Short, Bobby

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Bobby Short

Singer, pianist

Bobby Short was an African-American singer, pianist, recording artist, author, journalist, actor, producer, and philanthropist who became known as the King of Cabaret, a style of musical performance in which singers and instrumentalists play songs for audiences in intimate settings, such as nightclubs and supper clubs. He often is credited with being the best interpreter of the Great American Songbook, words and music written by national composers from the pre-rock era, such as George and Ira Gershwin, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, Harold Arlen, Jerome Kern, and Johnny Mercer. In addition, Short recorded and performed songs by African-American composers such as Duke Ellington, Bessie Smith, Thomas "Fats" Waller, Andy Razaf, and Billy Strayhorn. Although he had a repertoire of more than 500 songs—chiefly pop, jazz, blues, and show tunes—from international sources, Short probably was best known for his interpretations of the urbane, witty compositions of American songwriter Cole Porter. In a career that spanned 70 years, Short performed solo and with trios, quartets, horn sections, and orchestras; recorded albums for Atlantic Records, Telarc Jazz, and Surrounded by Entertainment; and played in venues ranging from saloons to the White House. However, Short is associated most with the Café Carlyle, a venue in the Carlyle Hotel on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where he worked for over 35 years. During his tenure there, Short became a New York institution as well as a favorite of high society. He was characterized by his raspy yet smooth tenor voice; his accomplished piano playing, which incorporated both an aggressive "stride" style and more classically oriented qualities; and his dapper appearance.

Turned Professional at Ten

Short was born in Danville, Illinois, a city near the Indiana border. He was the ninth of ten children born to Rodman Jacob Short, a coal miner who had also been a business owner and justice of the peace, and Myrtle Bender Short, a domestic and relief worker. Short grew up in a musical household: his father played the piano, his mother sang, and several members of his extended family had musical talent. At the age of four, Short played his first song—Kern's "Who?"—on the family piano. By eight, he was playing and singing throughout his neighborhood. Short began performing in local saloons and roadhouses at the age of nine. Shortly thereafter, as he described in his autobiography Black and White Baby, he was introduced to what he called "the high life," by the Gibsons, an upper-class white family who often asked him to be the entertainment at their social functions. When he was ten, Short played and sang at the Palmer House, an upscale hotel in Chicago. He considered this performance his first professional engagement.

"The Miniature King of Swing"

At the age of eleven, Short lost his father, who was killed by mine gas while working in Kentucky. Shortly thereafter, he met singer Leonard Rosen, a young white man who became his agent. Rosen and his agent, Julius "Booker" Levin, began to manage Short's career. Dressed in a white tuxedo with tails, Short worked in vaudeville houses as "the Miniature King of Swing" and "Bobby Short, the Singing Swing Pianist." He was on the road from 1936 to 1938. During this time, Short performed with singer Ethel Waters, trumpeter/vocalist Louis Armstrong, the harmony group the Andrews Sisters, and bandleader Fats Waller. He also worked at Harlem's legendary Apollo Theater, played on orchestra leader Benny Goodman's radio show, got a screen test from Twentieth Century Fox, and received positive comparisons to Ellington. Exhausted from touring, Short left the road at 13 and went back to school in Danville.

While attending Danville High School, Short performed at local cocktail lounges and hotels while participating in school activities. On weekends he performed at Club Caliente in Calumet City, Illinois, where he met Phil Shelley, an agent from Chicago. Shelley convinced Short to skip college and go into show business full-time. Short worked around the Midwest before moving to California in 1943. After acheiving some success there, he moved to New York City in 1945. While in Manhattan, Short worked with the Incomparable Hildegarde, a popular cabaret singer who was one of his idols, and had a month-long gig at the Blue Angel, a sophisticated club on the Upper East Side. He then returned to the West Coast to work on his act. At the Haig, a shack-like club in Los Angeles, Short honed his craft and began to develop a personal following among musicians, artists, actors, models, and dancers. After moving to the Café Gaia, a high-class establishment, Short began to attract famous movie stars, studio moguls, and exiled royalty to his performances. He became a major draw on L.A.'s Sunset Strip before moving to Paris in 1952.

For the Record …

Born Robert Waltrip Short on September 15, 1924, in Danville, IL; died on March 21, 2005, in New York, NY; son of Rodman Jacob Short and Myrtle (Render) Short; children: Ronald Bell (adopted nephew).

Began singing and playing piano in Illinois roadhouses at the age of nine; worked national vaudeville houses from ages eleven to 13, playing at the Apollo Theater in Harlem and with performers such as Louis Armstrong and the Andrews Sisters; quit the road at 13 to go back to school; went into show business full-time after high school; became a sensation on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles; moved to Paris in 1952 to further his career; signed contract with Atlantic Records, released first album for Atlantic, 1955; began acting on Broadway, 1956; recorded albums and played concerts and clubs throughout America and Europe; performed landmark concert with cabaret singer Mabel Mercer at Town Hall, New York City, 1968, released two live albums from concert; began 35-year engagement with the Café Carlyle on Manhattan's Upper East Side, 1968-2004; performed for four presidents at the White House; published first volume of autobiography, Black and White Baby, 1971; appeared in film Hannah and Her Sisters, 1986; released second volume of autobiography, Bobby Short: The Life and Times of a Saloon Singer, 1995; released first album on Telarc Jazz label, 1995; released final album, Piano, on Surrounded by Entertainment label, 1995.

