Bobby Short Biography
Began Performing at Age Nine, Landed Carlyle Engagement, Friendship with Gloria Vanderbilt Caused Controversy, Selected discography
After he took up residence in the lounge of New York's elegant Hotel Carlyle in the late 1960s, vocalist and pianist Bobby Short became an icon of New York and American cultural life. Short called himself a saloon singer, but actually he roosted at the top of the hierarchy of entertainers who perform in cocktail lounges, and indeed he did much to define the modern categories of lounge singer and cabaret singer. New York visitors stopped in at the Café Carlyle for decades to hear Bobby Short, to glimpse the lifestyles of the city's well-heeled residents, and to take a tour through the classics of American popular song with one of its most knowledgeable curators for a guide.
Robert Waltrip Short, the ninth of ten children, was born in the small town Danville, Illinois, on September 15, 1924. His father was a coal miner from Kentucky who sometimes landed higher-paying jobs, and the family had a piano and a radio tuned to jazz. At age four, Short taught himself to play the piano. The resourcefulness that put Short on the road to performing in posh nightclubs was inherited in part from his mother. She "taught survival. I think she had a framework of cast iron," Short told CNN. The young musician had a childhood remarkably free of racial discrimination. "There was a total absence of any kind of overt racial prejudice in those years, and it was kept that way by our teachers—which I was not aware of then," he wrote in his autobiography, Black and White Baby.
Began Performing at
But survival instincts were necessary after the Great Depression of the 1930s hit the Short family hard. When he was nine, Short began to supplement the household's income by playing and singing in taverns. His skills developed quickly, and he turned into something of a teenage sensation. Agents who heard of his talent booked him into clubs and hotels in Chicago and New York. Short developed a taste for fine clothes, and later in life he would frequently appear on lists of best-dressed men. But his father's death in 1936 interrupted his high-flying career; he went back to Illinois to be with his family.
Short launched his adult career in 1942, performing at Chicago's Capitol Lounge. His reputation spread, and he landed nightclub slots in other large cities. Sometimes he shared a bill with singer Nat "King" Cole, a friend who influenced his expressive vocal style. By 1948, Short was a regular at the Cafe Gala in Los Angeles, staying there for three years and leaving only when he felt that he had become stuck in a "velvet-lined rut," as he was quoted as saying in the Times of England.
Indeed, Short constantly tried to expand his musical horizons. In the early 1950s he traveled to Paris, finding club jobs there and adding a layer of sophistication to his stage personality. Short also spent time in England, and his speaking voice took on a British accent. His clear diction became one of his trademarks; gradually, he gained the ability to lead listeners through the complicated lyrics of classic Broadway songs by Cole Porter and other composers.
Landed Carlyle Engagement
Short returned to the United States in the mid-1950s and recorded about a dozen albums for the Atlantic label, owned by jazz- and blues-loving Turkish-American brothers Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun. Working at the height of the rock and roll era, Short was never a chart-topping artist on the order of Atlantic labelmate Ray Charles. But other musicians admired them; trumpeter Miles Davis named Short as an influence on his own "cool jazz" style. Today, Bobby Short's Atlantic albums are valuable collector's items.
The second flowering of rock music in the 1960s also slowed Short's career. Rather than bemoaning his bad fortune, however, Short spent hours honing his craft, following the inspiration of classical musicians like African-American opera singer Shirley Verrett, a good friend. In 1968 the Ertegun brothers recommended Short for a fill-in slot at the Cafe Carlyle, located in a durably elegant Central Park-area hotel. Short won the approval of both the hotel's old-money patrons and the tourists who came to the Carlyle to rub elbows with them. In the late 1960s he cemented his reputation by giving two well-received concerts with nightclub vocalist Mabel Mercer at New York's Town Hall.
Short fulfilled the two key requirements of high-end cabaret singing: he brought the established classics of popular song alive, yet his own style was distinctive and personal. Short knew thousands of songs, and Broadway connoisseurs could count on hearing an unknown gem by Cole Porter or George and Ira Gershwin over the course of an evening at the Carlyle. Even though he performed twice a night, five nights a week, for six months a year, Short rarely repeated himself.
