Cabaret singer Bobby Short, the tuxedoed embodiment of New York style and sophistication who was a fixture at his piano in the Carlyle Hotel for more than 35 years, died this morning (March 21). He was 80.
Short, whose career stretched more than 70 years, died of leukemia at New York Presbyterian Hospital, said publicist Virginia Wicks. The hospital did not immediately return a call seeking further detail.
As times changed and popular music shifted from Sinatra to Springsteen to Snoop Dogg, Short remained irrevocably devoted to the “great American songbook”: songs by Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, the Gershwins, Billy Strayhorn and Harold Arlen.
With his classic songs and suave presence, he entertained thousands over the years in the Carlyle’s Upper East Side boite. In 2003, he celebrated his 35th anniversary there. His fans inevitably included New York’s rich and famous: Norman Mailer and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in the ’70s, Barbara Walters and Dominick Dunne in the new millennium.
He planned to make this his final year at the Carlyle, but was far from retiring. “He wanted to be able to travel and accept engagement[s] in different parts of the world,” Wicks said.
Short, despite his veneration of the classics, was no nostalgia act. His musical taste, like his smooth voice and elegant wardrobe, was always impeccable. As an ambassador of vintage songs, Short played the White House for presidents Nixon, Carter, Reagan and Clinton. “My audience,” he once said, “expects a certain amount of sophistication when they are coming to hear me.”
When Short first played the Cafe Carlyle in 1968, the Vietnam War was raging and Mayor John Lindsay was in City Hall. The quintessential “saloon singer” remained through another five administrations, becoming as familiar a New York landmark as the Empire State Building or Central Park.
He appeared in the movies “Hannah and Her Sisters” and “Splash,” along with the television miniseries “Roots” and the program “In the Heat of the Night.”
Robert Waltrip Short was born Sept. 15, 1924, the ninth of 10 children in a musically inclined family. By age 4, he was playing by ear at the well-worn family piano, recreating songs heard on the radio.
By age 9, the self-taught pianist was performing in saloons around his Danville, Ill., home to earn extra money during the Depression. Even then, his material included Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady.”
Within two years, Short graduated to playing Chicago under his nickname, the “Miniature King of Swing.”
Short played the vaudeville circuit in the Midwest and by age 12, he was headlining Manhattan nightclubs and regular engagements at the Apollo Theater. But Short, afraid of missing out on his youth, returned to his hometown and his high school.
Four years later, a still-teenage Short was back performing; by 1948, he had a regular gig at a tony Los Angeles club, the Cafe Gala. Three years there left Short in what he called “a velvet rut,” and he left the United States for gigs in London and Paris. His success overseas led to an album for Atlantic Records.
During the ’60s, Short’s audience began to shrink. The Beatles and the British Invasion dominated music; suburban flight and urban crime cut into the nightclub business.
He overcome those woes in 1968 with an extraordinary concert featuring singer Mabel Mercer in Manhattan’s Town Hall; their live album became a success. He signed a deal with the Cafe Carlyle in the same year: six nights a week, eight months a year at the lounge inside the posh East 76th Street hotel.
Short, who never married, lived on Sutton Place in Manhattan, sharing an apartment overlooking the East River with his pets. He is survived by his adopted son Ronald Bell and brother Reginald Short, both of California, Wicks said.
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