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'I'm just a bill:' Schoolhouse Rock, 40 years later, still teaches generations

By Kevin Bohn, CNN
January 15, 2013 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • In 1973, a jazz musician created the popular children's short videos to help kids learn math
  • The series of catchy, educational videos is still popular online
  • 'Just a bill' explained how a bill becomes a law in Washington
  • NEW: Bob Dorough says he's not surprised the videos still resonate

Washington (CNN) -- "I'm just a bill. Yes I am only a bill. And I'm sitting here on Capitol Hill."

"Conjunction Junction, what's your function." "My hero, zero." "Lolly, Lolly, Lolly get your adverbs here."

These are some of the lyrics that live on 40 years after they premiered on Saturday mornings on ABC television as part of "Schoolhouse Rock."

They were animated videos and songs invented by a jazz musician who wanted to help children learn math.

Kids never really had any idea they were learning how a bill becomes a law or proper grammar while watching the three-minute shorts between cartoons.

Jazz pianist and vocalist Bob Dorough was approached in 1971 by a New York advertising executive whose sons could not multiply. He asked him to set the multiplication tables to music.

Dorough ended up writing "Three's a Magic Number" and other well known videos. He also voiced many of them.

Dorough, who is 89 and still performs, said he gets requests from adults to sing some of the bits because they grew up on them -- often times recognizing his voice.

"I am not surprised at all (that the videos still resonate)," Dorough told CNN. "I learned, when performing at elementary schools, that they were 'getting through,' so to speak, and the children would readily recognize my voice on such vocals as 'Three is a Magic Number,' and others that I sang.

"However, what surprised me most was the impact of network television, which kicked in years later, after we'd been on air at ABC-TV. Thirteen years, plus a second round, helped us to reach literally thousands, in a rather broad age spectrum."

"Schoolhouse Rock" premiered on Jan. 13, 1973, and ran on ABC from 1973-1985. It came back in the 1990s for five more years. More than 30 million people have now watched some of them on YouTube, showing that Dorough's work still resonates.

It is not just the catchy words that connected with kids. They were combined with interesting visuals.

One spot featured a talking "bill" that explained to a boy how he could only become a law by passing both houses of Congress and then going to the White House hoping the president would sign him.

"Conjunction Junction" used train cars named "and," "but" and "or" that illustrated how a conjunction connected words.

Asked why the videos connected, Dorough said, "The melodies, words, arrangements, and players. That is to say, even though they were in a 'rock' or 'pop' bag, my jazz sensibilities and the fine musicians I used for the audio recordings made the songs seem unusual to the Saturday morning cartoon listeners."

Just last week, there was a vivid example of just how popular the videos remain.

More than a thousand people -- adults who wanted to relive part of their childhood and parents who wanted to share the fun with their kids -- jammed into the lobby of the Kennedy Center to hear Dorough sing "Three's a Magic Number" and "Figure Eight is Double 4."

"I came because I had such fond, intense memories," said Amy Augenblick, who brought her 9-year-old daughter, Elizabeth. "I could sing all of it without the words."

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