© 2024 Iowa Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Fresh Air celebrates the 50th anniversary of 'Schoolhouse Rock'

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm TV critic David Bianculli, sitting in for Terry Gross. Last month was the golden anniversary of "Schoolhouse Rock!" the series of animated musical shorts that aired on ABC from 1973 to 1984. If you don't know how many years ago that was, you may not have watched enough "Schoolhouse Rock!" Like "Sesame Street," which had premiered on public television four years earlier, "Schoolhouse Rock!" set out to use catchy music and friendly visuals to teach kids about things, like whether the word thing was a noun or a verb. Each "Schoolhouse Rock!" segment was a three-minute interstitial cartoon inserted between ABC's other shows on Saturday morning. The subject of the first series of cartoons was "Multiplication Rock," followed by "Grammar Rock," "America Rock," "Science Rock," "Money Rock" and "Earth Rock." The songs in those series included a number of informative earworms that educated young viewers in the 1970s and beyond - songs such as "I'm Just A Bill" and "Conjunction Junction."

An advertising agency, McCaffrey and McCall, came up with the idea, commissioned a composer to write a song featuring multiplication tables, then took the song and animation storyboards to ABC. At the time, network TV was under increased scrutiny by politicians and watchdog groups, and the head of ABC children's programming eagerly made room for "Schoolhouse Rock!" That young ABC executive, by the way, was Michael Eisner, who later became CEO of the Walt Disney Company, which now owns ABC. "Schoolhouse Rock!" won four Emmys, and some of its songs have persisted in pop culture.

Last week, ABC presented a primetime special, "Schoolhouse Rock! 50th Anniversary Singalong," with guest stars singing new renditions of old favorites. Here's the rapper Ne-Yo on that new special, singing his version of "Verb: That's What's Happening."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "VERB: THAT'S WHAT'S HAPPENING")

NE-YO: (Singing) I get my thing in action - verb - to be, to sing, to feel, to live - verb. That's what's happening. I put my heart in action - verb - to run, to go, to get, to give - verb. You're what's happening. That's where I find satisfaction, yeah - yeah - to search, to find, to have, to hold. Verb - to be bold.

When I use my imagination - verb - I think, I plot, I plan, I dream. Turning in towards creation - verb - I make, I write, I dance, I sing. When I'm feeling really active - verb - I run, I ride, I swim, I fly. Other times when life is easy - oh - I rest, I sleep, I sit, I lie.

BIANCULLI: Today on FRESH AIR, we salute the 50th anniversary of "Schoolhouse Rock!" - that's five times 10 - by revisiting an interview with Bob Dorough, the composer who wrote and sang that original tryout song for "Schoolhouse Rock!" "Three Is A Magic Number." Dorough was hired immediately as music director for the series and wrote all the songs for the initial short cartoons presented as "Multiplication Rock." Here's a taste of one written and sung by him about the number five.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "READY OR NOT, HERE I COME!")

BOB DOROUGH: Now, everybody try to find a good hiding place. This old tree is going to be the base. I'm going to close my eyes and hide my face and count to 100 by fives. Ready? Go.

(Singing) Five, 10, 15, 20, 25, 30, 35, 40, 45, 50, 55, 60, 65, 70, 75, 80, 85, 90, 95, 100 - ready or not, here I come. Apple, peaches, pumpkin pie - who's not ready? Holler I. I. Aw, all right, I'll count it again. But you better get hid, kid. Here we go.

Five, 10, 15, 20, 25, 30, 35, 40, 45, 50, 55, 60, 65, 70, 75, 80, 85, 90, 95, 100, 105, 110, 115, 120 - there. A bushel of wheat and a bushel of rye - who's not hid? Holler I. Twenty nickels makes a dollar. I didn't hear anybody holler. Five times 20 is 100. Everybody got to be hid. All eyes open - here I come.

