The late Bob Dorough, Arkansan and musical genius, named a 2019 NEA Jazz Master

Earlier this week, the National Endowment for the Arts announced the 2019 Jazz Masters.  Among them was the late Bob Dorough, who died on April 23 of this year.  The other three recipients are big band leader Maria Schneider, pianist Abdullah Ibrahim, and writer Stanley Crouch.

Dorough’s career spanned more than 70 years in jazz as a singer, pianist, composer, and arranger. His distinctive vocals, clever lyrics, and strong melodies were well-known in the jazz world even before his compositions and vocals for the animation series “Schoolhouse Rock!.”

Born in Arkansas and raised in Texas, hepivoted toward jazz after hearing Benny Goodman and Harry James recordings. During a three-year-stint in the U.S. Army from 1943-45, he worked as an arranger and musician in a Special Services band, then earned a bachelor’s degree in composition at North Texas State Teachers College (now known as the University of North Texas) in 1949.

Dorough relocated to New York City to continue his studies at Columbia University and immersed himself in the vibrant local jazz scene.  After spending six months working at the famed Mars Club in Paris, France, he returned to the U.S. and settled in Los Angeles, performing as pianist-vocalist in clubs and as supporting act between sets for comedian Lenny Bruce. Dorough’s first album, Devil May Care, was released in 1956.

In 1962, Dorough was working on the East Coast when he received a call from Miles Davis who he had met several years before in Los Angeles, asking him to write a Christmas song for him to record. Dorough composed “Blue Xmas (To Whom It May Concern)” and sang it with Davis as well as another track, “Nothing Like You,” used as the closing track of Davis’ album Sorcerer in 1967.

In 1972, Dorough was hired by a New York advertising firm to set the multiplication tables to music to make them easier to learn. It was decided that the songs would make good animation, and Tom Yohe put artwork with the music to create Schoolhouse Rock! Dorough became the musical director of the television series, enlisting other well-known jazz musicians to help write and perform the songs. The animated educational series became a staple of the ABC network’s children’s programming for more than two decades.

In 1998, he was inducted into the Arkansas Jazz Hall of Fame.  The Arkansas Arts Center Children’s Theatre has performed the stage adaptation of “School House Rock Live!” (which was created by Arkansan and AAC alum Scott Ferguson and performed all over the country).

On April 15, 2019, the NEA will host a free concert celebrating the Jazz Masters at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.

Beginning in 1982, NEA has bestowed the Jazz Master honor on more than 150 people connected to the jazz genre, including Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis, Dianne Reeves and George Wein. Individuals first are nominated by the public, with an NEA-convened panel assessing the nominations before the National Council on the Arts reviews the recommendations and forwards them along to the NEA chairman, who makes the final decision.

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LR Women Making History – Betty Fowler

Photo courtesy of the Arkansas Jazz Heritage Foundation

The word “Entertainer” seemed to have been invented for Betty Fowler.

Born in Wynne, her love for music began at age 9, when she started taking piano lessons. Betty began her illustrious career at age 18 after winning a talent contest, which gave her the push she needed to pursue her life’s passion. Betty graduated from Little Rock Jr. College in 1944. She spent most of her life in Little Rock as a popular musician and television entertainer.

Betty began her musical career on a statewide radio show. She moved on to become a television performer in the early 1950’s in Little Rock with what is now known as Channel 7. She was best known for her children’s TV show, “Betty’s Little Rascals”, which began in 1955.

She went on to co-host the “Little Rock Today Show” on Channel 4 with Bud Campbell, where she did live commercials, played the piano and interviewed celebrities who came to town, such as Liberace, Sammy Davis Jr., Bob Hope, Red Buttons and Robert Goulet.

Through the years, Betty maintained a vigorous schedule with her band, “The Betty Fowler Four”, which produced a record album of her music. She was also musical director for The Miss Arkansas Pageant (1960-84), Musical Director for Broadway musicals produced by the Community Theater, Musical Director for the Farkleberry Follies and The Gridiron.

For many years, Betty taught piano and had a recording studio in her home, where she gave voice coaching lessons and made accompany tapes for many aspiring performers.  Betty Fowler will forever be remembered and treasured for her lifetime love and devotion to the world of music, both in performing and in the teaching of music to others.

2015 In Memoriam – Jim Porter

1515 Porter

In these final days of 2015, we pause to look back at 15 who influenced Little Rock’s cultural scene who left us in 2015.

Jim Porter, Jr., spent a lifetime promoting music in Little Rock.  Along the way, he created social change as well.

A native of Little Rock, he graduated from Little Rock High School and the University of Arkansas.  After college, Jim started out in the family businesses and tried to follow a “traditional” path that his father had paved for him. Working in sales and public relations, he became active doing volunteer work.  Jim realized that the “traditional” path was not for him, and while working in the family businesses, he started bringing in top name entertainers, many of them black, to perform in Little Rock. He was not a singer, nor did he play any instrument, but his love for music and all things connected to music led him towards his calling as an agent/manager and promoter of musicians.

As a promoter of national artists and bands, Jim ran into southern racism and segregation. The Central High crisis in 1957 caused many black artists to refuse to come to Little Rock, fearful for their safety. Jim was forced to concentrate more on booking and managing local musicians through what was at the time Arkansas’ only full time booking and talent agency, Consolidated Talent Corporation (later to become Porter Entertainment). During his booking career from the late 50’s until his retirement in 2001, Jim placed talent across Arkansas (and even in Las Vegas) at clubs, hotels, restaurants, and private functions- anywhere that people needed entertainment.

Jim saw first hand the inequities of black musicians in Arkansas, the separate and very unequal accommodations, and the segregated venues. Never giving up promoting national artists, the 60’s led him and his co-investors to bring in such national names (mostly jazz artists) such as Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Al Hirt, Pete Fountain, Woody Herman, the Four Freshman, Dave Brubeck, George Shearing, Harry James and others.

In 1961, he was arrested for integrating a concert at Robinson Auditorium. A white man, he had entered the segregated balcony.  Knowing the challenges of booking acts in a segregated house (indeed Duke Ellington would cancel his booking at Robinson), Porter had tried to get the facility to change its rules.  It was 1966, when Louis Armstrong returned to Little Rock and played before an integrated house that the new rules were here to stay.  In the early 1970s, he helped bring the musical Hair to Little Rock, with the specter of full nudity causing consternation to Robinson Auditorium and some of the citizenry.

Jim was inducted into the Arkansas Entertainers Hall of Fame in 2005, and the Arkansas Jazz Heritage Foundation Hall of Fame in 2006. He was appointed to the Martin Luther King Commission in 2005 and entered politics to serve as a member of the Pulaski County Quorum Court from 1998 until 2006.

Always an entrepreneur, Jim also started MusAd Recording Studio, where commercial jingles were produced and bands could record demo tapes. The Hot Air Balloon Theatre (in the old Center Theatre on Main Street) was the site for G-movies and live entertainment for kids. The Yellow Rocket, an arcade in the “Heights” is still remembered by now middle-aged adults who spent afternoons and weekends feeding money into the game machines and eating snacks. Jim wrote several books, hosted TV shows (“After Five” and “Scene Around”) featuring restaurants, bars, clubs and their patrons and employees. He was featured on a weekly radio show about dining and entertainment, and wrote “Scene Around” columns and a dining and entertainment guide for the Arkansas Democrat.