Schoolhouse Rock! – “Naughty Number Nine”

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Since moving to Manhattan, I’ve enjoyed shooting pool after work at Fat Cat, a subterranean pool hall located on Christopher Street in the West Village of New York City. Sprinkled among the live music stage, the ping pong and shuffleboard tables, and the here-and-there chess and scrabble games, are 10 pool tables, beckoning the casual player.

Naughty Number NineI never thought much about the venue’s name, however, until I stumbled across the “Naughty Number Nine” episode of Schoolhouse Rock! There, staring out at me amidst a billowy puff of cigar smoke, was the original fat cat pool hustler, Number Nine, in all his anthropomorphic feline glory.

If you were a child in the 1970s like me, chances are you saw more than a few episodes of Schoolhouse Rock! Airing on ABC from 1973 to 1985, Schoolhouse Rock! was a wildly inventive, colorful, musical American interstitial programming series of animated educational short films that covered grammar, science, economics, history, civics, and mathematics.

What’s the deal with “and,” “but,” and “or”? Check out “Conjunction Junction.” Interested in understanding how laws get passed? Learn from “I’m Just a Bill.” He’s “sitting here on Capitol Hill.” Wondering why flicking a switch lights up the house? It’s easy with “Electricity, Electricity!”

One of the most enjoyable Schoolhouse Rock! series was the first season’s Multiplication Rock, which featured 11 episodes, each dedicated to teaching kids their times table for the numbers 0-12. (There was no episode for 1 and 10.)  A typical Multiplication Rock episode combined a mix of snappy music and lyrics and humorous streetwise animation that incorporated visual stimuli and urban elements. Though “Three is the Magic Number” is probably the most familiar episode in the series, famously sampled by De La Soul in the chorus of their 1990 song “The Magic Number,” no study of the 9s table would be complete without “Naughty Number Nine” with its portly pool hustling pussycat. The full episode is available to watch here.

Airing in March 1973, the four-minute song about the multiplication of 9 focuses on a villainous cat putting a mouse through absolute hell on the billiards table. The dandy-looking feline is puffing on a cigar to reinforce his sinister nature, though ABC’s Standards and Practices tried to press for the removal of the cigar. While the lyrics have nothing to do with billiards, the sport provides the perfect backdrop for torturing the mouse, whether by the cat tying him to the cue bull, rocketing him into a corner pocket, chalking his head, or getting him crunched in a 15 ball pileup on the break. Meanwhile the bluesy lyrics impart the significance of some of the famous multiplication tricks for the number 9:

If you don’t know some secret way you can check on

You’ll break your neck on

Naughty number nine…

 

Now the digit sum is always equal to nine

I mean, if you add two and seven, the digits

You get nine, the digit sum

That’s true of any product of nine

If they don’t add up, you’ve made a mistake.

 

“Naughty Number Nine was written Bob Dorough and sung by Grady Tate, both Schoolhouse Rock! veteran composers and performers.  Mr. Dorough wrote all the songs for Multiplication Rock, though he is also known for performing with Miles Davis and contributing vocals on the song “Nothing Like You” from Miles Davis’ Sorcerer (1967) album.  Mr. Tate, a hard bop and soul-jazz percussionist with a distinctive baritone voice, started his career playing drums for Quincy Jones and then was a member of the New York Jazz Quarter.

Wholly original, even as it borrows the idea of teaching math through billiards from Donald in Mathmagic Land and its murine torture sequences from the Tom & Jerry episode “Cue Ball Cat,” “Naughty Number Nine” puts a fresh spin on the accessibility and usability of billiards to tell a story, teach a subject, make some music, and create a wonderful memory.

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