BIANCULLI: Bob Dorough, who died in 2018 at age 94, had a life and credits far beyond a Saturday morning children's show. At one point in his musical career, he played piano between comedy sets by Lenny Bruce. He recorded a Christmas album with Miles Davis, providing vocals as well as lyrics. He co-wrote with Ben Tucker the much covered song "Comin' Home, Baby," and collaborated with everyone from Hoagy Carmichael and the Fugs to Art Garfunkel and Nellie McKay. Terry Gross spoke to Bob Dorough in 1996 when a roster of artists who grew up singing his songs, including the Lemonheads and Blind Melon, recorded a tribute album called "Schoolhouse Rock! Rocks." She asked Bob Dorough how the original animated series came about.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

DOROUGH: Well, let's see. I had met the advertising people who concocted the idea, and my partner, Ben Tucker, in fact, wanted us to write a little advertising music. He's a bass player - Ben Tucker. So one day this gentleman from McCaffrey and McCall ad agency said, we're looking for a guy to put the multiplication tables to music. And Ben Tucker said, my partner, Bob Dorough, can do anything. He can put music to anything. Well, let's have him up.

So I went up to meet the president of the agency, and it was his idea, and his name was David B. McCall of McCaffrey and McCall. And he said, my little boy can, you know, sing along with Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones, but he can't memorize his multiplication table. So I had the idea, why not put the multiplication tables to rock music and call it "Multiplication Rock"? What do you think? And I said, well, yeah, that's pretty interesting. And he said, well, but don't write down to the kids. Well, I learned later that he had invited other Broadway songwriters to do this task, and they came up with a more simple doggerel type of songwriting - writing down, as it were, to children.

TERRY GROSS: So when he said, so what do you think, what did you really think?

DOROUGH: I thought, well, yeah, this - (laughter) this could be, you know, a limited idea. But when he added, don't write down to children, my - the hackles on my neck arose, and I got quite intrigued. And so I agreed to tackle it, and I spent about three weeks before I would let myself write the first song. I thought first - looked in math books. And since I picked my first title - it was called "Three Is A Magic Number" - I even looked in magic and occult books for the reasons that three might be a magic number.

GROSS: Did you get anything from those books...

DOROUGH: I did indeed.

GROSS: ...That you used in the song? What did you get?

DOROUGH: Well, that it was one of the magic numbers, and that it was, you know, embodied in certain things like the trinity, the old sayings, the heart and the brain and the body, faith, hope and charity - trinities of sorts. So I got mainly that - trinities. And of course, I also was an admirer of Buckminster Fuller. So I was thinking of his triangle concept that makes construction so strong.

GROSS: Why don't we pause here and listen to your version, the original version, of "Three Is A Magic Number"? Now, did you sing on this one?

DOROUGH: Yes.

GROSS: OK. Why don't we hear it?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THREE IS A MAGIC NUMBER")

DOROUGH: (Singing) Three is a magic number. Yes, it is - it's a magic number. Somewhere in the ancient mystic trinity, you get three as a magic number. The past and the present and the future, faith and hope and charity, the heart and the brain and the body give you three. That's a magic number.

GROSS: Why don't we hear the Blind Melon version of "Three Is A Magic Number" that's included on the new CD "Schoolhouse Rock! Rocks"?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THREE IS A MAGIC NUMBER")

BLIND MELON: (Singing) Three, oh, it's the magic number. Yeah, it is. It's the magic number. Somewhere in that ancient mystic trinity, you get three. It's the magic number. In the past and the present and the future, faith and hope and charity, and the heart and the brain and the body will give you three. It's a magic number. It takes three legs to make a tripod or to make a table stand. And it takes three wheels to make a vehicle called the tricycle. And every triangle has three corners. Every triangle has three sides, no more, no less. You won't have to guess that it's three. Can't you see it's the magic number?

GROSS: You know, when the advertising executives asked you to set the multiplication tables to music, had they already known they could broadcast it on ABC TV?

DOROUGH: No. They were thinking of a phonograph recording and a book. The idea of television wasn't remotely in their heads.

GROSS: So how'd it get on TV?

DOROUGH: Well, after some time of testing the songs and having the product called "Multiplication Rock," they didn't seem to be getting anywhere in the book publishing world. So one of the executives up at McCaffrey & McCall said, you know, one of our clients is ABC television. I mean, we do their advertising. Why don't we present it to them? And so Mr. Tom Yohe animated it. They did it at their own expense. It's very expensive to animate a three-minute song. And they presented it as an animation film to ABC, at which point suddenly we were in that business instead of the book business.

BIANCULLI: Bob Dorough speaking with Terry Gross in 1996. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOB DOROUGH SONG, "HODGES")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 1996 interview with Bob Dorough, who was a musical director for "Schoolhouse Rock!" The music videos that taught kids about grammar, math and history turned 50 years old last month.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: Now what I'd like to do is play one of my favorites (laughter) and it's "My Hero, Zero." So why don't we play your version and then play the new version on the new CD "Schoolhouse Rock! Rocks"? And the new version is performed by the Lemonheads. And, well, why don't we play them both? Here we go.

