Should I ever be asked to nominate the definitive male cabaret performer my first instinct would be Noel Coward – unless I had seen Bobby Short, whereupon I would be obliged to declare a tie.
Like several people we define as sophisticated – Cole Porter (Peru, Indiana), Rex Harrison (Liverpool) Coward (Teddington), Mabel Mercer (Burton-on-Trent), Jack Buchanan (Helensburgh) – he was born neither in Mayfair nor Manhattan but instead- on 15 September 1924 – in Danville, Illinois, which, if not exactly “a wide part in the road” as vaudeville comics were wont to say, was neither – with a population of 30,000 – a bustling metropolis. Yet despite this two of Short’s classmates were Donald O’Connor and Dick Van Dyck.
The ninth of 10 children and with only a grade-school education he taught himself to play piano – though not to read music – and was soon playing and singing in the town’s saloons. At the age of 11 – and with the permission and blessing of his mother – he was doing the same thing in Chicago in the midst of what came to be called The Great Depression.
After a few years on the mid-West “wheel” i.e. the vaudeville circuit that spanned St Louis, Milwaukee and Kansas City he ended up in Los Angeles where he spent three years at the Café Gala. All this time he was honing and refining his style and expanding his repertoire by truffling out the lesser-known works of the elite amongst songwriters.
However, it would be a mistake to think of him as simply a monkey-suited sophisticate with patent-leather shoes for he is just as likely to perform Bessie Smith as Cole Porter and I have in my own collection his rendition of Gimme A Pigfoot And A Bottle Of Beer, which is not unlike stumbling across a Mabel Mercer recording of Any Old Iron.
In 1955 Atlantic issued his first long-playing album entitled simply Bobby Short. Eventually he would release 23 individual albums, all but six on Atlantic and technically more than 23 since (1) several of them were double albums and (2) he also appeared on two “live” recordings of the two sell-out Town Hall concerts he did with his great friend and equally prominent cabaret performer Mabel Mercer. (When Mabel died in 1984 he famously said “Half the legacy is gone. I don’t know if I can carry the whole burden alone. These shoulders are elegant but very narrow”. In the event he outlived her by 20 years, performing until the end.)
In 1968 the Café Carlyle, the elegant supper club in the basement of the Carlyle hotel at 79th and Madison, offered Short a two-week engagement as a temporary replacement for George Feyer, the resident performer, who was on vacation. He was such a success that he ended up staying more than 35 years, playing two 12-week “seasons” each year, one in spring and one in autumn. He became as much a landmark of The Big Apple as the Empire State Building or Rockefeller Center, so much so that when he succumbed to leukaemia in his 81st year the owner of the Café Carlyle closed it on Monday night as a tribute.
Whilst Sinatra seemed quite happy to sing his way through the Great American Songbook, a page at a time, Short was equally happy to explore the lesser-spotted American Songbook so that every album he recorded was sprinkled with neglected gems from A-list writers
This is the point where this narrative segues from what historians call secondary to primary source. Short first appeared on my radar – at approximately the same time as Mabel Mercer – just weeks after he became a fixture at the Carlyle. When I began to collect records seriously I decided that Frank Sinatra, still very much active, would be the only male vocalist in my burgeoning collection. My reasoning was – to me – classically simple; Sinatra was clearly head and shoulders above any other male vocalist working the same area and given that 12-inch vinyl albums varied in price by only a few pence why buy beer when, for roughly the same outlay, you can purchase champagne? This attitude prevailed for a good decade and it was Bobby Short who finally persuaded me to lighten up.
Not that he was a better singer than Sinatra, or even as good. Far from it – it was all about repertoire. Whilst Sinatra seemed quite happy to sing his way through the Great American Songbook, a page at a time, Short was equally happy to explore the lesser-spotted American Songbook so that every set he played in the supper clubs of the international stage and every album he recorded was sprinkled with neglected gems from A-list writers: From Now On, That Black And White Baby Of Mine, For No Rhyme Or Reason – did you know those were all by Cole Porter? You did? Well, you’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din, and I’ve spent a lifetime studying this stuff. On The Amazon, The Wind In The Willows (Vivian Ellis), This Is Romance, Now, In My Old Virginia Home, On The River Nile (Vernon Duke), Don’t Mention Love To Me (Oscar Levant) – the list goes on and on. These aren’t songs that deserve neglect – they’re all material the writers would be proud to include in their CVs. It’s just that Short – and, to be fair, Mabel Mercer, Barbara Lea and a handful of others, spent their days truffling them out.
From the late 70s I was lucky enough to be able to get to Manhattan reasonably often and nine times out of 10 I was there at the same time as Short was playing at the Carlyle and I got to see him there a good dozen times, often staying for both sets – he went on at 10 p.m. and midnight – and, almost inevitably, I began to appreciate him as a performer rather than someone with a great repertoire. For example he did a reading of Bye, Bye, Blackbird, a song that is always performed in a jaunty, upbeat fashion, that slowed it right down to a heartbeat, a reading that is still my favourite interpretation of the song.
Short was also, indirectly, responsible for one of the great friendships of my life which – also indirectly – led to my joining ASCAP: one fine spring evening in 1979 I was strolling down Fifth Avenue at a little after 8 p.m., making my leisurely way to the Carlyle in time for Short’s first set at 10 – experience had taught me that if I arrived around nine I had a better than even chance of securing a ringside table – when I noticed that bookstore Doubledays was still open. Knowing I had time for a quick browse, I crossed the street and entered the store.
After five or 10 minutes I spotted two bins containing vinyl albums. I flicked through the bins not really expecting to hit paydirt. Within seconds I came across Marlene VerPlanck Loves Johnny Mercer; I didn’t know her work but I would buy an album if it contained only one song by Porter, Rodgers, Arlen etc that wasn’t in my collection. I scanned the songstack and there, nestled amongst the usual suspects, was Let’s Take The Long Way Home, a minor song from a minor movie, Here Come The Waves, and, more pertinently, a song not in my Mercer collection. Not having seen the movie, I had never even heard it. I put the album on one side and continued browsing; soon I unearthed an album entitled You’d Better Love Me, by the same vocalist. Even in those days I was A smart-ass and I recognised immediately that You’d Better Love Me was the take-home tune from a musical called High Spirits by Hugh Martin and Timothy Grey, which opened in 1964. Closer inspection of the songstack revealed that no less than nine selections were the work of Hugh Martin and I recall thinking that even if this verPlanck person couldn’t sing the note before note one she had great taste. I bought both albums – at $8.98 each – and continued on my way. In due course, VerPlanck became a great friend.
For the record Bobby did an A1 show at the Carlyle, as did his long-time accompanists, Beverly Peer, bass, and Richard Sheridan, drums. He continued to perform live (including in the White House before Nixon, Carter, Reagan, and Clinton), to record and to accumulate honours – he was, for example, one of a handful of black people to be listed in the Social Register. He appeared in several films, not least Woody Allen’s Hannah And Her Sisters, plus You’re The Top and Blue Ice, in which he had a speaking part as Buddy. Amongst other honours he was designated a “living landmark” by the The York Landmark Conservancy.
Alongside Mabel Mercer he embodied a world now as lost to us as Atlantis – a world of Singapore Slings, Gin Rickeys, Mabel at Tony’s and Bobby at the Carlyle. We shall not look upon their like again.