Awards: Family of Cole Porter, "You're the Top" Award, 1991; New York Council on the Arts, New York Governor General's Arts Award, 1994; New York Landmarks Conservancy, Living Landmarks Award, 1994; Philadelphia Art Alliance, Medal of Achievement, 1999; Library of Congress, Living Legend Award, 2000; Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs (MAC), MAC Lifetime Achievement Award, 2000; Danville (IL) Public School Foundation, Outstanding Alumnus Award (first recipient), 2001; Society of Singers East, Louis Armstrong Award, 2001; Citizens for New York City, New Yorkers for New York Award, 2005; American Tap Dance Foundation, Bobby Short Scholarship, 2005; Lena Horne Legend Award, 2005; Illinois Arts Alliance Foundation, Illinois Art Legend Award (posthumous), 2005.

Began at the Café Carlyle

While in Europe, Short became friends with two Americans, Dorothy Kilgallen, an influential New York journalist and media personality, and Ahmet Ertegun, a Turkish-born businessman and the founder of Atlantic Records. After Short returned to America, Eretgun signed him to a contract in 1954, and Short produced his first record for the label, Songs by Bobby Short, the following year. He performed regularly at the Beverly Hotel in New York City, and there he met the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, who became loyal fans. Short began performing on Broadway in 1956; he played several roles, including Paul the valet in Cole Porter's musical Kiss Me Kate. In 1963 Short returned to the Blue Angel. The mid-1960s were a difficult period for Short. Changes in popular music styles and the decline of the supper club made his work more sporadic. However, his fortunes improved in 1968 when he performed with cabaret legend Mabel Mercer at Town Hall in New York City. A tremendous success, the concert led to two popular live albums and to Short's engagement at the Café Carlyle. In 1971 he wrote Black and White Baby, which describes his life until high-school graduation. In 1995 he published the second part of his autobiography, Bobby Short: The Life and Times of a Saloon Singer, a work written with Robert Mackintosh. Short also contributed articles to newspapers and magazines.

Often accompanied by bassist Beverly Peer and drummer Dick Sheridan, Short worked at the Carlyle for several months of each year. He brought in a chic clientele that included Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, the former wife of President John F. Kennedy; artist Andy Warhol; jazz musician Miles Davis; and authors Truman Capote and Norman Mailer. When not working at the hotel, Short involved himself in many other activities. He became well known in the 1970s as the spokesperson for "Charlie," a perfume by Revlon. Short acted and/or sang in feature films such as Woody Allen's Hannah and Her Sisters and Ron Howard's Splash; in television programs such as Frasier, The Love Boat, and In the Heat of the Night; and in the television mini-series Roots: The Next Generation. Short appeared at the White House for Presidents Nixon, Reagan, Carter, and Clinton. At the request of the King of Jordan, he flew to Amman for a one-night gig. Despite his celebrity status, Short encountered racism throughout his career. He was accused of having affairs with Kilgallen and designer Gloria Vanderbilt, both Caucasians. In 1980 Vanderbilt—who had employed Short as a model for an ad campaign for her clothing line—sued the River House apartment complex for racial bias. She claimed that the managers of the apartment had turned down her bid for a million-dollar duplex because they thought that she might marry Short. After a month's time, Vanderbilt dropped her suit. Short also was considered controversial for singing Afrocentric songs to white bluebloods. However, he received three nominations for the Grammy Award, was one of very few African Americans to appear in The New York Social Register, and often appeared on international best-dressed lists.

Established Scholarship

In addition to his musical and social accomplishments, Short established a college scholarship for underprivileged young people in Danville, donated to nonprofit organizations, and often made personal appearances at hospitals and for civic organizations. In the early 1980s he hosted and co-produced shows featuring black stars of jazz and Broadway from the 1920s and 1930s. He was founder and president of the Duke Ellington Memorial Fund, a group that placed Robert Graham's sculpture of Ellington at the northeast corner of Central Park. Short also has his own landmark in New York: Bobby Short Place, on East 76th Street between Madison and Park Avenues. Although Short never married, he adopted his nephew, Ronald Bell, the son of Short's deceased brother William. Though he stayed active, Short suffered from health problems such as laryngitis, diverticulitis, and neuropathy. On New Year's Eve of 2004, he retired from the Carlyle. In March of 2005 he was diagnosed with leukemia. A week after his diagnosis, Short passed away. At the time of his death, he was planning to record an album of songs made famous by Fred Astaire. He had planned a return to the Café Carlyle, which closed the Monday after his death as a tribute.

