Black History Month: Bobby Short

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.

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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.

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.

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.

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.”

Selected discography

Albums

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.

Source: Bobby Short Biography

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