young white singer named Elaine (Spanky) McFarland about the blues and she started the rock group Spanky and Our Gang, with Dorough producing. Their "Sunday Will Never Be the Same" was a hit.

In addition to advertising exposure and rock hits came a commission to set the multiplication tables to a back-beat. An agency account executive he knew came up with the challenge: "My little boy can't memorize the multiplication tables, but he sings along with Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones."

Dorough had taken an elective called "The New Math" at Columbia University - he knew about the commutative law and he liked the Stones too and he soon realized that he knew more about rock than the account executive. It led to the successful body of work called "Multiplication Rock" including "Little Twelve Toes" ("If man had been born with six fingers on each hand, he'd also have 12 toes, or so the theory goes").


The premise was expanded to "Schoolhouse Rock," including grammar, America (history and civics) and science - Dorough producing once more. Dave Frishberg wrote a song in the American history department that began: "I'm just a bill, yes I'm only a bill, and I'm sitting up here on Capitol Hill."

A folky grammar song by Lynn Ahrens explained: "A noun is a person, place or thing." And Dorough sang his "real rocky" science number called "Electricity." All of which might or might not explain why Bob Dorough has been inducted into the Arkansas Jazz Hall of Fame.


Photo: Bob Dorough
Credit: Christian Rose

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