A school rock! tribute to honor the passing of its last surviving creator

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Enlarge / Now it’s a law! “I’m Just a Bill” is one of the most popular and well-known animated shorts featured in School Rock!

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Ars readers of a certain age grew up in the 1970s and 1980s watching Saturday morning cartoons and singing School Rock!, a series of whimsical animated shorts featuring times tables, grammar, American history and science. We were saddened to learn that George Newall, the last surviving member of the original team that produced this hugely influential series, has died aged 88. The cause of death was cardiorespiratory arrest, according to The New York Times. The series will be 50 years old (!) next year.

Newall was creative director of the McCaffrey and McCall advertising agency in the early 1970s. One day, the agency’s president, David McCall, lamented that his young sons could not multiply, but a somehow they remembered all the lyrics to hit songs by the Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix. He asked Newall if it was possible to set the multiplication tables to music. Newall knew a musician named Ben Tucker who played bass at a venue Newall frequented and mentioned the challenge to him. Tucker said his friend Bob Dorough could ‘set anything to music’ – in fact, he once wrote a song on the mattress label urging new owners not to remove it under penalty of the law .

Two weeks later, Dorough presented Newall with “Three is a Magic Number”, the song featured in the pilot episode of School Rock! Everyone at the agency loved the tune, including art director and cartoonist Tom Yohe, who did some scribbles to go along with the song. This single song – intended to be part of an educational album – turned into a series of short three-minute videos. (Today we just put them on YouTube, and indeed you can find most of the classic fan favorites there.) They pitched the series to ABC’s director of children’s programming, Michael Eisner (future president and CEO of Disney). Warner Bros. host Chuck Jones was also present at the reunion and was so impressed that he advised Eisner to buy the series in the room.

And School Rock! was born. The pilot episode debuted on September 2, with an extended version of “Three is a Magic Number” that was never re-aired and was not included in any home press releases.

“Three is a magic number”

Dorough performed this and many other tracks from the first season (multiplication rock). Famous jazz singer Blossom Dearie performed “Figure Eight”, a slow-paced song about multiples of eight accompanying a cartoon showing a little girl ice-skating on a cold winter’s day. Jazz drummer and vocalist Grady Tate sang on “I Got Six” and “Naughty Number Nine”.

The latter featured a portly cat version of the Minnesota Fats pool hustler, playing a nine-ball game to torment a mouse. This short was originally rejected by ABC because it violated the Public Health Smoking Act, banning cigarette advertising, as the cat pool shark smoked a cigar throughout. But the network quickly relented after being assured the cat was a bad guy and therefore unlikely to encourage children to smoke. Other classics from this season include “My Hero Zero”, Elementary, My Dear” (approximately multiples of two) and “Lucky Seven Sampson”.


multiplication rock was a smash hit, so ABC quickly ordered a second season, Rock Grammar, originally broadcast in 1973-74. This season expanded the vocalist pool, with songs performed by Lynn Ahrens, Zachary Sanders, Jack Sheldon and Essra Mohawk, in addition to Dorough and Dearie.

Rock Grammar was another smash hit – and also my childhood favorite, especially “Interjections!”, “Conjunction Junction” and “A Noun’s a Person, Place, or Thing”. Newall wrote “Unpack Your Adjectives” and “Lolly, Lolly, Lolly, Get Your Adverbs Here”, with Dorough and Ahrens sharing the rest of the songwriting duties for that season. (Newall eventually wrote a total of 10 songs for School Rock!) In the 1990s, two more shorts were added: “Busy Prepositions” and “The Tale of Mr. Morton” (focusing on the subject and predicate of a sentence).

As the United States prepared for its bicentennial celebration, ABC commissioned a third season focusing on American history and the structure of American government. america rock originally aired in 1975-1976 and gave the world what is arguably the most famous and popular of shorts: “I’m Just a Bill” (performed by Sheldon and his son John), at the sequel to a spirited congressional bill as it makes its way through the complicated process of becoming law.

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