September 22, 2015 posted by Greg Ehrbar

“Schoolhouse Rock” on Records

You’ll know these songs if you watched (or heard) Saturday Morning TV in the ’70s and ’80s (or had the videos). You’re not alone–billions can still sing them by heart.


Rhino Records R2-72455 (Four Compact Discs)

Released in 1996. Executive Producer: Robin Frederick. Production Coordinators: E.J. Dick, Robin Tapp. Music Director: Bob Dorough. Remastering: Bob Fisher, Rae DiLeo, McKinley Marshal, Alan Hirshberg, Bruce Chianese. Film Audio Transfers: Barry Goldberg, Rick Larimore, Allan Falk.

Total Running Time: 151 minutes. (Multiplication Rock: 38 minutes; Grammar Rock: 28 minutes; Money Rock: 13 minutes; America Rock: 31 minutes; Science Rock: 28 minutes; Scooter Computer: 13 minutes.)
Performers: Bob Dorough, Lynn Ahrens, Jack Sheldon, John Sheldon, Blossom Dearie, Grady Tate, Terry Morel, Essra Mowhawk, Zachary Sanders, Val Hawk, Patrick Quinn, Dave Frishberg, Sue Manchester, Lori Lieberman, Joshie Armstead, Mary Sue Berry, Maeretha Stewart, Jamie Aff, Christine Langer, Darrell Stern, Bob Kaliban, The Tokens.
Bonus Track Vocalists: The Lemonheads, Goodness.
Theme Song: “Schoolhouse Rocky” by Tom Yohe, Bob Dorough.

Multiplication Rock Songs:
Elementary, My Dear”, “Three is a Magic Number”, “The Four-Legged Zoo”, “Ready or Not, Here I Come”, “My Hero, Zero”, “I Got Six”, “Lucky Seven Sampson”, “Figure Eight”, “Naughty Number Nine”, “The Good Eleven”, “Little Twelvetoes” by Bob Dorough.

Grammar Rock Songs:
Lolly, Lolly, Lolly, Get Your Adverbs Here”, “Conjunction Junction”, “Verb: That’s What’s Happening”, “Busy Prepositions” by Bob Dorough; “Rufus Xavier Sarsparilla” by Kathy Mandry, Bob Dorough; “Unpack Your Adjectives” by George Newall; “Interjections” , “A Noun is a Person, Place or Thing”, “The Tale of Mr. Morton” by Lynn Ahrens.

America Rock Songs:
The Shot Heard ’Round the World”, “Mother Necessity” [ ] by Bob Dorough; “Sufferin’ Till Suffrage” by Bob Dorough, Yom Yohe; “No More Kings”, “Fireworks”, “The Preamble”, “Elbow Room”, “The Great American Melting Pot”, “Three-Ring Government” by Lynn Ahrens; “I’m Just a Bill” by Dave Frishberg.

Science Rock Songs:Electricity, Electricity” by Bob Dorough; “The Body Machine” , “Do the Circulation”, “Interplanet Janet”, “Telegraph Line”, “A Victim of Gravity” by Lynn Ahrens; “The Energy Blues”, “Them Not-So-Dry Bones” by George Newall.

Scooter Computer Songs: “Introduction” by Bob Dorough, Lynn Ahrens, Tom Yohe; “Software” by Lynn Ahrens; “Hardware”, “Number Cruncher” by Dave Frishberg.

A scene from Mad Men…

PEGGY OLSON: [I’d like to] create something of lasting value.
DON DRAPER: In advertising?

Don Draper and Peggy Olson from "Mad Men"

Don Draper and Peggy Olson from “Mad Men”

Don’s cynical reply is based in his own estimation of the philanthropic value of advertising. If you know the series, the statement reflects himself as well as his career. In truth, such a thing as advertising–or any effective means of communication–can be used for, as Maxwell Smart would say, “Goodness and niceness”.

Such a phenomenon is Schoolhouse Rock. It was born of an observation by powerhouse advertising executive David B. McCall. His son knew the words to rock songs because he heard them over and over. Why couldn’t the same thing happen with multiplication tables?

