They say you should never meet your heroes, but anyone who believes that is really just too embarrassed to admit that he just picked shoddy heroes in the first place. Last month I had the time of my life meeting one of my own heroes when Bob Dorough came to Washington to participate in a free concert at the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage. You might not know Dorough’s name, but you know his work.
In the 1970s Dorough was a jazz singer and pianist and a songwriter who had composed a few ad jingles. He was approached by David McCall, a Madison Avenue advertising exec he’d worked with before, to write something new: a song that would help kids learn their multiplication tables. McCall had noticed that his own son struggled with math, but picked up rock music lyrics effortlessly. McCall not only came up with the idea of setting times tables to music, but also put up the funds to turn the idea into reality. (Yes, McCall was something of a hero himself: he would later persuade Yul Brynner, dying of lung cancer, to record a public service announcement, to be aired posthumously, in which Brynner unnervingly urged people not to smoke; and McCall himself would die in 1999 in a car crash during a trip to Europe, trying to ease the plight of Kosovar refugees.) Dorough took the ball from McCall and ran with it for a touchdown, first creating the song “Three Is a Magic Number“, then an entire album full of multiplicative music. Cartoonist Tom Yohe heard that album, and suggested to McCall that the songs would make great little animated shorts. McCall got his advertising company to fund the animations, then convinced their client ABC to buy them for their Saturday morning cartoon schedule. And thus was born Schoolhouse Rock!, the iconic series that introduced “Conjunction Junction“, “Sufferin’ ’til Suffrage“, and “Rufus Xavier Sarsaparilla” to the world.
I flat-out love Schoolhouse Rock! I loved it as a kid, with its clever lyrics and funny animations, and I love it even more as an adult, after I bought the DVD to introduce my own children to it and really appreciated its musical diversity and adeptness. I love that you actually could learn things from the songs (like the Preamble to the Constitution); David McCall was right. But what I love most about it is that every American loves it. It’s impossible to be too cool or too world-weary to enjoy a date with “The Good Eleven” or “Interplanet Janet“. In high school, I was on a school field trip one Saturday morning with a big van full of students — the jocks, the brains, the stoners, the popular kids, they were all represented — and when the person who had brought his scratchy portable TV set managed to tune in “Interjections!“, every single person in that van stopped chatting and sang along joyously and entirely unselfconsciously.
And so it was last month at the Kennedy Center. Their Millennium Stage is really just a platform erected at one end of a long open hallway overlooking the Potomac River, with a couple hundred chairs set up in front. There were easily more than a thousand people in the audience that night, though, maybe even closer to two. Everyone but a lucky few in chairs up front plopped down on the floor. And when Bob Dorough came out and started the concert, appropriately, with “Three Is a Magic Number”, everybody cheered and clapped . . . and then sang along. Joyously and entirely unselfconsciously. He was full of energy and good humor, and he played several songs, including “Preamble” (which was written by Lynn Ahrens, one of the many other talented songwriters and singers who joined the Schoolhouse Rock! team over the years). We all sang along to that too (here, you can watch a bit of it), and I thought, “Wow, this is wondrous! Here we are in the home of the Constitution, and the only reason we all know what it says — by heart — is because that guy wrote a song about multiplying by three. And he did it really well, when it counted.”
Of course, Bob Dorough did not set off on his musical career thinking, “I really want to write a popular educational song.” He just wanted to be the best he could be at what he was good at. For him it was music, but for any of the rest of us it could be writing or counseling or lawyering or bricklaying. That is why he is a hero to me. Dorough proves that success isn’t just a matter of luck, of being “in the right place at the right time”; he just got himself to the right place, then paid attention and waited for the right time.After the concert ended, a line was formed, and Bob Dorough (and George Newell, another SR! songwriter, who did not perform that night) was available to meet, sign autographs, and pose for photos. I was delighted and enthusiastic, and Dorough was genial and generous. He was also amazingly lively for a man of 89. Eighty-nine! Schoolhouse Rock! started 40 years ago. That means that Dorough was older than I am now when he produced those first songs! I still have time do do something as good for the world as he did. I would love, before I die, to create even one thing as useful and as universally cherished as those Schoolhouse Rock! songs. Maybe even be someone else’s hero.
You have to meet your heroes from time to time, to remind yourself that the people who inspire us aren’t just stories or ideals, and that they are on the same plane of existence the rest of us are on. You can tell yourself intellectually, “Oh, they burp and err and take the last sheet of toilet paper without replacing the roll, just like the rest of us,” but you don’t really believe that emotionally until you meet them in the flesh. When you shake the hand of someone who has done something you admire, maybe share a laugh and a few words, that’s when you realize in your bones that a real person did that amazing thing, and that, as another real person, there’s no reason you can’t do something amazing, too.