A Conversation with Bobby Short
New York cabaret legend Bobby Short died Monday of leukemia at age 80. The singer performed at New York's Carlyle Hotel for nearly four decades. Short was born in Danville, Ill., and began his career at age 9, known as "The Miniature King of Swing." He was named a Living Landmark by New York's Landmark Conservancy and a National Living Legend by the Library of Congress.
Other segments from the episode on March 21, 2005
DATE March 21, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Bobby Short talks about his life and his music
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
An era of cabaret has come to a close. The king of cabaret singers, Bobby
Short, died earlier this morning at the age of 80. He was beloved for his
performances of music by songwriters like Cole Porter, Rodgers & Hart, the
Gershwins and Noel Coward. He knew all the favorites, but he also performed
many lesser-known songs, songs that his fans were grateful for learning. The
elegant Manhattan club the Cafe Carlyle had been his home for part of nearly
every year since 1968.
This was going to be his final year there. He had finished a series of
performances in February, planned to return in the spring and fall and give
his farewell performance New Year's Eve. It wasn't until last Wednesday that
he was diagnosed with leukemia. I spoke with Bobby Short last June, a few
days before concluding his spring season at the Carlyle. We're going to
listen back to that interview. We opened with this 1973 version of a Gershwin
(Soundbite of "Our Love is Here to Stay")
Mr. BOBBY SHORT: (Singing) It's very clear our love is here to stay, not for
a year, but ever and a day. The radio and the telephone and the movies that
we know may just be passing fancies and in time may go, but oh, my dear, our
love is here to stay. Together we're going a long, long way. In time the
Rockies may crumble, Gibraltar may tumble, they're only made of clay, but our
love is here to stay.
GROSS: Bobby Short, welcome to FRESH AIR. You're retiring from the Carlyle.
Why did you decide to leave after so many years?
Mr. SHORT: Well, I think--you know, I'm going to be 80 years old in
September, and I think it's time to stop and...
GROSS: Wow. I didn't realize that.
Mr. SHORT: Yes, indeed. I think it's time to stop and figure out what you
want to do with your life, you know.
GROSS: Have you ever been bored at the Carlyle and felt like, `Oh, God, been
there, done that'?
Mr. SHORT: Well, not bored. I mean, but work is work. I learned that a
long time ago. And sometimes, even though you love your work--and I love my
work--there are moments when you'd simply rather be at home or someplace else.
GROSS: I want to quote something that you wrote in your first memoir, "Black
and White Baby," and that book starts, `I am a Negro who has never lived in
the South, thank God, nor was I ever trapped in an urban ghetto. I grew up in
Danville, Illinois, where my family always lived on a pleasant street in a
pleasant neighborhood.' Would you describe that neighborhood that you grew up
Mr. SHORT: Well, in Danville at that time, there were two sections of town
that allowed Negroes to buy or rent property, and we lived in the north
end. That was considered rather a snobbish end of town because the east end
was where the Negroes first settled in Danville, and it was kind of run-down.
We had a nice paved street, and about six blocks, I think, there were six
square blocks where Negroes could buy or rent a house to live in. That's the
way it was. That, of course, has all been broken down since. But in those
days, the enclave was just those six square blocks, and it was a pleasant
street, paved with brick, and lots of trees in front yards and back yards, and
people saying `How do you do?' as they walked down the sidewalk every day.
GROSS: Now your wrote in your book, `There weren't enough black people to
threaten the labor market, affect real estate prices or rock the boat.' But
did you feel like you were supposed to stay in your place, that, you know,
that there were things that you weren't supposed to do?
Mr. SHORT: Well, there were things I wasn't supposed to do, but I never felt
like staying in my place. That's never been my thing at all.
Mr. SHORT: I didn't know what my place was, quite frankly. I behaved as
though there were no place.
GROSS: Now what was the first piano that you played? Where was it, at home?
Mr. SHORT: It was called a Walworth, W-A-L-W-O-R-T-H, and it sat in my
GROSS: So did you actually have, like, parlor songs where people would sit
around the parlor and play and sing?
