On rare occasions in popular culture, a figure arises to transcend the spatial and temporal parameters of celebrity. Be it though artistic talent, marketability, charisma or a combination of the three, such an individual becomes legendary in and beyond his respective time, engendering all the best personal and professional traits imaginable. Bobby Short was one of these special men.
The legacy of Bobby Short is even greater than that of an iconic performer however; he was an institution in the world of cabaret entertainment, and a fixture on the glitzy New York City social scene for three and a half decades. Although he will always be recognized as the long-standing voice of the Carlyle Hotel, his illustrious career had begun in earnest many years before he donned his trademark tuxedo and settled into the luxurious Upper East Side confines.
Barely out of the toddler stage, Short began playing the piano by mimicking songs he heard in his home and on the radio. He soon became skilled enough to regularly perform around the Midwest at countless saloons and gin mills, eventually graduating to the decidedly more polished New York and Los Angeles nightclub circuits. His pre-teenage travels returned him to his native Danville, Illinois to finish high school, then back to California and then on to Europe.
Impressive as his childhood career was, what is often forgotten about Short is his uncompromising commitment to his craft. During the post-war years of the late 1940s and early 1950s, the waves of boogie-woogie and early rock ‘n’ roll began to wash across the nation, with keyboard stars emerging quickly as each fledgling genre spread. Despite the growing swells of popularity enjoyed by the likes of Fats Domino, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis, Short stayed true to himself and his piano by increasing his mastery of classic music and delighting audiences as he channeled the spirits of Cole Porter, George Gershwin and Noël Coward into every show. He survived a massive shift in overall consumer interest during the Vietnam years, but his unwavering dedication to his art paid off handsomely in 1968 when he signed on with the Carlyle Hotel’s Café Carlyle, beginning a 35-year odyssey of grueling yet satisfying performance schedules, originally consisting of six evenings per week and eight months each year.
Short’s prowess as a musician also served to bridge divergent and conflicted musical time periods. Linking the glorious past of Duke Ellington and Nat King Cole, Short brought cabaret into the modern age, from the turbulent ‘60s and easy listening ‘70s, through the video controlled ‘80s and ‘90s, and straight ahead into the new millennium. With his silky vocals and enchanted playing abilities, he entertained everyone from diplomats and foreign dignitaries to starlets and presidents; Bobby Short was the Piano Man long before Billy Joel appeared, and he never went out of style.
The magnitude of Short’s presence is evidenced not only by his remarkably long career, but by his stature amongst the exclusive Gotham elite. A black entertainer blending seamlessly with white glitterati would have been impossible for anyone else, yet Short was welcomed into the inner sanctum, and he entered with grace and style becoming not only a fixture with New York’s social aristocracy, but also a face representative of the city itself.
While the magic of Bobby Short could easily be relegated to his musical talents and staying power, he was far more than a technically gifted entertainer. He possessed an impish wit, a contagious effervescence and a sophisticated (albeit understated) cool that endeared him to generations of fans. He represented refinement in an increasingly coarse and vulgar world, without a hint of arrogance or condescension. If there ever lived an individual who could accurately be described as elegant, it was Bobby Short.
As we bid farewell to this priceless treasure of a man, let us remember the fleeting glimpses of commercialized musical royalty we’ve been exposed to, Elvis Presley as the King of Rock and Michael Jackson as the King of Pop, and realize that Bobby Short was far beyond regal classification…
He was simply irreplaceable…