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By Allison Babka
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The year was 1960, and Dorough came through town on his way from Los Angeles to New York at the suggestion of St. Louis-born pianist and songwriter Tommy Wolf, a California transplant. Wolf wanted Dorough to take an acting role in a musical adaptation of Nelson Algren's A Walk On The Wild Side at the Crystal Palace, the Gaslight Square nightspot owned by Wolf's songwriting partner Fran Landesman and her husband Jay. Dorough, looking to escape from LA and aware of the success of Wolf and Landesman's musical The Nervous Set, which made it to Broadway, took the part even though he had no acting experience.
"I had a lot of fun as an actor, and I met a lot of wonderful people who are still my friends," recalls Dorough. The show closed after just three weeks, but Dorough hung around St. Louis for another month, playing piano-bar gigs and jamming with guitarist Grant Green in East St. Louis clubs before heading on to New York.
Now, he's returning to St. Louis some 47 years later to perform at the Bistro in Grand Center. Though the venue is usually the home of Jazz at the Bistro, Dorough's show is being presented by another former Gaslight Square denizen, Jorge Martinez. Martinez is known these days as a visual artist, but back then, he owned a jazz club that featured musicians like Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Art Blakey. To celebrate his 75th birthday, he's staging what's being called "an evening of hip entertainment." And who better to headline than Dorough, who's been something of a hipster icon since releasing his first album Devil May Care way back in 1956?
That album featured a vocal version of the Charlie Parker composition "Yardbird Suite" that attracted the attention of Miles Davis, and in 1962, Davis asked Dorough to write something for a holiday-themed compilation. Dorough came up with the sardonic "Blue Xmas," and became one of the few vocalists ever to appear on a Miles Davis album. Still, for years Dorough was only able to record sporadically as a solo artist, so he found other ways to make a living: collaborating with jazz performers such as Dave Frishberg and Blossom Dearie, writing music for advertising, and arranging and producing rock and pop records for the likes of the Fugs and Spanky and Our Gang.
In the 1990s, Dorough's recordings for Blue Note helped bring him back into the spotlight, and in 2006, he paid tribute to Fran Landesman by recording a CD of her songs called Small Day Tomorrow. Although his own compositions such as "Devil May Care" and "Coming Home Baby" have been covered by popular performers including Diana Krall, Jamie Cullum and Michael Bublé, Dorough probably still is best known for the songs he wrote for ABC's animated series Schoolhouse Rock. "I meet a lot of young people who grew up watching those," says Dorough, who will turn 84 on December 12. "It's undoubtedly been the biggest thing in my career as far as reaching people."
However, with 50 years worth of material to draw upon, Dorough doesn't feel compelled to perform "My Hero, Zero" or "Conjunction Junction" at every show. Instead, he prefers spontaneity when constructing a set list. "It depends on the feeling I get from the venue. Sometimes I change my mind after I see the people," he says, adding with a chuckle, "I'm a sucker for requests." — Dean C. Minderman7 p.m. and 9 p.m. Sunday, December 9. Jazz at the Bistro, 3536 Washington Boulevard. 314-968-1898.