Mr. SHORT: Well, yes, we sang, and sat around the parlor and sang songs all
the time. Entertainment was quite different from what it is today, you know,
and people entertained at home.
GROSS: Did your mother have a Victrola?
Mr. SHORT: Oh, yes, we had to have that. That was obligatory, a Victrola
and lots of records, and she kept a very, very strict eye upon what kind of
records we bought, too.
GROSS: Like what...
Mr. SHORT: You couldn't bring in...
Mr. SHORT: ...Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters singing the blues.
GROSS: Did you like that?
Mr. SHORT: I didn't know the other part of Ethel Waters and Bessie Smith. I
didn't know about Bessie Smith's records until I was, I suppose, 17 years old.
GROSS: You know, it's funny...
Mr. SHORT: We were shielded...
GROSS: ...because you were playing in roadhouses by then. I mean...
Mr. SHORT: Yes, of course I was.
GROSS: It's funny that you needed to be protected from Bessie Smith when you
were kind of living that life yourself.
Mr. SHORT: Absolutely, without even knowing it.
GROSS: How old were you when you started performing in saloons and
Mr. SHORT: I think in Danville, I must have been nine years old, and it was
hard. It was very--Depression time, and every penny counted for a lot, and we
had one thing going for us. That was our pride, you know. So my mother, with
gritted teeth, allowed me to go out with some young men who were friends of
friends. My mother knew their parents, and I would play the piano in the
roadhouses with them and earn three or four dollars on a Saturday night.
GROSS: So was that why you were performing, because the family needed money?
Mr. SHORT: I performed for two reasons, Terry. I performed mainly to please
myself, because I was dying to perform in front of other people, and it had a
practical side, too, because I earned the three or four dollars. And that
went very, very far with our household expenses.
GROSS: What songs were you singing when you were performing at the age of
nine in bars?
Mr. SHORT: Oh, popular songs of the day. I knew all the standards, like
"Nagasaki" and "Nobody's Sweetheart Now" and "Glad Rag Doll" and all the
popular ballads of the day, and of course, all the Bing Crosby songs from
GROSS: Now how were you treated as a child performing in places where alcohol
was served? Did people take you under their wing? Did they try to protect
you or try to initiate you into things that children aren't supposed to know
Mr. SHORT: Well, that's an interesting question. I think that in those
times, there was much more innocence abroad than there is today, and I was
never taken advantage of by an adult. I was approached by somebody and asked
if I were ever molested sexually when I was a child, and of course, the answer
was a flat `No.' I guess it went on, but it didn't happen in my case. I was
protected because my fellow musicians were all boys, grown men, I suppose, in
their young, early 20s, and they had a responsibility because I was, after
all, the son of a friend of their parents.
GROSS: So everybody knew each other.
Mr. SHORT: That's right.
GROSS: And I know your mother didn't approve of hard liquor. How did she
feel about you performing in places where people drank?
Mr. SHORT: Well, she was of two minds again, you see. It's like Eubie
Blake's old story. He used to play the piano as a very, very young kid in a
brothel somewhere, and the news of it got around to his father, and his father
asked him one day, and he said, `Yes, it's true, I'm playing in this brothel,'
and the father finally said, `Well, how much are they paying you?' The mother
was totally against it. But I think the bucks up front changed the father's
GROSS: Now did you get to see people behaving in extreme ways because they
Mr. SHORT: Oh, my God, yes.
Mr. SHORT: Oh, yes. I saw drunk people, of course, and I saw people on the
dance floor making perfect fools of themselves.
GROSS: Did you think adults were really crazy, or did you think alcohol makes
Mr. SHORT: Well, I knew that. There was drinking in our family. My mother
loathed alcohol, never did allow it in the house, but she had a sister and
brother who rather liked it. They would come to the house to visit, and I
would see what it did to people. I don't know. I think I looked askance at
all this free behavior and so forth. It never occurred to me to ever partake
of it. I mean, I was just an onlooker.
GROSS: Did you ever drink?
