After-School Special

I know this couple who think Lou Rawls is the shit. You can look in the books on soul music and find little reference to Rawls and maybe less respect. And my friends could care less. Their devotion isn’t built on his place in the Hall of Fame, isn’t established by his skills. It isn’t even about his hits: they like the Christmas album best. What they like about Rawls–if I may tender a guess–is that while he isn’t necessarily the best, he brilliantly evokes the experience of being up really, really close to the best. He does a hell of a job selling a majesty he doesn’t quite own, summing up what a man in his niche is called upon to do, and acting it out with goblets of gusto. You suddenly realize, hey, he’s a fan too.

Everybody has a Lou Rawls, and mine is Bob Dorough. You won’t find much about Dorough in the jazz vocalist lit and some of what you will find is scandalous–let’s just say Will Friedwald, who my head says has great ears, ain’t a fan. Lesley Gourse calls him a boite singer, but goddamn if I’ve ever been in a boite in my life. To me Dorough’s voice is all but definitive of its cool-white-guy category– he’s a jazzbo before he’s jazz singer. Still is, too; his way with a song remains intact and makes the recent Right on My Way Home a string of pleasures.

Dorough humbly refers to himself as ”a singing jazz piano player,” which emphasizes the bop-inflected keyboard work he deserves to be proud of. But it also refers to the way, like other musicians who sing–Chet Baker, the early Nat King Cole, Mose Allison–he banks on atmosphere, storytelling skills. The man doesn’t have great pipes, nor dazzling technique, but he’s got the flow, a love of song and a vocal style that jumps around crazily like spontaneous vocalese. He sings jazz solos. He foregrounds an intimacy–lean in and hear this–that suggests a hepster’s line of jive and a natural born storyteller.

Born in Arkansas and raised in various Texas towns, the 74-year-old Dorough has a living-out-of-a-cardboard-suitcase kind of voice. He got the bop infection just after the war and headed for New York, where he became a cabaret-card-carrying member of the hipoisie. His vocalese version of ”Yardbird Suite” (from the 1956 Bethlehem release Devil May Care) got Miles Davis’s attention, and in the early ’60s Dorough became one of Miles’s favorite Caucasians, liked so much that he was the only singer to ever record with Miles. When the trumpeter wanted to cut a Christmas song–Lou Rawls was unavailable– he got Dorough to write and sing ”Blue Xmas,” and then they cut ”Devil May Care” and ”Nothing Like You” while they were in the studio. And then they went caroling.

Even walking the straight and narrow on those painterly Gil Evans arrangements, Dorough’s voice is so cosmically, cartoonishly cool it had to end up on Saturday morning television. And when it did, it must have seemed a long way from the jazz clubs. But Dorough’s gig as lead voice of Schoolhouse Rock–along with a generation’s recycling of any and all of its influences–has in 1998 led him back to the jazz clubs. Writing jingles, making the studio scene in Los Angeles at the onset of the Ford administration (a rough time for white hipsters everywhere), Dorough hooked up with the advertising firm that created Hai Karate, the swinger’s cologne. Together they sold ABC on the concept that education was too important to leave to the teachers, and developed Schoolhouse Rock. These were ”lessons” ”taught” with cartoons, many of which Dorough wrote and sang. Today they have refilled the memory slot once occupied by Moby-Dick in my mind; you can hear them on a four-CD (hey, Moby-Dick’s a big book) 1996 Rhino box. These days Dorough even performs ”Three Is a Magic Number” in jazz clubs.

The one bum moment on Right on My Way Home is a too cute fable about a bear, which is pushing his luck farther than ”Lolly, Lolly, Lolly, Get Your Adverbs Here.” Dorough’s voice gives off a boyishness without forcing things; what’s wonderful about the album’s ”Moon River” is how Dorough takes the tune out of waltz time, revs it up, and escapes the winsome sigh most singers hang on the melody. Sure helps to have tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano play huckleberry friend to his Huckleberry Hound (he’s on five of the album’s 10 cuts); he and Dorough aren’t rafting the river, they’re hopping a streamliner.

As ever, there’s a flash of a Hoagy Carmichael smirk–the not-from-around-these-parts piano player who’s unimpressed with the big city. Some Dave Frishberg wordsical whimsical, too. The record ends with ”Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most”; ”You’re the only cat,” Miles once told Dorough, ”who can sing that song.” Maybe that’s because Dorough doesn’t sound hung up for a minute–he’s had a good ride, and he arrives at a place he’s happy to inhabit. He ain’t sentimental. He’s a protohipster who’s lived long enough to sing Frishberg’s self-mocking ”I’m Hip.” His urbanity has slipped into suburbia, and Dorough can see the absurdity of the passage. He’s good at finding it in all kinds of situations, not the least of which, as it happens, is a 74-year-old man still holding on to his ponytail, still snapping his fingers.

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