This is the 92nd post in a weekly series. Read about it here and see the list of previous songs here. A new post about a different song is posted each Monday. You can listen to the songs in a Spotify playlist.
In the early 1970s, Bob Dorough began writing music for advertising. Almost 50 years old, Dorough had already had a storied career as a jazz musician. He had a few albums under his belt, not mention that he had co-written a song that Mel Tormé later recorded. But the reality was that advertising paid better than jazz, as Dorough told NPR in 2013:
There I was in New York City, just trying to make a living. My jazz work was a little slow, and I was dabbling in advertising music, just to make ends meet. By then I was married and had a daughter, and so I needed that bread.
David McCall, who worked in advertising, had a problem he hoped the jazz veteran could solve: “My sons cannot memorize their times tables — yet they sing along with Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones, and they get their words.” Dorough’s challenge was to write a song — or songs — that could help kids like McCall’s learn their multiplication tables. And while children were going to be the target audience, McCall gave Dorough one more directive: “Don’t write down to children.”
Dorough’s response was “Three Is A Magic Number,” which sang of the significance of the number while also listing off multiples:
Every triangle has three corners
Every triangle has three sides
No more, no less
You don’t have to guess
When it’s three, you can see
It’s a magic number
A man and a woman had a little baby
Yes, they did
They had three in the family
And that’s a magic number
3-6-9, 12-15-18, 21-24-27, 30
3-6-9, 12-15-18, 21-24-27, 30
Now the multiples of 3
Come up three times in each set of ten
In the first you get 3, 6, 9
And in the “teens” ten it’s 12, 15, and 18
And in the “twenties” you get 21, 24, 27
And it comes even on 30, yeah
McCall, pleased with the result, passed it along to his art director, who set to work on an animation to accompany Dorough’s quirky song. Quickly, the project was no longer the record-and-workbook package as had been originally intended. Dorough’s song was presented to Micheal Eisner, the head of ABC’s daytime programming, and Chuck Jones, who had directed “Looney Tunes” and “Tom and Jerry.” With their blessing, “Three Is A Magic Number” and many of Dorough’s other songs made it onto ABC as part of “Schoolhouse Rock!”
Debuting on Jan. 13, 1973, “Schoolhouse Rock!” was not a show, but rather a series of short videos that appeared in between episodes of longer shows. The inaugural week’s song was “My Hero, Zero.” The second week featured “Elementary, My Dear,” focusing on multiples of two. And it was the third week, on Feb. 3, that ABC aired the song that inspired the whole project.
ABC aired the videos on Saturday mornings until 1985. Through “Schoolhouse Rock!,” Dorough taught kids about a wide range of topics, including civics (“I’m Just A Bill”), science (“Electricity”), and grammar (“Conjunction Junction”).
Dorough revived his jazz career in the ’90s, releasing “Right on My Way Home” in 1997. He kept recording and touring into 2000s, releasing a few live albums. But despite his diverse resume, Dorough told The Washington Post he has not been able to live down the series he helped launch 45 years ago this year:
I still play the songs in my jazz jobs. I used to play very hip songs, but then one of the waiters — who would be 25 or 30 — would say to me, “Your voice sounds familiar.”
Over the years, the “Schoolhouse Rock” canon has been covered for tributes by nostalgic artists who themselves grew up with the songs.
Crashdog was a Chicago-based punk band that had both a Christian and political bent. The band’s 1992 album “The Pursuit Of Happiness” included a jubilant take on “Three Is A Magic Number,” recasting it in the punk styles of the late ’80s and early ’90s while adding a verse about the importance of the number three in the Bible. “We chose that song because we all grew up singing it along with ‘Schoolhouse Rock!,'” former Crashdog singer Tim “Spike” Davis said in an e-mail. “We wanted something childish and from a more innocent day of our childhood.” These days, Davis draws cartoons when he’s not working for Jesus People USA.
Released in 1996, “Schoolhouse Rock! Rocks” was a compilation of songs from the TV show performed by then-current artists, with Better Than Ezra on “Conjunction Junction,” The Lemonheads doing “My Hero, Zero,” Skee-Lo singing “The Tale of Mr. Morton,” and so on. Perhaps the most moving performance on the whole album was Blind Melon’s earnest, unassuming “Three Is A Magic Number.” Shannon Hoon‘s delivery suggested that he probably sang this song several times long before he grew into his signature rasp. His performance became even more heartbreakingly nostalgic given that just months before this compilation was released, Hoon died of an overdose. He was just 28.
Similarly, the live recordings of Jeff Buckley singing “Three Is A Magic Number” at a concert also sounds bittersweet. But unlike his version of “Hallelujah,” likely his best-known cover, this performance felt light and fun. The audience singing along only made it sweeter.