Mr. SHORT: Oh, of course I drank. I had to drink. We all drank, because it
was stylish, and I even smoked, you know. I had the whole accoutrement. I
had the cigarette lighter, the holder, all of that stuff which makes you feel
very sophisticated when you're, you know, 20 years old.
GROSS: Let's pause here and listen to one of your performances. I thought we
could play one of your early performances from the mid-'50s. How about the
Cole Porter song "Dream Dancing," which is a beautiful song? Not many
people do it. It's the kind of thing we look to you for, you know, to find
the lesser-known songs by the great composers. Would you talk a little bit
about this song or about Cole Porter? Did you know Cole Porter?
Mr. SHORT: I knew Cole Porter, yes, and I think that song's from the film
called "You'll Never Get Rich," which starred Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth.
GROSS: And just tell us a little bit about meeting Cole Porter. Did you know
him well, or...
Mr. SHORT: Well, there are those who knew him much better. I met Cole Porter
in a very formal situation. I was accompanying a young girl who was going to
audition for the role of Bianca in the road company of "Kiss Me Kate." This
was 1948. And Porter was there to hold the audition, and he had apparently
seen me before, performing in a small club in Los Angeles, and he addressed me
in the familiar. He said, `Bobby, what do you sing from the show?' Of
course, I was doing "Too Darn Hot." He said, `Do it for me.' So I did it for
him, and years later I came to New York and performed "Too Darn Hot" in a
revival of "Kiss Me Kate" with Kitty Carlisle.
GROSS: Did he ever give you advice on performing his songs, or did he ever...
Mr. SHORT: No, he never did.
GROSS: ...criticize you?
Mr. SHORT: And he was always delighted that I played his songs. I think in
that era, he was really quite a humble person and never missed a chance to
cross the room and say, `Thank you very much.'
GROSS: OK. Well, this is Bobby Short, recorded in 1957, performing Cole
Porter's "Dream Dancing," and Bobby Short is singing and at the piano.
(Soundbite of "Dream Dancing")
Mr. SHORT: (Singing) When day is gone and night comes on, until the dawn
what do I do? I touch your hand and wander through slumber land, dream
dancing with you. We glide between a sky serene and fields of green sparkling
with dew. It's joy sublime whenever I spend my time dream dancing with you.
Dream dancing, oh, what a lucky windfall, touching you, clutching you, all the
night through. So say you love me, dear, and let me make my career dream
dancing, to paradise prancing, dream dancing with you. Dream dancing, oh,
what a lucky windfall, touching you, clutching you all the night through. So
say you love me, dear, and let me make my career dream dancing, to paradise
prancing, dream dancing with you.
GROSS: Bobby Short singing Cole Porter's "Dream Dancing," recorded in 1957.
Short died early this morning. We'll hear more of our interview from 2004
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of "Tea for Two" on piano)
GROSS: The great cabaret singer and pianist Bobby Short died early this
morning of leukemia at the age of 80. We're listening back to an interview we
recorded last June.
Well, when we left off, we were talking about you being a child performing in
saloons and roadhouses, then you moved on to the vaudeville circuit. Who were
some of the people you shared the bill with?
Mr. SHORT: Well, I shared the bill with a number of wonderful
bandleaders--Fletcher Henderson, Don Redman, Bunny Berrigan--and a lot of
interesting people who were called stars in those days. I worked with Chuck &
Chuckles, and I worked with Pigmeat Markham at the Apollo here in New York. I
worked with the Three Stooges in Rhode Island, at Providence, and Irene
Taylor, who was a marvelous Paul Whiteman singer, in Kansas City. It was an
interesting time, because I learned a lot in vaudeville.
GROSS: Were you just billed as Bobby Short, or were you billed as like, `That
amazing child prodigy, Bobby Short'?
Mr. SHORT: Oh, you know I had all of that going for me. It was child
prodigy, the miniature king of swing, the wonder boy, all of that.
GROSS: This most sophisticated 10-year-old in America.
Mr. SHORT: Oh, yes, yes, yes.
GROSS: Were you like the supersophisticated child?
Mr. SHORT: I don't think I was sophisticated. I think that children in show
business are necessarily more aware of things than other children are but I
didn't call myself sophisticated. I mean, how could I have done that?