The idea first took shape as a record album, but the first attempt was not what they were looking for. As fate would have it, George Newall, the MacCaffrey & McCall creative director assigned to writing the project, had been impressed by a singer/songwriter who happened to be performing at the nearby Hickory House bebop club. In the book he coauthored with co-creative director Tom Yohe, Schoolhouse Rock: The Official Guide, Newall recalls that Dorough had “a penchant for turning mundane subjects into marvelous music.” One of his songs was about mattress tags, another about the irony that the word “love” in tennis means “you have no points scored and you have nothing!”

Dorough’s first composition was “Three is a Magic Number”. They tested it in several schools and the students loved it. In charge of the art direction, Tom Yohe thought the song was so visual it should be animated. So they treated the song, and each subsequent tune, the way they would a TV campaign spot, starting with a storyboard by Yohe (he became most responsible for the predominant Schoolhouse Rock “look”). Their agency happened to have the ABC network among their clients, so Account Director Radford Stone set up a meeting with…some of you may already know where this is going…then Vice President of Children’s Programming, Michael Eisner.


Before you could say, “Stephens, you’re a genius,” the Schoolhouse Rock interstitials began appearing between ABC Saturday and Sunday Morning children’s shows. This in itself was not a new thing, as CBS had been adding interstitials since 1970, starting with “In The Know” with Josie and the Pussycats, then “In the News” with Christopher Glenn.

The “Peggy Olson” of this story is Lynn Ahrens, a recent college graduate hired by the agency as a secretary/copywriter. She played her guitar on her lunch hour, and one day Don Draper (just kidding) asked her to try writing some songs for what would become Grammar Rock. With no professional experience, the first two songs she came up with were the first she sang on the series. Many more songs followed.

MultiplicationRockLP-390Ahrens’ music career led to commercials, Captain Kangaroo tunes–and the Broadway stage by way of the BMI Theatre Workshop, where she met Stephen Flaherty. Within ten years, their partnership led to Broadway hits like Once on This Island, Ragtime, Seussical and the animated feature Anastasia. With Alan Menken, Ahrens wrote the songs for stage and screen musical A Christmas Carol. As my mom would say, “She did oh-kay!”

Billions heard and saw these songs in the early ’70s and ’80s. Many of the tunes and their imagery reached legendary status. As the musical director and primary songwriter, Dorough is still lauded for this music when he appear in concert, adding in a few of them to the delight of audiences. Ahrens’ “We the People” taught scores of kids (and adults) how to recite the Preamble to the Constitution musically, much as Jiminy Cricket and Jimmie Dodd did with “E-N-C-Y-C-L-O-P-E-D-I-A” on The Mickey Mouse Club.

“Conjunction Junction” is so ingrained in so many minds, it is incalculable. It’s one of several Schoolhouse Rock songs sung by master trumpet player Jack Sheldon, whom baby boomers know from TV’s Merv Griffin Show, Run Buddy, Run and The Girl with Something Extra. On TV, he usually played a comical character, but to the music world, he’s a musical genius, playing on thousands of sessions (including The Monkees).

With his son John, Jack Sheldon performed what is probably the most famous and impactful of all Schoolhouse Rock episodes, “I’m Just a Bill”. Written by Dave Frishberg. it continues to be parodied in popular culture, including episodes of The Daily Show, The Family Guy, The Simpsons and Saturday Night Live. It even played a role in the Senate. According to The Washington Post, May 22, 2007, “[Senator Jeff Sessions] … made his way from news conference to television studio to the Senate floor. He took three hours of the Senate’s time to argue against the compromise, illustrating his argument with a poster of an educational cartoon titled “How a Senate Bill Becomes a Law.”

ThreeRingGovtLLP-412The first Schoolhouse Rock album was Capitol’s “Multiplication Rock” in 1973. It presented all the math songs as heard in the films, but sometimes with sections that were cut for time. In 1984, Kid Stuff Records released three 7” book-and-record sets: “The Great American Body Machine,” “The Great American Melting Pot” and “Three-Ring Government” (an episode that was initially held for broadcast until it could be assured that politicians would not be offended by the analogies of government systems to a circus).