The English alternative band Embrace — not to be confused with the American band of the same name that included Ian MacKaye — included a cover of “Three Is A Magic Number” on its 2002 compilation, “Fireworks: The Singles 1997–2002.” The song stayed more or less the same in this tribute, but the soaring background parts added to the parts about the multiples of three gave the song an epic, almost cinematic feel.
Singer Elizabeth Mitchell has specialized in creating music tailored for children and their families. On her 2002 album, “You Are My Sunshine,” Mitchell slowed down “3 Is A Magic Number,” recasting it to focus solely on the importance of the number three rather than any multiplication. Mitchell tweaked some of the lyrics, changing “a man and a woman had a little baby” to “two people who love you had a little baby.” That made the song more inclusive, particularly as notions of what constituted a family had changed in the decades since the original song had first been released.
“Mickey, Donald, Goofy: The Three Musketeers” was a direct-to-video animated musical that adapted Alexandre Dumas’ “The Three Musketeers” with the Mickey Mouse era of Disney characters that included Minnie Mouse, Pluto, Goofy, Donald Duck, and others. The film, meant as a celebration of Mickey’s 75th anniversary, had a freewheeling soundtrack that included bits of “The Pirates of Penzance” as well as recasts of works by Beethoven and Tchaikovsky. On “Three Is A Magic Number,” teenage singers Stevie Brock, Greg Raposo, and Matthew Ballinger did the opposite of what Mitchell did: they kept the references to multiplication but replaced the verses with new lyrics.
Former teacher Rachel Garlin left her career in education to pursue a life in music. On the version of “Three Is A Magic Number” her 2004 live album “Big Blue Sky,” Garlin’s influences and interests were on display: what began as a folky cover soon brought in piano for a bluesy feel. Like the Buckley version, the singing along from the crowd only helped to make the song that much more enjoyable.
The Jellydots was a project that began with Texas-based musician Doug Snyder giving guitar lessons to kids. Part of Snyder’s approach had been to teach the students how to write songs by co-writing songs with them. Released in 2006, The Jellydots’ “Hey You Kids!” included a “Three Is A Magic Number” that at first sounded similar to the versions by Garlin or Embrace in that it was faithful to the original. But then the guitars kick in and you can tell that whoever was playing the guitar must have been enjoying it because that shredding guitar interlude lasted a long time. And I would have not objected to it going on even longer.
Lumiere’s 2013 album “Kids” was a collection of electronic covers, many of which seemed to be directed at kids, including “Three Is A Magic Number” and the “Sesame Street Theme.” And yet the album also included a breathy version of Hanson’s “MMM Bop” and even a cover of Kiss’ “I Was Made For Lovin’ You.” Odd picks for a kids album aside, Lumiere’s tracks were instantly infectious, including the adorable but also hip take on “Three Is A Magic Number.”
In addition to these covers, the influence of “Three Is A Magic Number” can be seen in how the song has been sampled by other artists over the years.
Hip-hop trio De La Soul’s 1989 debut album “3 Feet High and Rising” featured a song called “The Magic Number,” which relied melody of the chorus of “Three Is A Magic Number”:
Three, that’s the magic number
Yes it is, it’s the magic number
Somewhere in this hip-hop soul community
Was born three Mace, Dove, and Me
And that’s the magic number
But the song was not just a sample of Dorough’s song. As Sarah Larson pointed out in The New Yorker when “3 Feet High and Rising” turned 25 in 2014, the song also sampled Johnny Cash, James Brown, and even Eddie Murphy.
Jack Johnson used the song as the building block for his song, “The 3 R’s (Reduce, Reuse and Recycle),” which appeared on the “Curious George” soundtrack. The premise of tying “reduce, reuse, recycle” to why three is such a magic and important number is somewhat of a stretch, but as soon as you hear those kids singing along with Johnson, that logic doesn’t matter, because those earnest kids sounded as if they were having fun.
Hip-hop artist and producer Damu the Fudgemunk wove parts of “Three Is A Magic Number” into his 2010 song “Brooklyn Flower,” including Dorough singing, “A man and a woman had a little baby…”
In previous posts in the Cover Songs Uncovered series, I looked at how songs that originated in movies (like “Cantina Band” from “Star Wars”) or TV (like the “Batman Theme”) can be covered as a form of tribute or homage to influential works of pop culture. I think that nostalgia definitely factors into the covers of “Three Is A Magic Number,” particularly the versions by artists who would have been children when “Schoolhouse Rock!” first aired in the ’70s and ’80s.
But nostalgia for our childhoods aside, I think “Three Is A Magic Number” can stand on its own. A kid who who heard any version of the song — be it Dorough’s or any of the covers — could appreciate the song and get into it. That, of course, was part of the genius of “Schoolhouse Rock!” and Dorough’s songs in the first place. These were part of a TV series, but not a typical series that required kids to know characters or follow plots. These were songs meant to educate kids and helped them remember things. That we are still talking about this project 45 years later indicates that the project worked.