GROSS: I don't know. Were you wearing tails and tuxes and stuff?
Mr. SHORT: I wore white tails, yes, and...
GROSS: Did you love that?
Mr. SHORT: White tails and little white pumps, and I was--oh, I was the cat's
GROSS: Did you love wearing that?
Mr. SHORT: Well, I did, but you know something? As I said before, work is
work and there were many days when I was doing vaudeville when I wished I were
out playing baseball, or running with my friends in the streets, you know.
There I was in a white tail suit, performing four times a day, sometimes five
times a day, and in strange cities with no friends my age, and it became a job
GROSS: Right. But you still loved--you still knew you were in the right
Mr. SHORT: I loved the adulation, but I was totally sensitive, though, to
criticism, and the--How can I put it?--the rigor involved with it. Doing a
show four times a day is not easy for a grown-up, and for a kid, it's doubly
hard, I think.
GROSS: Did you get a lot of reviews, and did you read them?
Mr. SHORT: I got my reviews and I read them, and I took them to heart very
often, which is something else that's dangerous for a child, you know, to read
in stark black-and-white business terms just how well your performance has
gone over. That's not always the most comforting thing in the world. I read
these reviews, and I worried about them.
GROSS: So when you're a child and you're getting reviews, it's like the
ultimate report card.
Mr. SHORT: It is, indeed. I came from a very, very good scholastic
background in Danville with excellent schools, public schools, and I was used
to getting report cards and I was a pretty good student. So to be criticized
for my performance was something else to contend with. I also had to contend
with the--How can I put it?--I suppose the nomenclature of the day regarding
performers and the color of their skin and so forth. I mean, every chance the
people had in reviewing my act I was referred to as a mulatto child or a
12-year-old Negro, Bobby Breen. I mean, gone are the days, but in those
days it was very, very important to be identified by the color of your skin.
GROSS: How did you react to that?
Mr. SHORT: Well, my mother instilled in me a tremendous amount of pride, and
skin color never meant very much to me. I got myself into a lot of trouble, I
suppose, because it didn't mean that much to me. I felt I was just as good as
anybody else, and so I read that, and I think that, reading that, reading
those reviews, did lend me a certain kind of sophistication. I was able to
understand that doing their job, they had to point out the good points and the
other points of this performer, like breeding a horse, you know, his gait, his
color, his parentage, all of that. And so I'm a performer, a working person.
People had to know that I was 12 years old, that I had brown skin and I was
GROSS: That's creepy.
Mr. SHORT: Very important.
GROSS: What a really creepy way of comparing--like to compare yourself to a
horse like that.
Mr. SHORT: Well, but you're--because I think the horse has to work for you,
and we are--you know, this was a business, I was a business vehicle. Do you
GROSS: Oh, yeah. No, I understand. Right, and you had promoters and
Mr. SHORT: Yeah.
Mr. SHORT: And so the salient aspects of myself were...
Mr. SHORT: ...very, very important to these people. They had to know all
GROSS: That's a lot to take on as a child.
Mr. SHORT: I think it is, and I think that I was aware of all of that...
Mr. SHORT: ...and it was a great deal of--it was very heavy.
GROSS: Were there performers who kind of took you under their wing and showed
you the ropes, helped you out, helped keep your spirits up when you got tired
Mr. SHORT: Well, you know, I was a baby. I was 12 or 13 years old, and we'd
get into a town, a new town, to do a week in vaudeville, and by the end of the
first two or three days, I was the pet of the entire backstage crew, the
wardrobe lady, the choreographer, the other performers on the bill. I mean,
rarely did I find a performer who was not helpful, was not delighted to see
me. I remember I worked with the Three Stooges in Providence, Rhode Island,
and they were really and truly on my back, I tell you. They couldn't stand
Mr. SHORT: But I've since learned that back in those days, people in
vaudeville came from very, very interesting backgrounds. Many of them had had
very little education, and they were filled with all kinds of prejudices and a
lot of superstition and insecurities. And here was this little smart-aleck
kid, you know, going out and getting applause. I mean, it wasn't always an
GROSS: Now you write in one of your memoirs that when you were growing up,
you had this Protestant upbringing. You weren't exposed to Catholics, you
weren't exposed to Jewish people and you didn't meet any Jews until you went
into show business. And then you ended up going to Catholic school even
though you were Protestant. That must have been really interesting for you.
