Bob Dorough Presents: Schoolhouse Rock!
November 24, 2014
Better than…paying attention to the real world for a few hours.
Songwriter Bob Dorough will be 91 years old in less than a month. Has anyone older ever headlined the Echoplex? If they have, they certainly weren’t performing for audience members 85 years younger than them.
For more than two and a half hours, Cinefamily’s Animation Breakdown took over the cavernous Echoplex with a seated, all-ages show dedicated to children’s educational program Schoolhouse Rock!, with Dorough front and center for much of the evening.
Starting in the 1970s, Schoolhouse Rock! served as a prime source for teaching kids mathematics, civics and grammar with cute, succinct songs composed largely by jazzbo Dorough. They were used as interstitials during Saturday and Sunday morning children’s programming, proving particularly influential with a generation of rockers like The Lemonheads, Blind Melon and Elliott Smith, all of whom used Dorough’s tunes as B-side tangents.
Prior to his affiliation with the show, Dorough had been a successful singer-songwriter, recording his first album in 1956. His hep swing had a wide-eyed slyness that filled nightclubs and even earned him the honor of being one of the few vocalists to guest on a Miles Davis record.
As he composed and performed the songs for the television show starting in 1973, he employed many of his jazz world friends, including drummer Grady Tate, trumpeter Jack Sheldon and vocalist Blossom Dearie, all of whom sang some of his world-weary paeans to numbers and bills.
Last night’s event opened with a half-hour interview with Schoolhouse Rock! co-creator George Newall. The charming former ad executive, prodded by Cinefamily’s Alex McDonald, dug into the shows origins. “Don’t talk down to the kids” was his motto in creating the show, which was inspired by his boss’s son’s inability to remember his multiplication tables, despite being capable of reciting Hendrix and Rolling Stones lyrics with ease.
Newall’s PowerPoint presentation of the show’s history closed with a video displaying the broad influence Schoolhouse Rock! had on American education and pop culture. TV clips of Conan O’Brien, The Simpsons and Barack Obama made a compelling case that Dorough’s ditties had done more than anyone could have imagined.
The inherent goofiness of Dorough’s persona is kind of irresistible. He is a jokester poet with a great sense of swing and understanding of his audience, and at the age of 90 all of those talents seem completely intact. He was playful and quick, inserting references to Pitchfork and Wes Anderson into one of his co-writing gems, “I’m Hip,” and at one point declaring, “They said I’d go far, but I never thought it’d be the Echoplex.”
Dorough sat at an electric keyboard, joined by a local rhythm section including bassist Jennifer Leitham, who alternated between electric and acoustic. After an opening set that included Schoolhouse Rock! staples “Three Is the Magic Number” and “Figure 8,” Dorough took the opportunity to dig into half a dozen of his pre-TV tunes. Absurd, catchy songs like “Love (Websters Defined)” and “This Is a Recording” showed off his meta-qualifications for the Schoolhouse Rock! task, but were met with dismay by the kids in the crowd.
Dorough closed his more than hour and a half set with more Schoolhouse Rock!, singing and playing “I’m Just a Bill” and “Conjunction Junction” in front of a projection of the accompanying animation and with help from guest vocalist Skip Heller.
Throughout the night, Dorough was clearly fulfilling the sing-along dreams of many in attendance. As far removed as they may have been from their childhood, Dorough's still-strong voice could instantly transport them back to consequence-free weekend mornings and a crippling inability to remember their multiplication tables without the help of a piano player.
Personal Bias: I like those pre-Schoolhouse Rock! tunes. A lot.
The Crowd: Nostalgic Gen-Xers and their sleepy kids.
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Random Notebook Dump: It's kind of difficult sitting on a folding chair for three hours at the Echoplex.