DOROUGH: Oh, OK.

GROSS: And Bob Dorough sings the first version. And, of course, he wrote the song as well.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY HERO, ZERO")

DOROUGH: (Singing) My hero, zero, such a funny little hero. But 'til you came along, we counted on our fingers and toes. Now you're here to stay. And nobody really knows how wonderful you are, why we could never reach a star. Without you, zero, my hero, how wonderful you are.

ARALEE DOROUGH: What's so wonderful about a zero? It's nothing, isn't it?

DOROUGH: Sure, it represents nothing alone (singing) but place a zero after one, and you're got yourself a 10. See how important that is?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY HERO, ZERO")

LEMONHEADS: (Singing) When you run out of digits, you can start all over again. See how convenient that is? That's why with only 10 digits including zero you can count as high as you could ever go, forever, towards infinity. No one ever gets there, but you could try. Ten billion zeros, from the cavemen to the weirdos who invented you, they counted on their fingers and toes.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Or maybe some sticks and stones.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Rocks and bones.

LEMONHEADS: Their neighbor's toes. (Singing) Yeah, yeah, and nobody really knows how wonderful you are. Why, you could never reach a star without you zero, my hero. Zero, how wonderful you are.

GROSS: Well, Bob Dorough, what do you think of the Lemonheads' version of your song "My Hero, Zero"?

DOROUGH: Well, I think it's really quite nice. And, you know, of course, I thought it went the way I went. I like my version better because I guess it goes with having written the song. Also that's my daughter doing the second voice on "My Hero, Zero." She says, zero, what's so great about a zero? But I love the way the Lemonheads did it. And the whole idea of this new recording is very exciting to me as a songwriter.

GROSS: Why don't I play "Conjunction Junction"? Tell me about writing this song. Do you remember?

DOROUGH: Well, I must say that my pal George Newell - he's a musician as well as an art advertising director. He's one of the executives. George Newell gave me the title. We were starting "Grammar Rock," and Miss Lynn Ahrens, who's also distinguished herself, writing songs for "Schoolhouse Rock!" she started out the grammar series. I was still busy with multiplication songs. And she did "A Noun Is A Person Place Or Thing," and that was great. But George Newell one day to me said, why don't you tackle this conjunctions? And I said conjunctions - yeah, those little words. He said, I got an idea for a title - "Conjunction Junction." I said, great, I'll take it.

So I went home and figured out it was sort of a railroad song, hooking up things like the railroad cars. And I made the song, and we went out to Hollywood to record it. And Dave Frishberg had just written his first song for "America Rock" at the same time, "I'm Just A Bill." So we had a super session in LA with Jack Sheldon singing those two songs and me conducting the band and Frishberg playing piano. And we had an all-star jazz band in Hollywood playing "Conjunction Junction" and "I'm Just A Bill."

GROSS: (Laughter).

DOROUGH: Very exciting.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CONJUNCTION JUNCTION")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Conjunction junction, what's your function?

JACK SHELDON: (Singing) Hooking up words and phrases and clauses.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Conjunction junction, how's that function?

SHELDON: (Singing) I got three favorite cars that get most of my job done.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Conjunction junction, what's Their function?

SHELDON: (Singing) I got and, but and or. They'll get you pretty far. And - that's an additive, like this and that. But - that's sort of the opposite. Not this but that. And then there's or - O-R - when you have a choice like this or that. And, but and or get you pretty far.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Conjunction junction, what's your function?

SHELDON: (Singing) Hooking up two boxcars and making them run right. Milk and honey, bread and butter, peas and rice.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Hey, that's nice.

SHELDON: (Singing) Dirty but happy, digging and scratching. Losing your shoe and a button or two. He's poor but honest, sad but true. Boo-hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Conjunction junction, what's your function?

SHELDON: (Singing) Hooking up two cars to one. When you say something like this choice - either now or later. Or no choice - neither now nor ever.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Hey, that's clever.

SHELDON: (Singing) Eat this or that. Grow thin or fat. Never mind. I wouldn't do that. I'm fat enough now.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Conjunction junction, what's your function?

SHELDON: (Singing) Hooking up phrases...

