Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music
(b Robert Waltrip Short, 15 Sep. '24, Danville IL; d 21 March 2005, NYC, of leukemia) Pianist, cabaret singer. The ninth of ten children ('There were never more than seven of us alive at any one time'), his father was a coal miner who died c'35; Short left home at age eleven with his mother's permission to perform in Chicago, then briefly NYC ('I became the colored counterpart of Bobby Breen'), went home and finished high school (but did not graduate: he flunked typing). Influenced by Bing Crosby, Ivie Anderson and Fats Waller on the radio as a child, he met and worked opposite Nat Cole and Art Tatum in places like Omaha; then influenced by Hildegarde's act in Milwaukee early '40s because she had the 'slickest' act he'd ever seen, he was further infuenced by meeting Mabel Mercer and pianist Cy Walter. People kept bringing him obscure songs, and with a tremulous baritone subject to laryngitis and a slight rhythmic insecurity at the piano lending urgency and bounce, he became a walking Smithsonian of the golden age of American popular song, a nonpareil discoverer and interpreter of lesser-known works of Rodgers and Hart, Cole Porter, Vernon Duke and the rest. He worked at the Blue Angel in NYC for four weeks as an opening act, then to the West Coast at the Haig, then chic Café Gala '48-54; then back to NYC with help from columnist Dorothy Kilgallen and a record contract with Atlantic. Wider fame came with regular appearances on the first Playboy TV series c'60: people tuned in hoping to see lots of Bunnies, but instead got then-new comedy from Phyllis Diller and a generous set of forgotten masterpieces with great lyrics from Short.
The bottom dropped out of the night-club business by the mid-'60s and Short wasn't working much; then he replaced pianist George Feyer at Manhattan's Café Carlyle (recommended by Atlantic's Ertegun brothers) and worked there six or eight months a year for 35 years. He often made best-dressed lists and had also modelled; he worked with his friend Gloria Vanderbilt early '80s when she went into designer clothes. Atlantic LPs included Mad About Noël Coward, The Mad Twenties; with Mercer At Town Hall, Second Town Hall Concert; two-disc sets Bobby Short Loves Cole Porter (made top 200 albums '72), Celebrates Rodgers And Hart, Krazy For Gershwin, Live At Cafe Carlyle, Moments Like This, My Personal Property (reissues and compilations on Rhino). Later albums: Guess Who's In Town: The Lyrics Of Andy Razaf on Rhino; Late Night At The Cafe Carlisle '91, Swing That Music '93, Songs Of New York '95 all on Telarc. A charming autobiography Black And White Baby '71 was about his first 17 years; The Life And Times Of A Saloon Singer '95 with Robert Mackintosh added nothing new, the book a victim of old-school gentility.