HOLLYWOOD — Cabaret singer and pianist Bobby Short, an icon of Cafe Society and the musical personification of class, died Monday of leukemia at New York Presbyterian Hospital. He was 80.
Considered a New York landmark in the class of the Empire State Building, Short performed at the Cafe Carlyle for more than 35 years, performing five or six nights a week in blocks of up to four months at a time.
A self-taught pianist and a singer with limited range, Short won over auds during the rock era with his ebullient personality, a love of music and the classics from the Great American Songbook. He had planned to make this year his last at the Carlyle, telling Daily Variety‘s Army Archerd last year: “I think it’s time to spend more time to be able to travel, see theater and friends.”
Born Robert Waltrip Short, the ninth of 10 children, he was playing the piano by at age 4 and by 9 performing in saloons near his home in Danville, Ill.
Short quickly graduated to playing the vaudeville circuit of St. Louis, Milwaukee and Kansas City, where he was dubbed the miniature king of swing. At 12, he became a headliner at Manhattan nightclubs and appeared regularly at the Apollo Theater. Despite all his success, Short returned home to attend high school; once he finished, he was back to performing.
After World War II and deep into the 1960s, Short found gigs from Los Angeles to Europe, where he made his first recording, “Songs by Bobby Short,” for Atlantic in 1955. He recorded regularly for Atlantic until 1963 and as rock ‘n’ roll dominated the charts and nightclubs, Short found fewer and fewer places to perform.
In 1968, after a well-received concert with singer Mabel Mercer at Town Hall, Short signed with the Cafe Carlyle to play six nights a week, eight months a year at the lounge inside the posh East 76th Street hotel. While ensconced there, Short became known for his interpretations of works by Cole Porter, Noel Coward and especially George Gershwin, covering the popular as well as the obscure.
Variety’s first review of Short at the Carlyle, in March 1969, praised him for his phrasing, “witty piano” and his “care and feeding of neglected legit tunes. … Charming, urbane and sophisticated, he puts his carriage trade patrons at their ease.”
It was in the 1980s when Short’s importance as a Manhattan fixture started to gain notice. He appeared with Gloria Vanderbilt in television ads in 1980 and appeared in the films “Hannah and Her Sisters,” “Splash” and HBO’s “Blue Ice” with Michael Caine. He played himself in a number of TV shows, first in an episode of “The Love Boat” and most recently on the WB’s “7th Heaven.” Short also played the White House for Presidents Nixon, Carter, Reagan and Clinton.
Short made six albums for Telarc in the 1990s and was nominated twice for a Grammy: in 1993 for “Late Night at the Cafe Carlyle” and seven years later for “You’re the Top: Love Songs of Cole Porter.”
“I’ve survived in the city of New York, not an easy thing to achieve,” Short once told the Associated Press. “Most of the dreams I’ve had for myself have come true. I wanted to come to New York and become successful and work in a smart room and make recordings. I guess I wanted to be famous in a kind of way. I wanted to have money.'”
While suffering from a vocal problem in 1970, Short began work on an autobiography, “Black and White Baby.” In 1995, he updated his memoirs with “Bobby Short: The Life and Times of a Saloon Singer.'”
He suffered a fall in 2003 during a visit to Los Angeles and was rushed to Cedars-Sinai. At that time he was diagnosed and treated for neuropathy.
Short, who had homes in New York and Mougins, France, was the founder and president of the Duke Ellington Memorial Fund, whose sole purpose is to create a monument to the late composer at the northeast corner of Central Park in New York City.
Short, who never married, is survived by his adopted son Ronald Bell and brother Reginald Short.