GROSS: So do you think most of the people who grew up listening to your songs, do you think that they have any idea that these weren't written and performed by people in advertising agencies or theme houses, that they were written by you, an interesting and eccentric jazz performer, and that the other song, some of the other songs on here, are sung by interesting and eccentric jazz performers?

DOROUGH: Yes, well, I'm sure they didn't even think about such things. They grew up, and they learned, and they watched. They were a captive audience, one of my partners pointed out, George Newell, because, you know, they were watching Saturday morning cartoons, and suddenly, there would be this little three-minute film. And they got hooked on them, and it actually did them some good. And as we went on in our productions, I kept bringing in some of my buddies from the jazz world. So it was a kind of (laughter) - a little bit of a underground movement there.

GROSS: Yeah, well, you brought in Dave Frishberg, the singer and songwriter and pianist, trumpeter and singer Jack Sheldon, singer Blossom Dearie.

DOROUGH: Yes. Grady Tate, a drummer who sings, or a singer who drums. Excuse me, Grady. I didn't mean it (laughter).

GROSS: What's the difference in the kind of tune that you'd write for one of your own jazz songs and for one of the "Schoolhouse Rock!" songs?

DOROUGH: Well, it's more in the beat than the melody. I might do anything for a "Schoolhouse Rock!" song. But, you know, it's more apt to be a pop kind of beat instead of a jazz beat. I will tell you about "Figure Eight." It was a beautiful little melody, sounds like a sonata almost. And I used to play it around my house, and my late wife said, what is that melody? And I said, oh, I was thinking maybe it'd be an eight - song about eight. And she said, oh, no, it's too good for "Schoolhouse Rock!" And I said, yeah, you're right. And I wrote a different one, and they didn't like it. So in a bit of desperation, I decided to finish it, and I wrote "Figure Eight." And it starts out with this very placid melody. In the middle, it goes into a rock beat where they multiply by eight. But the outside was very dreamy. In fact, we recorded it with a cellist.

GROSS: Would you sing a few lines of "Figure Eight" for us?

DOROUGH: (Singing) Figure eight is double four. Figure four has half of eight. If you skate, you will be great, when you can make a figure eight. That's a circle that turns around up on itself.

GROSS: When you were first getting started musically, I mean, you were really deep into Charlie Parker and wanted to emulate him. And you didn't sing very much because you were afraid that singing would seem corny or too commercial, too showbiz. And so it wasn't till, I think, you got to Paris in the '50s for a little bit that you actually started singing a lot.

DOROUGH: Deep down in my heart, I did want to sing. And I didn't do it as much because I also wanted to be a bebop piano player. And, you know, I didn't - I would never say to one of my colleagues, let me sing one.

(LAUGHTER)

DOROUGH: On the other hand, there were occasions where the band got a job, and the boss would say, does anybody in the band sing? And, you know, they'd say, yeah, the piano player. And, you know, I would do "Route 66" or some rhythm tune just to show them that somebody in the band could sing. It was on the Paris job at the Mars Club in Paris that I had full sway and was able to call my own shots. I was the boss. I developed my style or my act sort of there.

BIANCULLI: Bob Dorough speaking with Terry Gross in 1996. The former musical director for "Schoolhouse Rock!" died in 2018 at age 94. After a break, we listen back to interviews with Dave Frishberg, who wrote the song "I'm Just A Bill," and Jack Sheldon, the trumpeter and singer who can be heard on that song, as well as "Conjunction Junction." Also, film critic Justin Chang reviews the third movie in the Magic Mike series, "Magic Mike's Last Dance." I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FIGURE EIGHT")

BLOSSOM DEARIE: (Singing) Figure eight is double four. Figure four is half of eight. If you skate, you would...

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, professor of television studies at Rowan University, in for Terry Gross. "Schoolhouse Rock!" the beloved animated music videos with catchy tunes that taught kids about math, grammar and history is 50 years old. Today, we're listening back to some of the people who helped write and/or perform those songs. One of the classic songs from the series is "I'm Just A Bill." It was written by jazz songwriter, pianist and singer Dave Frishberg, best known for his witty and sophisticated songs about contemporary life, like the song he wrote with Bob Dorough titled "I'm Hip." Frishberg died in 2021. He visited Terry in the studio in 1995, and she asked him to perform "I'm Just A Bill."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR RECORDING)

DAVE FRISHBERG: (Singing) I'm just a bill. Yes, I'm only a bill. And I'm sitting here on Capitol Hill. Well, it's a long, long journey to the capital city. It's a long, long wait while you're waiting in committee. But I know I'll be a law someday. At least I hope and pray that I will. But today I am still just a bill.