Mr. SHORT: It was very funny. I went to Catholic school because the nuns
would allow me to take off for a week at a time.
GROSS: Oh, was that why you went there?
Mr. SHORT: Yes. The public school would not let me do that.
GROSS: Oh. So this was like...
Mr. SHORT: But the...
GROSS: ...your equivalent of professional children's school, was going to
Mr. SHORT: Yes, believe me. So short of hiring a private tutor, the
Catholic school was the best bet, and so I went there for a year, covering a
year and a half's work in public school and graduated, you know, a year ahead
GROSS: Bobby Short recorded in June. He died this morning at the age of 80
of leukemia. We'll hear the rest of our interview in the second half of the
show. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. SHORT: (Singing) It was just one of those feelings, just one of those...
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. SHORT: One, two, one, two.
GROSS: Coming up Bobby Short talks about some of the songwriters he knew, as
we continue our interview from 2004. Also, Maureen Corrigan reviews Anne
Lamott's new book "Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith."
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. SHORT: (Singing) You've got that thing. You've got that thing. The
thing that makes birds refuse to sing. You've got that thing, that certain
thing. You've got that charm, that subtle charm that makes young farmers
desert the farm. You've got that thing, yes that certain thing. You've got
what Adam craved when he was lost, for Eve was tortured. She only had an
apple tree, but you, you got an orchard. You've got those ways, those taken
ways that make me rush off to Cartier's for a wedding ring, 'cause you've got
that thing. You've got those looks, those fatal looks that make book censors
enjoy their books. You got that thing...
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
The great cabaret singer and pianist Bobby Short died early this morning at
the age of 80. He had been feeling sick and was diagnosed with leukemia last
week. This was supposed to be his final year at the elegant Cafe Carlyle in
Manhattan, where he'd performed for part of nearly every year since 1968. He
planned on giving his final performance New Year's Eve.
Before we get back to the interview we recorded in 2004, let's hear Bobby
Short singing "How Can You Face Me," by Andy Razaf and Fats Waller. They also
wrote "Honeysuckle Rose" and "Ain't Misbehavin'." This is from Short's 1986
album of "Songs by Andy Razaf."
(Soundbite of "How Can You Face Me")
Mr. SHORT: (Singing) Love 'em, leave 'em, and deceive 'em seems to be your
game. My romance was just your new affair. I was happy, oh, so happy, till
the awakening came. But now I know I was a fool to care. How can you face me
after what I've gone through all on account of you, tearing my heart in two?
Have you no conscience? How could you be so bold? Why have you grown so
cold, after the lies you told? No one now seems to be on the level, since I
found that my angel was just the devil. Why do I love you? Why did you teach
me how? After you broke each vow, how can you face me now?
GROSS: Now I know one of your early heroes was Fats Waller. Did you get to
meet Fats Waller or Andy Razaf?
Mr. SHORT: I knew Razaf quite well because we lived in the same neighborhood
in California some years ago. But Waller I just met one evening. I went
backstage to see him at the Field R.K.O. Palace Theater(ph) in Chicago and...
GROSS: How old were you then?
Mr. SHORT: Oh, I was 12, 13.
Mr. SHORT: And I was in vaudeville then. And my managers did one wonderful
thing for me, they took me around to meet all the great black vaudevillians.
