Bob Dorough's sweet little ditty, Three is a Magic Number, turned 50 this year. Pop Culture Experiment explains the origins of the song:
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.
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.
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.
However, the song originally had aired before 1973, as part of the pilot of Schoolhouse Rocks. The pilot, called "Curiosity Shop," debuted on September 2, 1971. According to Wikipedia:
The Curiosity Shop version is an extended cut which includes an additional scene/verse that explains the pattern of each set of ten containing three multiples of three, animated in the form of a carnival shooting game. This scene has never been rebroadcast on ABC, nor has it been included in any home media releases.
You can watch the original pilot here (the song starts at 25:44).
As a child of the 1970s, I've long been a fan of the tune. I fell in love with the song again in the late 1980s as a college student in Jackson, Mississippi, when I heard Hattiesburg, MS-based band Beagle Voyage cover the song at a local dive bar (sadly, I've searched high and low for a recording of Beagle Voyage covering Three is a Magic Number and haven't yet found it, please let me know if you run across it). Since the 1980s many other bands have covered the song. In 2018, Pop Culture Experiment dedicated one of its Cover Songs Uncovered columns to the song, which has a long history of delightful covers. Here are some versions they highlight:
De La Soul (1989)
Blind Melon (1996)
Jeff Buckley (probably 1995)
Elizabeth Mitchell (2002)
Stevie Brock, Greg Raposo, & Matthew Ballinger (2004) (From the "Mickey, Donald, Goofy: The Three Musketeers" musical)
Rachel Garlin (2004)
The Jellydots (2006)
In addition to all of those delightful covers, I searched around on YouTube and found some more: Here's a trombone cover by Paul Hefner (2000), a ukulele cover by Todd Lorenc Ukulele Music (2018), a cover played by three mandobasses by the Ecco Mandolin Ensemble (2022), a folksy version played live by Key of G at People Fest 2021, and a really sweet kind of smooth jazz vibe version by Ed Mount (2020). Somehow, they all work, and for me, hearing the song never gets old. I think Three is a Magic Number must be a magical song.