Jewish World Review March 25, 2005 / 14 Adar II, 5765
Bobby Short was much more than a saloon singer
By Diana West
Every so often, my dad laughs about a kid he served with in the Army
during World War II. This fellow wasn't a big pal; just a guy he knew
from New Jersey, 18 or 19 years old. One day, kidding around, this young
GI started to dance my dad, also 18 or 19 years old, around the barracks
singing, "Cheek to Cheek" a perfect if unconventional standard by
Irving Berlin, introduced by Fred Astaire in "Top Hat." Now consigned to
the rarefied, quite narrow stratum of cabaret, this was the kind of tune
that was playing in the head of the American enlisted man circa 1943.
This anecdote occurred to me this week at the news that Bobby Short had
died, age 80. As the cabaret singer nonpareil he preferred the job
description "saloon singer" Bobby Short and his passing were duly
noted with deservedly generous obits and glowing appreciations. His
flair, his sophistication, his giant musicality made all the papers, as
did his high-society status as a New York institution, commemorated on
film by another New York institution, Woody Allen, who featured the
pianist in "Hannah and Her Sisters." His elegance in a dinner jacket,
his insouciance with a song, all received their due. But his salient
contribution to society high, low and otherwise went completely
That contribution was the leading role Bobby Short played in saving the
American popular song. Once upon a time, the music Bobby Short played
for the mink-and-mimosa set the marvelously vital and enchanting
songs of Rodgers and Hart, Cole Porter, the Gershwins, Noel Coward,
Frank Loesser, Duke Ellington, Harold Arlen and many others flowed
along just fine in the meat-and-potatoes mainstream, dancing GIs
included. Then came the rock 'n' roll flood that washed away everything
that came before it. "I barely kept the wolf from the door!" Bobby Short
told one reporter, recalling the 1960s as the most difficult time in his
life. But just as the Irish monks on their windy crags preserved the
texts of Western civilization through the Dark Ages, Bobby Short at his
piano in the Cafe Carlyle on the Upper East Side of Manhattan preserved
the American standard through the Rock Ages albeit more glamorously.
Twice a night, five nights a week, six months a year, starting in 1968
the year of the Tet Offensive, "Hair" and Richard Nixon Bobby
Short played, sang and breathed life into the American popular songbook
that the new rock culture had slammed shut.
And he didn't just play, sing and breathe life into the 100 most
familiar songs of the genre the showstoppers and signature tunes that
make up the less adventurous repertoires of more pedestrian performers.
On the contrary, Bobby Short sought out tunes no one had heard before
(and there are hundreds) or at least hadn't heard since the 1930s
when they were cut from the overlong scores of pre-Broadway shows
playing out of town. On sides one through four of "Bobby Short Loves
Cole Porter," for example, he never sings the familiar Porter tunes
"Night and Day" or "I Get a Kick Out of You," but he does sing the
freshly effervescent "Rap Tap on Wood," "How's Your Romance?" and "Let's
Fly Away." His albums and set lists always contained some "new" gem,
something a musicologist might have dug out of the vaults. Indeed, along
with the unsurpassable zest and grace that made him a dazzling
performer, Bobby Short approached the pop oeuvre with the care and
diligence of the archivist.
Sure, the modern mainstream left Bobby Short high and dry. But having
managed to paddle into the posh pond of the Carlyle, he was able to lure
all the big fish in New York the movers and socials, the royals and
shakers to hear him play the songs he so infectiously adored. (And
me. I got there twice.) That swank boite of a living laboratory kept
this music going, endowing it with presence and cachet in a time
otherwise dead to it. I'm not sure anyone else could have done it.
Younger cabaret singers notwithstanding, I'm not sure anyone else can do
Bobby Short, R.I.P. "Easy Come, Easy Go"? (As that song by Eddie Heyman
and Johnny Green says.) Hardly. This was, as Cole Porter's tune states,
"At Long Last Love." And, to borrow a title from a new (to me) Rodgers
and Hart song, "How Can You Forget?"
One more thing. Heading uptown to see Bobby Short may well have been a bow to Western civ, but a pilgrimage to the Carlyle was nothing but fun.
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© 2005 Diana West