I went to meet Ethel Waters. We just assumed that they would want to meet a
little boy who played the piano. And I went backstage to meet Fats Waller and
played the piano for some of his musicians. And Fats heard about it and came
bustling out and was wonderful. He was delighted to see me and gave me $5 and
told jokes and exchanged lots of clever things with me, then took me out for
the evening to the Grand Terrace, a nightclub on the South Side. So I loved
GROSS: I want to ask you about your father. I know that, you know, he did
several things in his lifetime, including working in a coal mine and running
an ice cream parlor. And you've said that when you were growing up, he'd kind
of visit the family twice a year because at that point he was--you were in
Danville and he was in Kentucky working in a mine. This was during the
Depression when work was hard to come by. Had he left the family, too? I
mean, was it just--was he gone just because of the job or were there other
Mr. SHORT: He was gone because of the job, but, you know, looking at it from
my standpoint now, all these years later--the whole thing was just
unfortunate. My mother was born in the South in Kentucky, as was my father,
in separate areas of the state. My mother could not bear the thought of
segregation or second-class citizenship and used to tell stories about people
being pushed off the sidewalks and this, that and the other, not to mention
other more terrible things like lynchings and hangings and so forth. And she
intended to raise her children in the North in Illinois. She loved the
thought of--a Jim Crow school would have defeated her whole purpose. My
father, on the other hand, begged her over and over again to move us all down
to Kentucky, and she ruined the marriage by refusing to go.
Mr. SHORT: But my hat's off to her.
GROSS: Now your father actually died in--was it a coal mining accident?
Mr. SHORT: Well, my father had quit the mines, actually. He was in charge of
what they called the bathhouse, an above-the-ground job. And he was doing
that, then for some reason he was sent down to the mines one day and was
Mr. SHORT: Hospitalized and lasted three or four days.
GROSS: Was there usually gas in the mines? I mean...
Mr. SHORT: There's always gas in the mines, I suppose, and that was a
perpetual kind of fear among coal miners.
GROSS: I see. How old were you?
Mr. SHORT: I was 11 when my father died.
GROSS: Did that put even more pressure on you to go out and keep performing?
Mr. SHORT: Well, I don't think it did. I didn't look at it that way at all.
When my father died, I'd already been out there in the saloons, earning money
and helping my mother. My mother, like many mothers in those days, white and
black, had to join the work force. I'd learned that many, many white families
had the same problems that we had, where a mother went out and got a job to
feed the children and pay the rent. She became a domestic.
GROSS: Right. So she was more pressured to get work, but you were already
Mr. SHORT: She was pressured. She was pressured to get work.
Mr. SHORT: And I had an older sister, who I think when my father died had
already landed a very, very nice clerical job in Danville and--so she threw in
some money. I had two older brothers and, you know, that's the way it went.
GROSS: In writing about your father in your book, you said that you didn't
really know him very well 'cause he wasn't home most of the time. But you
remember he was a great dresser. He had great clothes.
Mr. SHORT: Oh, he was wonderful-looking. He wore the most wonderful clothes,
and he was a handsome man, handsome devil, and was smart to go with it, had
the most beautiful handwriting and could write speeches just like that and was
respected for those talents. And I think he must have been a lousy
businessman, but he was a very elegant kind of man.
GROSS: We're listening to an interview with Bobby Short recorded last June.
He died early this morning at the age of 80. We'll hear the final part of the
interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: We're listening back to an interview recorded last year with the great
cabaret singer and pianist Bobby Short. He died this morning at the age of
80, of leukemia.
I want to pause here for another recording, and I thought this would be a good
time to hear something by the Gershwins. And I'm trying to play songs that
aren't terribly well-known, since I think part of what so many of us really
love you for is your ability to find songs we wouldn't necessarily come
across. So this is, you know, a relatively obscure Gershwin song which you've
recorded and I think probably played a lot, "Crazy For You."
Mr. SHORT: Oh, that's a good song.
GROSS: Oh, I know. Yeah. And this was the title track of an album of
Gershwin songs that you recorded. Did you know Ira Gershwin?
Mr. SHORT: Yes, I knew Ira. I met Ira. I spent lots of time with him.
GROSS: How did you meet?
Mr. SHORT: Well, it's very funny in that I was living in California back in
19--What was it?--19--I've forgotten, during the war, and an old friend of
theirs saw me at the Hollywood Canteen one night performing for the soldiers.