It wasn’t until 1996 that Rhino released all the songs except “The Weather Show”, which was part of a lawsuit filed by Ringling Bros. that finally resulted in the words “on earth” in “the greatest show on earth” being replaced by thunder. It reappeared in Buena Vista’s DVD set. The complete Rhino CD set came in a clever loose-leaf binder package with four discs. Rhino also released the individual series on single discs. Rhino also created a companion album with Schoolhouse Rock songs performed by pop artists.

The only thing about Schoolhouse Rock soundtracks that one might ponder is whether the music is really “rock” in the literal sense. While there are some gentle rhythmic tunes that might pass as bubblegum or sunshine pop, the emphasis is on folk, blues and especially jazz. That was the music of choice for Bob Dorough, Jack Sheldon and drummer/singer Grady Tate. It also keeps Schoolhouse Rock musically fresh and timeless. It’s one of those “perfect storm” creations in which someone had the infrastructure to push through an idea and the talent fell together in a most delightful way.

Cloris Leachman’s “Incongruity, INN-con-gruity”
That’s not a real Schoolhouse Rock song, it’s just a way to describe the puzzling decision of ABC Video that the extreeeemely popular and highly lauded Schoolhouse Rock cartoons were just not going to be enough to sell VHS tapes, therefore a celebrity was vital to make the videos fly off the shelves. Therefore, the always head-tilt-provoking Oscar winning former Phyllis Lindstrom was tapped to romp groovily with stylishly clad kids.


  • Not a soundtrack album, but still good… Schoolhouse Rock Rocks.

  • I remember “Three Is A Magic Number” originally being broadcast on the Chuck-Jones’ produced series CURIOSITY SHOP, which was pretty much a Jones version of Sesame Street with puppets and animation. Haven’t been able to find much about the making of that show, which I think deserves an article in itself.

  • If I recall Three is a Magic Number was used for a commercial for a auto manufactuer but I don’t know who the auto manufacturer was.

  • I remember when I first spotted those Cloris Leachman VHS’s in the store. Couldn’t buy ’em fast enough. I also remember being in the kitchen washing dishes while “Interjections” was blaring from the TV in the other room – first time I’d heard it in years – and I was interjecting right along and having a blast. “HOORAY! AW! EEK! RATS!”

    A few weeks later I realized I wasn’t the only one when I started playing them – from cassette dubs of the VHSs and my scratchy old Capitol LP – on my campus radio station. The phone went bananas. The station ended up having to cart several of them for regular rotation.

    Fortunately we were far enough from civilization that the copyright police never got wind of it!

  • I love schoolhouse rock!!!!!!!!!!

  • I remember 3 Is A Magic Number debuting on Curiosity Shop.

  • Cloris Leachman?

  • That’s not a real Schoolhouse Rock song, it’s just a way to describe the puzzling decision of ABC Video that the extreeeemely popular and highly lauded Schoolhouse Rock cartoons were just not going to be enough to sell VHS tapes, therefore a celebrity was vital to make the videos fly off the shelves.

    Never did noticed these tapes at all, but glad I didn’t notice them at all when I was watching those on TV anyway, but I suppose ABC didn’t think the strength of those individual shorts could last a half hour at least. At least the tapes that came out a decade later proved that otherwise (though I despite the DVNR-ing they did to some like Electricity).

    Aside from TV, film prints of the earlier Multiplication and Grammar Rock series were distributed to schools on 16mm either through ABC’s own educational film division (named “Media Concepts”) or through another distributor (not sure of the other series though perhaps videotapes of those were provided later).

    • I recall reading in the “Official School House Rock” that the videos were done without the creators’ involvement. Yohe didn’t knows about this project until he ran across a magazine article reviewing these tapes.

    • Kind of sad he wasn’t informed at all.

  • I wonder if anyone would be offended NOW by the concept of government or politics as a three ring circus…

    • I would—I thought it was a [i]four[/i] ring circus.[/tongue in cheek]

  • On the off chance that I review Three is a Magic Number was utilized for a business for an auto manufactuer however I don’t know who the vehicle maker was.

  • Bob Dorough (I think) said that Cloris Leachman was hideous when he was asked about the videos.

  • I wonder if anyone would be offended NOW

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