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Short, Robert Waltrip (“Bobby”)

Short, Robert Waltrip (“Bobby”)

(b. 15 September 1924 in Danville, Illinois; d. 21 March 2005 in New York City), gifted singer and pianist whose performances epitomized America’s intimate supper-club concerts.

Short was born the ninth of ten children to a working-class family. His father, Rodman Jacob Short, was the son of a Kentucky freed slave and worked variously as a coal miner, a postal worker, a notary public, and a justice of the peace. During the Depression he resumed work in the coal mines south of Danville and then moved away to the coal mines of southeastern Kentucky, visiting his family only a few times a year. Short remembers his father as a self-taught pianist and a dapper dresser, with a talent for mathematics and shorthand. His father was killed by mine gas when Short was just eleven years old. Short’s mother, Myrtle Render Short, was also musically inclined. She provided piano lessons for her children and acquired a Victrola for them, though she prohibited her children from listening to jazz or blues. During the Depression she worked as a domestic in Danville. Short remembered the superficial integration, growing up in the “white” section of town and frequently being the only child of color in his class.

Short was musically precocious, playing songs from the radio on piano by ear at the age of four and performing in hotels and saloons as a singing pianist at age nine, all the while attending a Catholic school, the only one that would permit him time off to perform. At twelve years old he was billed as the “Miniature King of Swing” in a Chicago concert. On the advice of talent scouts, Short then moved to New York City to continue his career, appearing in vaudeville houses, cocktail lounges, and even the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem alongside such legendary artists as the Andrews Sisters, Fats Waller, and Ethel Waters. His “white silk tails” costuming sometimes drew the criticism of Harlem audiences, as did his resistance to the newest craze: boogie woogie.

After a single year of club work, Short returned to Danville to complete his education at Danville High School, graduating ahead of schedule despite his extended absence. Short now increased his nightclub repertoire to include songs by not only Duke Ellington and Andy Razaf but also George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, Noël Coward, and Harold Arlen. From 1940 through 1948, Short pursued the itinerant nightclub artist’s life. He performed at the Capitol Lounge in Chicago and at the Beachcomber in Omaha, Nebraska, where he met Nat King Cole. In Los Angeles, he performed in a novelty act at the Radio Room and then in Milwaukee, Minnesota, opposite the jazz pianist Art Tatum. He worked with the Three Stooges in Providence, Rhode Island. After that, he appeared in St. Louis, Missouri, and then at the Blue Angel in New York City, opening for the jazz vocalist Mildred Bailey.

In 1948 Short signed for a one-week performance at the Baroness d’Erlanger’s Café Gala on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles, then the hottest nightclub on the West Coast. He stayed for three years, playing to critical acclaim and packed houses. In 1950 Short toured Paris and London and then returned to Los Angeles. In 1952 Short began recording for Ahmet Ertegun and Atlantic Records, a multialbum collaboration that extended until 1992. In 1954 Short settled in New York City for an extended engagement at the Beverly Hotel.

Short’s career slowed somewhat in the 1960s, as rock and roll altered New York’s conventional cosmopolitan nightlife. After a failed gourmet café venture, Short spent an entire year without work in New York City, performing instead in venues like Provincetown, Massachusetts, and Cleveland. In 1965 he performed a standup role in The New Cole Porter Review in Greenwich Village. In 1968 he revitalized his career in a concert at Carnegie Hall with the legendary singer Mabel Mercer. Then, in 1971, Ertegun recommended Short as a replacement artist for the pianist George Feyer at the Café Carlyle. Short signed a contract for six nights a week, eight months a year—a working relationship that lasted more than thirty years.

In 1971 Short celebrated a yearlong tribute to one of his heroes, Cole Porter, performing forty of Porter’s lesser-known works in his Café Carlyle act. He also recorded perhaps his best-loved album, Bobby Short Loves Cole Porter. While recovering from one of his frequent bouts of laryngitis, Short finished an early set of memoirs, Black and White Baby (1971). During the rest of the 1970s and 1980s, he appeared in several movies, including Splash (1984) and Hannah and Her Sisters (1986). He made several long-running Gloria Vanderbilt apparel and Revlon cosmetics commercials. He also appeared in the television series Roots: The Next Generations (1979) and In the Heat of the Night (1991 and 1994) and even in an episode of Love Boat (1981). Short never married or had children, but he had a close relationship with Gloria Vanderbilt and adopted his nephew, Ronald Bell. He championed the New York City campaign to erect a memorial statue to Duke Ellington in Central Park. His suave demeanor, breezy charm, and elegant dress made him a symbol of the good life in New York.

Short’s audiences at the Carlyle and at 21 Club included the nobility, the wealthy, politicians, movie stars, jazz musicians, writers, and thousands of tourists, but he never overlooked the hotel staff or club crews where he worked. He was invited by four different presidents to perform at the White House, and he received three Grammy nominations. In 2000, as part of its bicentennial, the Library of Congress selected Short as an American “Living Legend.” In 2003 he celebrated his thirty-fifth year at the Café Carlyle and, despite failing health, agreed to a contract extension until May 2005 to mark that establishment’s fiftieth anniversary. Early that year, however, he was hospitalized with leukemia and died shortly thereafter. He is interred at Atherton Cemetery in Danville.

Short’s career as a musician was a marriage of the sophistication of the American stage with an underpinning of blues and vaudeville traditions. He was a musical conservator for many out-of-the-way masterpieces by America’s best songwriters. He introduced a later generation to the musical intimacies of the supper club during a time when suburban flight, urban polarization, and increased musical amplitude threatened to change America’s entertainment entirely. Noël Coward once wrote in a letter to Short: “You know how much I have always enjoyed and admired your work. You have an unmistakable, unique quality which never fails to give me very special pleasure. Hurry and record my songs—I am already looking forward.”

America looked forward to Short to record its legacy of songs. It also recognized him as one of its most admired popular musical artists. The noted jazz chronicler Whitney Balliett once wrote of Short in the New Yorker magazine: “Bobby Short’s way of singing... is singing stripped to its essentials—words lifted and carried by the curves of melody.” Short’s husky baritone, full vibrato, lurching phrases, crisp diction, and practiced accompaniments may recall a bygone era of cabaret, but they also help us discern the ongoing synthesis of American styles, traditions, and ideas in our contemporary society and our popular music.

Short wrote two memoirs, Black and White Baby (1971) and, with Robert G. Mackintosh, Bobby Short: The Life and Times of a Saloon Singer (1995). Obituaries are in the Washington Post and New York Times (both 22 Mar. 2005).

James McElwaine

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