And he said, `I'm going to take you out to Ira Gershwin's house tonight.' It
was Sunday, and we drove out to Ira Gershwin's house and there sat Ira with a
bunch of friends, and I had something to eat and a drink and I played the
piano and sang for him. And that was that.
GROSS: Well, this is from one of your best-known albums, "Bobby Short is
Crazy For Gershwin." And this is "Crazy For You," also recorded in the 1950s.
So here we go, Bobby Short, vocals and piano.
(Soundbite of "Crazy For You")
Mr. SHORT: (Singing) Let me give you the lowdown. I'm crazy for you. When
it comes to a showdown, I'm crazy for you. And though the love may not
inspire my lingo, still it's making my heart go bango, bingo. Let me give you
the lowdown. I'm crazy for you.
(Soundbite of instrumental portion of song)
GROSS: That's Bobby Short playing the Gershwins' song "Crazy For You."
When did you start performing at the Cafe Carlyle?
Mr. SHORT: In 1968.
GROSS: Would you describe the first night? Do you have any memories of it?
Mr. SHORT: Oh, I think I can. You know, to earn a living in this town at the
the time I came in '56, it was comparatively easy, but it became less and less
easy. I arrived in this town as nightlife was beginning to ebb and big
institutions like the Plaza Hotel and the Waldorf and on and on and on were
gradually letting go of their entertainment rooms. And I went to work at a
room on the mezzanine floor of the Beverly Hotel at 50th and Lexington, and I
had a tremendous success there. I think I stayed 19 weeks or something, and I
got a very nice foothold in New York with lots of glamorous people around me,
Duke and Duchess of Windsor and Dorothy Kilgallen and so forth. And I was
always there for a very long time, 19 weeks, 25 weeks, 26 weeks. And the
rooms, though, began to thin out, and by 1968, I had gone through some rather
hard periods. There were no places in town to work. America was in the grip
of rock 'n' roll, which is not my thing at all.
Mr. SHORT: And I was having a pretty rough time. And I was working in a
place that had very, very, very--How can I put it?--cooperative and very
gentle owners of the living room, but the place itself was really kind of
dumpy. And I was working there twice a year. And one night my friend Ahmet
Ertegun brought Peter Sharp to hear me there. And Peter Sharp owned the
Carlyle Hotel. He'd just bought it. And so the rest of it is history.
GROSS: Oh, and Ahmet Ertegun was the head of Atlantic Records, which was your
Mr. SHORT: Yes, he was. Yes. I'd recorded for Ahmet, yes.
GROSS: Right. Now, you know, it's interesting; you had developed your
reputation, in part, you know, playing for, you know, royalty and for the real
glamorous set, and it got to the point where, like, you were the sophisticated
person, you were the glamorous one, you were the royalty that people came to
see. Do you know what I mean? Like, you come to New York, you have to go
hear Bobby Short because of, you know, what you came to represent.
Mr. SHORT: It's an interesting turnaround, isn't it?
GROSS: Yeah. Yeah, it is.
Mr. SHORT: If it's at all true.
GROSS: It was. I think it is. Did you ever feel like--that it was really
ironic that someone like you, who came from such a modest background, a little
neighborhood in Danville, Illinois, rose to kind of represent this, like, New
Mr. SHORT: Well, I think about people like Cole Porter from the little town
called Peru (pronounced puh-ROO), or Peru (pronounced PEE-rooh), it was
GROSS: Good point. Yeah. Good point.
Mr. SHORT: And think of Eleanor Lambert, who was a great fashion icon from
Indiana somewhere; Bill Blass from Indiana; Norman Norell, Indiana, small
town. It's kind of a story of America, is it not? I mean, it's the way
things work out.
GROSS: Now you have dressed in a very sophisticated way over the years. Is
there an era that you feel you became a fashion victim?
Mr. SHORT: Fashion victim?
GROSS: Yeah. Did you survive the '70s intact in terms of clothes?
