Bobby Short was much more than a saloon singer

Posted: Mar 28, 2005 12:00 AM

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 unmentioned.

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 it now.

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.