Observers have called Short an original, an African American who stayed relevant while performing old, often little-known chestnuts. He is acknowledged for using his talent and personality to break down racial barriers and to become a symbol of the glamour and sophistication of New York City. Short has also been praised for his mastery of his craft, his engaging performances, his musical scholarship, his interpretive skills and clear diction, for helping to revive interest in the composers in his repertoire, and for his commitment to civic causes. In addition, he increased the public's awareness of the African-American contribution to musical theater. Short was also a major influence on singers who work in the cabaret format, such as Tony Bennett, Michael Feinstein, Barbara Cook, and Harry Connick Jr. Although he has been criticized for pandering to the tastes of white and rich society, Short is primarily regarded as an artist whose talent, dignity, professionalism, impeccable taste, and positive energy allowed him to flourish despite social stigmas and changes in popular culture.

He Was the Top

The African American Registry called Short "a genius for presenting unknown songs worth knowing, while keeping well known songs fresh." Writing in the New York Observer, Rex Reed commented, "Some people are good at what they do. Other people are better. Bobby Short was the best…. Pity the saloon singers who elect to follow in the footsteps of his patent-leather shoes." Stephen Holden of the New York Times stated that Short's "performances and recordings played a crucial role in leveling the racial playing field of American pop and helping bring a shamefully obscured history to light." Adam Williams of PopMatters said, "Bobby Short was the Piano Man long before Billy Joel appeared…. He was simply irreplaceable." Funk-rocker Lenny Kravitz, whose parents were introduced by Short, told Eric Felten of the Wall Street Journal that Short "will remain my favorite artist of all time." Speaking in Billboard, Michael Feinstein concluded, "Bobby Short made it possible for us to do what we do…. No one will ever be able to fill his void." Short wrote in Black and White Baby, "I felt I had a gift and I enjoyed performing. I didn't know then and I don't know now how well or how badly I sing and play the piano, but I knew that I was a good performer." Writing in Bobby Short: The Life and Times of a Saloon Singer, he commented, "More and more, I realize how much I like what I do…. I feel that work is a privilege, carrying on a tradition. One handed down from Duke and Count Basie, from Lena [Horne] and Pearl Bailey." Reflecting on his career, Short told Chip Deffaa of Stage Space, "It's been better than wonderful."

Selected discography

Songs by Bobby Short, Atlantic, 1955.

Bobby Short, Atlantic, 1956.

Speaking of Love: The Songs of Bobby Short, Atlantic, 1957.

Nobody Else But Me, Atlantic, 1957.

The Mad Twenties, Atlantic, 1958.

Sing Me a Swing Song, Atlantic, 1959.

Bobby Short on the East Side, Atlantic, 1960.

My Personal Property, Atlantic, 1963.

(With Mabel Mercer) Mabel Mercer and Bobby Short at Town Hall, Atlantic, 1968.

(With Mercer) Mercer and Short: Second Town Hall Concert, Atlantic, 1969.

Jump for Joy, Atlantic, 1969.

Bobby Short Loves Cole Porter, Atlantic, 1971.

Bobby Short Is Mad about Noel Coward, Atlantic, 1972.

The Very Best of Bobby Short (compilation), Atlantic, 1972.

Bobby Short Live at the Café Carlyle, Atlantic, 1973.

Bobby Short Is K-R-A-Z-Y for Gershwin (compilation), Atlantic, 1973.

Bobby Short Celebrates Rodgers and Hart, Atlantic, 1975.

Personal, Atlantic, 1977.

Moments Like This, Atlantic, 1982.

50 by Bobby Short (compilation), Atlantic, 1986.

Guess Who's in Town? Bobby Short Performs the Songs of Andy Razaf, Atlantic, 1986.

Late Night at the Café Carlyle, Telarc, 1992.

Swing That Music, Telarc, 1993.

Songs of New York: Live at the Café Carlyle, Telarc, 1995.

Celebrating 30 Years at the Café Carlyle, Telarc, 1999.

You're the Top: Love Songs of Cole Porter, Telarc, 1999.

How's Your Romance?, Telarc, 1999.

Piano, Surrounded by Entertainment, 2001.

Selected writings

Black and White Baby (autobiography), Dodd, Mead, 1971.

(With Robert Mackintosh) Bobby Short: The Life and Times of a Saloon Singer (autobiography), Clarkson N. Potter, 1995.



Short, Bobby, Black and White Baby, Dodd, Mead, 1971.

(With Robert Mackintosh) Bobby Short: The Life and Times of a Saloon Singer, Clarkson N. Potter, 1995.


Billboard, April 2, 2005.

New York Observer, March 28, 2005.

New York Times, March 22, 2005.

Wall Street Journal, March 23, 2005.


"An American Treasure: Bobby Short!," African American Registry, (May 2, 2005).

The Bobby Short Saloon, (April 20, 2005).

"Diminutive in Name Only," PopMatters, (May 2, 2005).

"Remembering Bobby Short," Stage Space, (March 21, 2005).