Short on Music, Long on Charm
John Amodeo speaks with the legendary BOBBY SHORT about his beginnings, influences, and upcoming performance at Scullers Jazz Club.
Such is his living legacy that in an episode of Cheers, Frasier didn't want to take his son to see a children's entertainer and quipped, "I'll wait till he's 25 and able to enjoy Bobby Short instead." Had Frasier waited just a few more years before leaving for Seattle, he'd have been able to take his son to see Bobby Short and His Orchestra in Boston at the chic riverside nightspot Scullers Jazz Club, where the irrepressible pianist/singer will be appearing for three nights in April.
In a career spanning six decades, Short has come a great distance from his modest upbringing in Danville, Illinois. Born in 1924, the second youngest child in a family of ten, Short grew up during the Depression. His father was a miner in Kentucky, his mother a domestic. He recalls in his autobiography, The Life and Times of a Saloon Singer, that the parlor was filled with "the ugliest furniture in the world, but somehow it had style." And there was the ebony-finished Walworth upright, on which a four-year-old Bobby Short picked out his first song, Jerome Kern's "Who Stole My Heart Away."
After knocking people out at his first recital at the local Second Baptist Church, the ten-year-old prodigy began playing in saloons to help with the household expenses. Discovered by an agent who clad him in white tails and booked him on a Midwest tour, the young musician was sending home reviews from Variety before he was 12. Exposed to the sounds of Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman, Short absorbed the popular music of the day and played it back in his own inimitably honest style. Today, his trademark is the freshness of interpretation he brings to popular standards from the Great American Songbook. As Sidney Zion of the New York Daily News wrote, "Nobody sings Cole Porter like Bobby Short, and nobody sings Duke Ellington better either."
Among the many composers and musicians who influenced Short, Duke Ellington's name is most prominent. Short explains, "In the 1930s, pop music was at its peak. I had so many influences: Cab Calloway, Art Tatum, Mabel Mercer. But more than all the others, there was the Duke. He was a fine piano player, but more than that, there was his character and elegant persona. His seriousness and sophistication were what most impressed me."
During his enduring and illustrious career, Short has also performed at the White House, regaling the administrations of Nixon, Carter, Reagan, and Clinton with his uniquely sophisticated style. Over the years, reviewers have not stinted on superlatives. Recently Stephen Holden from The New York Times described, "When Mr. Short lights a musical match, he casts a spell that infuses the tiny Cafe Carlyle with the exuberance of a private party at which everyone present shares his sense of the preciousness of the moment and of life's fleeting pleasures." Yet, in 1997, Whitney Ballie of The New Yorker observed that Short "has been edging steadily away from his jolly, shouting Cole Porter mode to being a kind of jazz singer who likes to perform slow, late-night husky-voiced versions of 'Body and Soul.'"
To the latter, Short counters with: "Critics can be shallow sometimes in their evaluation of a performer. Yes, as I've gotten older. I'd like to think that I've grown more intense, more philosophical, more knowing. But nothing is more boring than sitting through an hour of heartbreak and misery. I am aware of the downside of life, but more than that, I am aware of my role as an entertainer. People come to see me to be entertained, to escape from their problems."
In a gesture that further counters Ballie's criticism, Short has expanded his trio to a nine-piece band that now includes three saxophones, trumpet and trombone. He will be bringing this lively ensemble with him for his show at Scullers. When asked to describe what his Boston show will be like, he responds, "I don't like to label a show. I generally just put some songs together that I think will work for an audience and for me."