That was sung by Jack Sheldon in the original recording of that. Listen to this, Terry. A couple of years ago in Portland, a friend of mine was in the hospital. I went to visit him, and I went to his room, and there was, like - he was sharing a room with somebody else who must have been really sick because there was this big screen. I peeked behind the screen and this guy was - this other patient was ghastly pale, and he had all kinds of tubes stuck in every orifice - looked like he was on his way out.

So I was talking to my friend, and my friends says, well, what've you been doing? I said, well, I'm working for "Schoolhouse Rock!" again. He said, oh - he says, gee, that thing you wrote years ago, "I'm Just A Bill"? I still hear that. And from behind the screen came the voice of this other patient. And he said, did you write "I'm Just A Bill"? I said, yeah, I said to thin air, you know. And then from behind the screen, he began to sing it - the dying man singing my song, "I'm Just A Bill." Oh, God. It was more than I could handle.

GROSS: How odd. What a strange experience.

FRISHBERG: Very odd. You know, you never know when you're - I kept saying, you're singing too much. Just do it conversationally.

GROSS: (Laughter) Now, when you started to play piano, what did you play?

FRISHBERG: Boogie woogie, the blues - I was a blues player. When I was 12 or 13 years old, I was deep into Pete Johnson. He was my hero - Pete Johnson from Kansas City, and Joe Turner. My brother Mort - the guy with the keychain - he used to sing like Joe Turner.

GROSS: Really?

FRISHBERG: Yeah. And so he and I would play the Joe Turner, Pete Johnson boogie woogie records. And we would copy them. I would copy them off the record, and we would - that's how I began playing the blues. I could play in C, F and G - the blues.

GROSS: Well, I'd love to hear you play something solo at the piano - I mean, to play a piano solo.

FRISHBERG: OK.

GROSS: Well, tell us what you want to play and why you've chosen it.

FRISHBERG: I haven't chosen it. Let me think.

GROSS: OK. And while you're thinking, I'll say I really love your piano playing. So when you perform on the show, I always like to get you to play something.

FRISHBERG: Well, you know, I mentioned Jay McShann. I love that Jay McShann Band from Kansas City. I can play a couple of things that I remember from the Jay McShann Band, which contained Charlie Parker, by the way - that band did. So "Jumping Blues," you know.

(Playing piano).

And then by "Confessin' The Blues," Walter Brown sang with Jay McShann.

(Playing piano).

Walter Brown with Jay McShann - that's the "Confessin' The Blues." That was the stuff that I used to try to play like. I loved McShann's playing, and I loved Count Basie's playing and Pete Johnson's playing. I was hooked on the Kansas City jazz musicians.

BIANCULLI: Dave Frishberg visiting Terry Gross in the FRESH AIR studios in 1995. He died in 2021. Coming up, one more musical member of the "Schoolhouse Rock!" family. Trumpeter and singer Jack Sheldon can be heard not only on "I'm Just A Bill," but on another favorite "Schoolhouse" Song, "Conjunction Junction." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JACK SHELDON AND ROSS TOMPKINS' "OVER THE RAINBOW")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. It's the 50th anniversary of the ABC TV "Schoolhouse Rock!" music videos, which taught kids about math, history and grammar using catchy tunes. Jazz musician Jack Sheldon did the singing on two of the most memorable songs from "Schoolhouse Rock!" - "I'm Just A Bill" and "Conjunction Junction." As a big band and recording soloist on trumpet, Jack Sheldon was featured with Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Benny Goodman, Count Basie, and Dizzy Gillespie. His bandmates have included Chet Baker, Art Pepper and Zoot Sims. His trumpet can be heard on four dozen film soundtracks. Jack Sheldon died in 2021. Terry Gross spoke with him in 1993, when he had just released an album of duets called "On My Own," featuring Ross Tompkins on piano.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS LOVE OF MINE")

SHELDON: (Singing) This love of mine goes on and on, though life is empty since you have gone. You're always on my mind, though out of sight. It's lonely through the day, but all the night I cry my heart out. It will surely break. Since nothing matters, just let it break. I ask the sun and the moon, the stars that shine, what's to become of it, this love of mine?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: Jack Sheldon, welcome to FRESH AIR.

