|Bob Dorough. Photo Credit: Richard Newhouse / Creative Commons|
Songwriter and singer BOB DOROUGH, now 91, will be doing a mini-tour of Pizza Express venues later this month. The friends and colleagues he will be working with include Geoff Gascoyne and Sebastiaan De Krom, Sarah Moule and Trudy Kerr. Joe Paice interviewed him:
LondonJazz News: You arrived in New York in the late 1940s as the bebop revolution was in full swing. What impact did that have on you as a young man newly arrived from Texas?
Bob Dorough: It was the summer of 1949 and the ‘Street’ (52nd) was active but in a declining phase. Eventually I turned to Broadway (Birdland & The Royal Roost) and other clubs that sprang up around the City. There were also many lofts where you could go to blow and meet other young cats from far and wide, all come to the Apple to hear and feel this exciting music. Coming from North Texas where I had just earned a Bachelor of Music degree, I was already into BeBop, but it was great to actually see the masters. We saved our money in order to go to the clubs and to be there. Other than the jazz, New York was also quite titillating to a southern lad. I took it all in – modern dance, musical theater, museums, skyscrapers, and millions of faces of every nationality…
LJN: Your debut album ‘Devil May Care’ appeared in 1956 and featured the title song, which had a renaissance recently with recordings by Diana Krall and Jamie Cullum. Was the songwriting as important to you at that time as the performing side?
BD: Songwriting was a way to validate my singing. Of course I had all the standards at my disposal but writing my own songs helped me to develop a personal approach to performance. I’d say they went hand-in-hand.
LJN: You met Fran Landesman and her songwriting partner Tommy Wolf not long after this – tell us how that happened?
BD: First, I met their songs. My interest was in Tommy Wolf, for his wonderful music. A singer I accompanied had gotten her hands on a batch of their gems. Then, in Los Angeles(1957-59) I met Tommy and he twisted my arm and begged me to star in his 2nd or 3rd musical, ‘A Walk On the Wild Side ‘. This took me to St. Louis where Fran lived with her husband, Jay Landesman. I was there about 6 weeks and finally said goodbye to everyone. After I knocked on the Landesmans’ front door to say goodbye to her, she said, “Wait a minute.” She went to a bureau and brought out several lyric sheets and gave them to me. I said, “Won’t Tommy be jealous?” Her answer was that she wrote so much he couldn’t keep up with her. I of course later cleared it with Tommy. Back in New York, I tackled one of her lyrics called “Nothing Like You.” That was my first collaboration with Fran.
LJN: Before your appearance in ‘Walk on the Wild Side’, you appeared in a US Western TV series ‘Have Gun Will Travel’ from 1959 as a member of James Coburn’s thuggish gang, until [spoiler alert] you’re shot by Richard Boone’s hero… was acting a serious ambition at any time?
BD: I lived in Hollywood about three years (at the time when I met Tommy Wolf). Young actors would come to hear me sing and say things like “Do you have an agent?” I got one for a short time and I think I had two TV gigs, as an actor. Most singers of songs are (or should be) actors anyway so I coasted on my ingrown talent. Still, when Tommy Wolf started urging me to be in his play I said “I’m not an actor, Tommy.”
LJN: In 1962 you worked with Miles Davis, who was not famous for working with vocalists, yet he recorded three of your songs – two with vocals by you. What was your relationship like with Miles?
BD: I usually correct people when they say “I worked” with Miles Davis. I only recorded (one session) with him. Well, he listened to my LP, Devil May Care, in the home of our mutual friend, Ms. Terry Morel. Again, this was in my LA period.
Miles dug music of many kinds and after she told me he heard the whole 12 songs in that LP I took her to his gig where she introduced us! We became friends for a few years and he tried to help me in my career, back in NYC. This led to the recording session. It’s funny you should ask, but I have written a small book entitled ‘BLUE XMAS’, explaining and relating the whole story. I’ll bring a few copies to sell at PizzaExpress, for the inquiring fans.
LJN: There are generations of Americans, who know you (or at least your music) from your work as musical director of the US TV series ‘Schoolhouse Rock’. You worked with some great people on this series throughout the 1970s and 80s. For the uninitiated British, who never saw the series, tell us something about that time.
BD: In the 60’s and early 70’s I wasn’t too successful with my career as a jazz singer/band leader. I had a family by then and needed to make money. This led me to do advertising and arranging for pop stars and even producing for some of them.
In 1971 I was commissioned by a wealthy advertising genius to write songs about multiplication. He wanted to make an LP and maybe a book dealing with the problem and call it ‘Multiplication Rock’. He’d tried other jingle writers but, when it got to me, I got the job on the spot by writing a song called ‘Three is a Magic Number’. He was David B. McCall, a wonderful magnate and he financed me to produce eleven songs in an LP called ‘Multiplication Rock’. I attempted to get interesting approaches in each song and to also have diversity in the music. I took his idea of ‘Rock’ with a grain of salt.
To shorten the story, his Art Director started doing a story board on my first song and like a miracle, sold it to the ABC-TV Network for their Saturday morning cartoons. The 3 minute animations reached an incredible number of young people throughout the USA. I enjoyed the work tremendously and was able to use all my skills in music. I was also able to provide work for a lot of singers and musicians, including Blossom Dearie, Dave Frishberg and Jack Sheldon.
LJN: You recorded three albums for Blue Note records in the 1990s – how did it feel being signed to perhaps the world’s most famous jazz label in your 70s?
BD: It was wonderful. For a short time I got “star treatment” and again, enjoyed the work tremendously. I shall always be grateful to Tom Evered and Bruce Lundvall for this experience.
LJN: Last year you worked again with Dave Frishberg in Portland – how was that experience? Any chance of you writing together again?
BD: Dave and I have a mutual admiration society all our own. He is a wonderful writer and pianist. Our duo, two-piano act constitutes one of the CDs I made for Blue Note. It is a tough act to book because we both want great pianos. As for songwriting, I don’t think he needs me. We have collaborated on only 3 or 4 songs, but they are good ones. In his own work he writes both the music and the words and I am very proud to have maybe been an influence on him.
LJN: People may know ‘Devil May Care’, ‘Small Day Tomorrow’, ‘Three Is The Magic Number’ and ‘Comin’ Home Baby’ best of your songs. Which songs that people may not know, are you most proud of?
BD: I am proud of ‘Love Came On Stealthy Fingers’. It laid in my ‘trunk’ for 30 years and was written in NYC when I was truly a greenhorn. I thought none would ever sing it. I owe its debut to Irene Kral, who was a great singer.
LJN: You’re still touring at 91 years old. Has retirement ever entered your mind?
BD: Yes. Haha. It seems musicians don’t really retire, huh?
LJN: Finally, your shows are billed as Bob Dorough and Friends – tell us about the people you’ll be performing with? What can audiences expect from the shows?
BD: It will be a great reunion with London’s own best rhythm team of Geoff Gascoyne on bass and Sebastiaan de Krom on drums. Besides that there will be two other jazz singers at the gig – Trudy Kerr and Sarah Moule.
They are all so good that I am sorry the billing only refers to them as ‘friends’. They are friends but also much more. As you may know, I recorded for Candid in London a few years ago with Sebastiaan, Geoff and Derek Nash. Trudy also did a guest spot on that CD – called, ‘Small Day Tomorrow’.
I’m looking forward to the gig and to seeing you all.