There was a sense of familiarity when I listened to the late night jazz radio concert introduced as Three Duos and a Trio
circa 1983-84. The voices seemed stunningly familiar. Upon further investigation, I came to realize that those voices had been a part of my life for years, influencing an entire generation.
The voices and piano riffs were those of Bob Dorough, Dave Frishberg, and Blossom Dearie, accompanied by Bill Takas on bass. Those voices also brought to life the wonderful '70s phenomenon known as Schoolhouse Rock
, a collection of brilliant musical vignettes produced for Saturday morning television, aimed at giving children an assist in committing their studies in math, grammar, multiplication, and history to memory (later versions addressed computers and money).
The educational video cartoons set to music were the brain-child of Dorough, yet he felt compelled to invite his friends to join in the celebration once the concept began to take off. Dearie's hauntingly beautiful version of "Figure Eight" remains one of the high points of the collection. Dorough's "Three is a Magic Number" and "Conjunction Junction," the latter sung by Jack Sheldon, are perhaps the signature songs of the series. Frishberg's legislative number, "I'm Just a Bill," (vocals also by Sheldon) is one of the most memorable tunes from the early years of Schoolhouse Rock
To categorize the music in the children's genre doesn't tell the complete story. Like pianist Vince Guaraldi (the composer of the music score for the animated versions of the legendary Charles Schulz's Peanuts
cartoons), the ability to create melodies that work on multiple levels of sophistication is a supreme talent. Besides, these artists brought decades of experience to the table when ABC television came calling.
So, as the late night radio concert played on, I began to discover a whole new side to the artists with whom I'd grown up. Dearie's version of "Sweet Georgie Fame" (a tribute to the British R&B artist), "The Dear Departed Past (Frishberg's reflection on the days of yesteryear), and Dorough's performance of "Yancey" (a Bill Loughborough composition paying tribute to boogie-woogie legends Jimmy and Estelle Yancey of Chicago) were all interesting and revealing choices.
These singer/songwriters are uninhibited in their approach to music, willing to tackle obscure topics, colorful characters, and touching ballads with equal heart and enthusiasm. The results are collective bodies of work that always leave the listener anticipating the next recording and wanting more. Intriguing compositions that distinguish these performers from the crowd have also allowed them to outlast more generic performers.
Frishberg and Dorough's live album, Who's on First
(Blue Note, 2000), showcases the duo's sharp wit and their playful approach to performing. Listening to compositions like "I'm Hip" (one of two songs the artists co-wrote and a satire of the guy who sits close to the band and snaps his thumbs), "Looking Good" (Frishberg's quip on society's fascination with beauty), and "Health Food Nut" (Dorough's take on the addictive nature of the health conscious crowd), provides a sense of the allure of their music.
To be a fan of these artists is to be part of an inside joke. You'll find yourself grinning with each measure, as you share a laugh at the outsiders. While humor is an important part of the repertoire, it's only one part of the musical equation. Poignant and reflective ballads, toe-tapping boogie-woogie numbers, and riveting instrumental interludes reveal that these folks have the diversity and the chops to complement their considerable songwriting talents.
Dearie's voice is comparable to that of a bashful little girl, and Dorough and Frishberg's vocal styles are certainly quirky and unconventional. The late guitarist Jerry Garcia once likened Grateful Dead fans to people who like licorice. Not everybody likes it, but those who do really, really love it. Similarly, fans of Dorough and friends are a defined, yet enthusiastic group.
The careers of these three parallel Randy Newman a generation latera distinctive voice, unconventional songs about offbeat subjects and characters and limited commercial success. Still, like Newman, all possessed a solid base of loyal fans, a career sidebar that provided a vehicle for showcasing a different side of their talents, a connection to a younger audience and, above all, career longevity.
Dorough, Frishberg, Sheldon, and Dearie have all continued to perform well into their senior years. Such longevity is perhaps their reward for having the courage to pursue music of the soul and not the trend of the moment. In his book The War of Art
, author Steven Pressfield offers the definition of a "hack" with respect to authors, a lesson he learned from fellow writer Robert McKee. "A hack is a writer who second guesses his audience. When the hack sits down to work, he doesn't ask himself what's in his own heart. He asks what the market is looking for." In a nutshell, a hack is a sellout.
This group will never be accused of being hacks.
Jamie Cullum and Diana Krall are among the contemporary artists that have brought Dorough- and Frishberg-penned tunes to the attention of a new generation of listeners.
So as I awaited the premier of Schoolhouse Rock
by a local grammar school drama club earlier this year, I was struck with the sense of continuity of the moment. The joy of discovery by a new generation that knows only of these artists through DVD compilations is gratifying to those of us who grew up on the genre. Schoolhouse Rock
seems to be a favorite of local live theater productions these days for one simple reasonthe music has such timeless and universal appeal.
For those of us who are fortunate enough to have known the multi-faceted careers of these artists beyond Schoolhouse Rock
, every recording has been a fresh and imaginative adventurethrough the years.
Bob Dorough, Small Day Tomorrow (Candid, 2006)