As a vocal stylist, Short was quite unusual. New Yorker jazz writer Whitney Balliett wrote that Short had "a searching down sound": a versatile baritone that could unexpectedly drop into a gruff tone or emphasize psychologically significant points in a song's lyrics. Short could bring out the sexy qualities that lay behind the conventional rhymes of Broadway pop, and he could find an elegant quality in more raucous old jazz and blues songs. He often performed blues diva Bessie Smith's "Gimme a Pigfoot (And a Bottle of Beer)." Short tried to uncover African-American roots of the classic Broadway sound, and he often revived little-known pieces by the likes of Thomas "Fats" Waller and his Madagascarian-American lyricist, Andy Razaf.
Friendship with Gloria Vanderbilt
Although Short had no taste for controversy, he did become involved in one well-publicized dispute with racial overtones. The situation arose as a result of Short's long friendship with heiress Gloria Vanderbilt, who was turned down by the board of the posh River House condominiums when she tried to buy a unit there—because, she alleged in a lawsuit, the board feared that she and Short would marry. The dispute eventually simmered down, and Short became one of the few African Americans included on New York's Social Register of prominent citizens. He never married, but he adopted a son, Ronald Bell.
Short made nationally prominent film and television appearances, and his face became well known after it appeared on the billboards of the Gap clothing-store chain. He won two Grammy awards, one for a recording of romantic songs and the other for a Cole Porter disc. Both appeared on the Telarc label. Short appeared as himself in Woody Allen's film "Hannah and Her Sisters," and in 1994 he garnered an honor of a different kind: was named a living landmark by the New York Landmarks Conservancy. Short spent vacation time at a villa in the south of France.
In 1997, well over 70 years old, Short rethought his backing band at the Carlyle, expanding it from a trio to a nine-piece band. He tried to retire in 2004, but popular demand induced him to sign a contract to appear for another year. He continued to work even after receiving a leukemia diagnosis, and he worked on a new CD of Fred Astaire songs until just before his death. He never finished it, but he left a sturdy legacy nonetheless: the younger cabaret performers that revived the art in the 1990s and 2000s all looked to Bobby Short as an inspiration. "Bobby Short," singer and pianist Michael Feinstein told the Chicago Tribune, "was the inventor of what all of us do."
Songs by Bobby Short, Atlantic, 1955.
Bobby Short, Atlantic, 1956.
Speaking of Love, Atlantic, 1957.
Sing Me a Swing Song, Atlantic, 1957.
Nobody Else But Me, Atlantic, 1958.
The Mad Twenties, Atlantic, 1959.
Bobby Short on the East Side, Atlantic, 1963.
My Personal Property, Atlantic, 1971.
Bobby Short Loves Cole Porter, Atlantic, 1973.
Bobby Short Live at the Cafe Carlyle, Mobile Fidelity, 1975.
Bobby Short Celebrates Rodgers & Hart, Atlantic, 1982.
Moments Like This, Atlantic, 1986.
Guess Who's in Town: Bobby Short Performs the Songs of Andy Razaf, Atlantic, 1991.
Late Night at the Cafe Carlyle, Telarc, 1993.
Swing That Music, Telarc. 1995.
Songs of New York, Telarc, 1999.
How's Your Romance, Telarc, 1999.
You're the Top: The Love Songs of Cole Porter, Telarc, 2001.
Short, Bobby, Black and White Baby, Dodd, Mead, 1971.
Short, Bobby (with Robert Mackintosh), Bobby Short: The Life and Times of a Saloon Singer, C. Potter, 1995.
Back Stage, March 24, 2005, p. 6.
Chicago Tribune, March 22, 2005.
New Yorker, December 26, 1970, reprinted March 22, 2005.
New York Observer, March 28, 2005, p. 20.
New York Times, March 21, 2005.
Times (London, England), March 23, 2005.
Washington Times, March 25, 2005, p. A19.
"Bobby Short," All Music Guide, www.allmusic.com (April 1, 2005).
"Impeccable Singer Bobby Short Dead," CNN.com, www.cnn.com/2005/SHOWBIZ/Muisc/03/21/obit.short.ap (April 1, 2005).
—James M. Manheim