SHELDON: Thanks. It's nice to be here.

GROSS: I don't know why I have this image of you, but I always thought of you as somebody who relied a lot on humor in their singing and in music. And there's something so emotionally naked about some of the songs on your new record that really surprised me. I really love the singing and the playing on it. Is the choice of material or the kind of singing that you're doing a relatively recent development with you - the kind of...

SHELDON: Well, I've been trying...

GROSS: ...Ballad that you're doing?

SHELDON: ...I think I'm singing better now. I'm studying singing, and...

GROSS: Oh.

SHELDON: ...I'm - so I just can do it better. But I've been doing it all my life. And it's - yeah, it's more naked, I think, more - I like that - emotionally naked. That's good.

GROSS: Well, that's interesting. Tell me what you're getting from learning how to sing - I mean, in taking formal lessons.

SHELDON: Well, just real simple stuff - but, you know, to have a lot of foundation, get a lot of air and use your diaphragm. And I notice now when I - if I'm having trouble with a note, it's really because I don't have the foundation there to - you know, get a lot of air in my stomach and my diaphragm and to open my mouth wide. You just learn real simple things that you think you do, but you don't really and then practice the pitch and the articulation. It's just things like the trumpet with the, you know, hitting every note precisely in pitch. And it's good to take lessons and study like that because then you have - you do what you do and then somebody can criticize you in a nice way. They're real nice to me, and they're real encouraging.

GROSS: Was there another change that happened to you besides taking lessons? Did something happen emotionally that left you more open to this kind of material?

SHELDON: Well, I got sober eight years ago, and I don't drink or take drugs or do anything like that. And I think that left me teachable. Before that, I thought I was really cool and I knew everything. So - and I didn't want to take lessons. I thought I was better than the teachers, you know? And I really just didn't know what I was doing. And then when I got sober, I found out there was a lot of stuff that I didn't know and that people didn't use me not because they didn't like me or anything, because I couldn't produce what they wanted. Now I'm trying to get to be able to do anything any composer might want.

GROSS: When you were playing in the 1950s, bop was the thing, and very few of the instrumentalists sang. Did you sing back then, and were you self-conscious about singing at all?

SHELDON: Yeah, I was always self-conscious about singing. And I wanted to sing, but it's so personal, singing. And I started singing with Benny Goodman's band, and that was about 1958. And I wrote a song and Benny let me sing. He was the first bandleader that would ever let me sing. Stan Kenton wouldn't let me sing, though, because he always was afraid I would say something too off-color, which I probably would have.

GROSS: Did you have a reputation for doing that?

SHELDON: Yes. I worked with Lenny Bruce and I was trying to kind of emulate him at the time.

GROSS: What kind of work do you do with Lenny Bruce? You were in the band playing at the club or something?

SHELDON: Yeah, in burlesque, I worked with Lenny Bruce. We worked with his wife, Honey, and Joe Maini and Philly Joe Jones and Kenny Drew and Leroy Vinnegar. We had quite a real good band there, and we played burlesque at a place called Duffy's in Los Angeles. And Lenny was the comic, and we did all kind of - he would write stuff and we'd act out - we did "The Man With The Golden Arm" and...

GROSS: And oh, really? Like, your own version of that?

SHELDON: Yeah, a burlesque version.

GROSS: Oh, that must have been interesting.

SHELDON: Yeah, it was funny. I think it ended up where the guy flushed the dope down the toilet, and then Lenny said, there's nothing - there's only one thing to do is smoke the toilet.

GROSS: (Laughter).

SHELDON: It doesn't sound so funny now. You really had to be there, I guess.

GROSS: Why don't I play another track from your latest album, "On My Own"? And I thought I'd play some of "I Can't Get Started" because it kind of shows off everything, your trumpet playing, you're singing. And it shows both, like, the emotionalism of your singing and also some of the humor in it, too.

SHELDON: OK, thanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I CAN'T GET STARTED")

SHELDON: (Singing) I've flown around the world in a plane. I've settled revolutions in Spain. The North Pole, I have charted, but still I can't get started with you. Around the golf course, I'm under par. And Benny Goodman made me a star. I had a house, a showplace, now she got that, and I got no place. But I also can't get started with you. Oh, you're so supreme.

