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Legendary cabaret singer, pianistby Todd S. Jenkins
Copyright © 2005 Todd S. Jenkins
Bobby Short, who embodied the sophisticated art of cabaret singing from within his longtime post at New York’s Café Carlyle, died of leukemia at New York Presbyterian Hospital on March 21, 2005. He was eighty years old.
Robert Waltrip Short came out of Danville, Illinois, as a self-taught pianist and singer. At the age of eleven he was already performing in Chicago as “Bobby Short, the Miniature King of Swing” (the diminutive Short was aptly surnamed) and touring the Midwest vaudeville circuit. At twelve he found himself in New York, gigging at the Apollo Theater and various nightspots whose wares it would take Short several more years to legally sample. But soon he returned home to Illinois, wanting to enjoy his childhood and school years while he could.
After high school Short wasted no time in getting back into the music business. In 1948 he began a three-year run at Café Gala in Los Angeles, but eventually left when he found himself in “a velvet rut”. He toured around Europe for several years, making enough of a name for himself to land a contract with Atlantic Records. Short cut over a dozen albums for the label between 1955 and 1986, when he moved to Telarc.
Inspired by the dignity of performers like Duke Ellington, Nat Cole, Marian Anderson and Mabel Mercer, Short reflected a dwindling image of upper-crust society, tuxedoed and impeccably dignified as he worked through the Great American Songbook he so loved. The changing tastes of modern audiences reduced Short and his cohorts to quaintness, cutting back his livelihood. But in 1968 he received the break he needed, sharing the stage with Mabel Mercer at New York’s Town Hall. Shortly thereafter he was hired as the house performer at Café Carlyle, in the Carlyle Hotel on East 76th Street. It remained his principal gig for the next thirty-six years, as Short drew audiences from all over the world who came to the hotel simply to hear him sing and play the piano. In a humorous knock to his ultra-dignified image, Short always characterized himself as a “saloon singer” rather than a cabaret singer.
To many, Short represented the essence of New York’s sophistication as it once had been. He was embraced by celebrities of all walks as one of their own, and performed at the White House under four presidents. He appeared in TV shows and films like “Roots”, “In the Heat of the Night”, “Splash” and “Hannah and Her Sisters”, at times simply playing himself. Short also wrote two books, Black and White Baby (1971, Dodd, Mead & Co.) and Bobby Short: The Life and Times of a Saloon Singer (1995, Panache Press). On his off months from the Carlyle, Short liked to vacation in Mougins, France, but home was his Sutton Place Apartment.
In 1980 Short was embroiled in a dispute between Gloria Vanderbilt, whose clothes he had promoted in an ad campaign, and an apartment complex that had turned down her bid for a duplex. Before dropping her suit, Vanderbilt alleged that the apartment managers didn’t want to rent to her because they thought she and Short might get married and they hated interracial couples. In fact, Short never did marry anyone; he is survived by his adopted son, Ronald Bell, and his brother Reginald.
Todd S. Jenkins
Todd S. Jenkins is a member of the JJA, author of Free Jazz and Free Improvisation: An Encyclopedia (Greenwood Press, 2004) and I Know What I Know: The Music of Charles Mingus (Praeger, 2006), and a contributor to Down Beat, All About Jazz, American Songwriter and Route 66 Magazine.