September 15, 1924– Bobby Short, born Robert Waltrip Short, began performing as a child in Danville, Illinois. Self-taught on the piano, he was just 9 years old when he began playing in a saloon, but also at church & school.
At 10 years old, he played & sang for a private party at the Palmer House in Chicago. This gig got him an agent & more work in Chicago hotels & supper clubs. When he was 13 years old he received engagements in NYC clubs. Always a natty dresser, even as a kid Short was named on best-dressed lists. He had custom made white tails & an almost ankle-length wraparound camel’s hair coat.
He is a favorite of mine. I am feeling quite old, & never more so than when I am trying to explain pop culture from the 20th century to young people. Despite the fact that I am able to reference Rhianna, Taylor Swift & Drake, the kids today just stare dumbly, vacant eyed, & with a touch of disgust, if I try to explain to them the impact of Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, The Beatles, Iggy Pop, or even The Clash on our cultural history. I am truly old hat, old fashioned, out-of-date, outmoded & worn out.
I am not really dismayed that they didn’t know Bobby Short. I didn’t expect them to. I am sure that few in my own circle of friends know of Short. Still, I just can’t get the kids to wrap their heads around the notion of nightclubs, supper clubs, or Café Society.
Short called himself a saloon singer, a moniker I would have happy to have lived with. His was my first choice for an avocation. His saloon, from 1968 until his final bow in 2005, was one of the most elegant in the country, the intimate Cafe Carlyle tucked in the Carlyle Hotel on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. There for 6 months each year, in a room where he was only a few feet from his audience, he sang & accompanied himself on the piano. I saw him perform there 4 times in the mid-1970s.
Short was so much more than cabaret entertainer. He was a NYC institution & a symbol of civilized Manhattan culture. In Woody Allen‘s films a visit to the Café Carlyle became an essential stop on his characters’ cultural tour. In 1976, Short sang & appeared in a popular commercial for Revlon’s perfume “Charlie.” Short appeared in Woody Allen’s film Hannah & Her Sisters. Allen later used Short’s recording of I Happen To Like New York for opening title of Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993).
Short attracted a chic international fan base that included royalty, film stars, sports figures, socialites & jazz fans. He also appeared in small roles in TV commercials & movies. In 1972, he performed the theme song to Merchant/Ivory’s terrific film Savages.
Short’s place as entertainer for high society overshadowed his significance as a jazz pianist, singer & popular song scholar. He dedicated himself to spreading an awareness of the African-American contribution to NYC musical theater. In Short’s roster of Greatest American Songwriters, were Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn & Eubie Blake, along with Cole Porter. He was most identified with the songs of Fats Waller who wrote Guess Who’s In Town?, Short’s signature piece.
Short had a bout of notoriety in May 1980 when Gloria Vanderbilt sued River House on the East Side of Manhattan, which had refused to sell her a million dollar apartment. She accused the management of racial bias because of her close friendship with Short. The landmark building’s board said it wanted to avoid ” any unwanted publicity.” A month later, she dropped the suit. Short generally stayed out of the fray but said:
“I’m old enough to be sophisticated about these things.”
This phrase is my new motto.
Short never publicly came out of the closet, but it was known among his friends, fellow cabaret performers, & even among of his fans, that he was gay. When asked why he hadn’t taken part in any of the Gay Pride parades, Short’s response was:
“I have a living to make! I can’t afford to march in the Gay Pride Parade.”