GROSS: That's Jack Sheldon on trumpet and vocals from his new album, "On My Own." There's a really interesting documentary about the trumpeter Chet Baker that you were featured in. You were one of the people interviewed about Baker. And I remember you saying that - and I should mention that that, like you, Chet Baker played trumpet and sang. And you were very funny about him. You talked a little bit about how frustrating it was that he never - you know, you were always in a room rehearsing, you're practicing. And he never had a practice or anything. He always just had the sound. And he always looked so great.

SHELDON: He never did. I hear Harry James never had to practice, but I have to practice all the time. Doc Severinsen practices all the time. But, you know, I was singing back there with Chetty when we were little kids, come to think of it. We were both singing, and we'd sing together. And we were - we grew up together. And we would sing. We had a little quartet. We'd go around and play in little bars for $2 or anything we'd get. We just would drive up the bass player. Hirsch Hamel had a Pierce-Arrow, and we'd have the bass in there and, you know, it was a 12-cylinder old car with a place for a chauffeur and everything.

GROSS: How old were you then?

SHELDON: Oh, I was about 14, 15. I was about 15 or 16, I guess.

GROSS: And how did you...

SHELDON: Because I was in Florida when I was 14. I was 16, and Chetty was about - I think about 18 or 19.

GROSS: How did you meet?

SHELDON: I think at a place called The Showtime, which was on Sepulveda and Ventura Boulevard, and it was a jam session on Monday nights. And all the guys that were on the road would come in there. I got to play with Art Blakey in there and Stan Kenton and a bunch of people. Maynard Ferguson would come in there. And Chetty and I would always just sit in. To me, it was, you know, a glittering night of stars of jazz. And I was just thrilled to be there.

GROSS: Now, how did you get to the West Coast from Florida, where you grew up?

SHELDON: Well, my aunt came out here first from Florida, and she was a swimming teacher. Crystal Scarborough (ph) was her name. And she taught babies how to swim. And then we moved out here, and my mother started teaching swimming. And I taught swimming, too. And we got a pool on Hollywood Boulevard. My mother taught all the movie stars' kids how to swim - Paul Newman and Lee Remick, every movie star at the time, Nat Cole. I taught Natalie and Kelly Cole how to swim.

GROSS: Really? (Laughter).

SHELDON: And I used to have Kelly in the pool with me. And Nat Cole would be walking around the pool smoking cigarettes. He was a chain smoker. And I'd have Kelly sing, (singing) when the blue of the night meets the gold of the day - you know, Bing Crosby's theme song. And Nat would go ha-ha-ha.

GROSS: (Laughter).

SHELDON: Slightly humorous. But I taught a lot of kids. I taught all of Paul Newman's kids. In fact, one of his daughters used to bite me on the ankle when I'd be talking to Joanne Woodward.

GROSS: How old were you when you started working professionally and when you started playing with other bands?

SHELDON: I was 12 in Jacksonville, Fla. And I had just started playing the trumpet. And I started working with Jean Brandt's (ph) band at the Washington Hotel there. Everybody was gone in the war. And so I started working. And then I came to California and went to - started college at 16. I started to go to USC. And then I switched over to City College 'cause they had such a good music department. So I went to college there for a couple of years. And then I joined the Air Force. And then I got out of the Air Force, and I worked a lot with Mexican bands. I worked at Million Dollar Theater in downtown Los Angeles, all Mexican shows. And then I went in the - I joined Stan Kenton and went around - went to New York and played at Birdland with Stan Kenton.

And Chet Baker was already there in New York, and he was already acting real wild. He got - he played opposite Miles Davis, and this threw him off. Before he went to New York, he was just - he would smoke grass sometimes. But then he got all involved in heroin and everything else in New York. And then, you know, he got really messed up then. And he never really was the same after that because he was a great kid. And then he got too wild. But he always was a great genius of a trumpet player.

GROSS: Jack Sheldon, thank you very much for talking with us.

SHELDON: Well, thank you. I'm so flattered you had me on. It's a thrill. I love your show. And it's a great show. And thank you very much.

BIANCULLI: Musician Jack Sheldon speaking to Terry Gross in 1993. He died in 2021. That concludes our three-interview salute to "Schoolhouse Rock" on its golden anniversary. And as fans of that show are well aware, three is a magic number. Coming up, film critic Justin Chang reviews the latest movie in the Magic Mike series, "Magic Mike's Last Dance." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.