Mr. SHORT: Well, I think--you know, looking back upon America and fashion,
there was a time when it was all taken so seriously. This has all to do with
rock 'n' roll. But I can recall when a man of a certain age did not dare
leave his house wearing a chesterfield. He had to put on some kind of
up-to-date, whoop-tee-do coat. He couldn't go out just dressed in a regular
business suit. It just wasn't the thing. Today, thank heaven, there is no
fashion as fashion around, and you can dress--you can wear what you want to
wear. You can wear an open-necked shirt, if you feel like it. I hate seeing
that in a nightclub or a high restaurant, but it does exist. Or you can be
dressed to the nines. It doesn't matter.
GROSS: Now I know when you were born, for some reason, your birth certificate
said that you were white and you didn't really discover that until you started
working as a child. Did you ever change that?
Mr. SHORT: Well, that's the funniest thing, because I went to Paris the first
time in 1952 and, of course, I required a passport. So I wrote to my mother
and said, `Send me my birth certificate so I can get this passport.' Well, it
came, letter perfect except that it said that I was white. My mother had
no--my mother was like this. She crossed out the `white' part and wrote in
her own hand, `colored.'
Mr. SHORT: Well, I knew that the crossed-out thing in her own hand was not
going to go very far with the authorities. So I wrote to them and I said,
`You made a mistake.' They had my real birth date, September 15th, and so the
passport came back. It listed me as a Negro, but the birth date was changed
to September 5th. At that point I thought, `To hell with it. I can't--I've
got to go to France.' So I didn't change it. So I had one date on my
passport and one date on my driver's license. So who is the real Bobby Short,
GROSS: Right. What a bureaucratic nightmare.
Mr. SHORT: I love my mother, though; just crossing out `white' and writing
`colored.' But, I mean, she was going to correct it herself, you see.
GROSS: Yeah. Yeah. Well, I want to end with another song and...
Mr. SHORT: That's fine.
GROSS: ...I was thinking of "Autumn in New York," which is from a fairly
recent album, and Bucky Pizzarelli is featured on guitar on this. And this is
a song with a melody by Vernon Duke, who also wrote "I Can't Get Started,"
"April in Paris" and a song that you've done a whole lot, "I Like the Likes of
You." Did you know him?
Mr. SHORT: Yes, I knew Vernon quite well. I met him--oh, my goodness, in the
1940s, I guess. And we became quite friendly.
GROSS: Does it help you as a singer to know well the person whose song that
Mr. SHORT: The person who wrote the words and so forth?
Mr. SHORT: I think so. I think that you have--you can't say more respect,
but you have a better insight, perhaps. Vernon was meticulous about his songs
and the way they were being sung, not quite so meticulous as Richard Rodgers,
perhaps, but meticulous and up to a point and delighted as they all were to
have you sing their songs.
GROSS: Well, Bobby Short, I want to thank you so much for talking with us. A
pleasure talking with you.
Mr. SHORT: My great pleasure.
GROSS: Our interview with Bobby Short was recorded last June. Short died
early this morning at the age of 80. He had been diagnosed with leukemia
last week. According to his publicist, his friends and family are honoring
his request to have neither a funeral nor a memorial service.
(Soundbite of "Autumn in New York")
Mr. SHORT: (Singing) Autumn in New York, why does it seem so inviting?
Autumn in New York, it brings the thrill of first-nighting, where glittering
crowds and shimmering clouds in canyons of steel are making me feel I'm home.
It's autumn in New York. It brings the promise of new love. Autumn in New
York is often mingled with pain. Dreamers with empty hands may sigh for
exotic lands. It's autumn in New York. It's good to live it again.
GROSS: Bobby Short from his 1995 album "Songs of New York."
Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews Anne Lamott's new book, "Plan B: Further
Thoughts on Faith." This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Anne Lamott's new book "Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith"
TERRY GROSS, host:
Writer Anne Lamott is popular for her offbeat and ruthlessly honest
reflections on motherhood, addiction and recovery, politics, relationships and
writing itself. Six years ago, in her memoir "Traveling Mercies," she began
talking about the subject of her newfound religious faith. She continues that
meditation in her new best seller, "Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith." Book
critic Maureen Corrigan has a review.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN reporting:
Anne Lamott is a holy fool, which is a good way to be given that in her latest
book, "Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith," she's not preaching just to the
choir. If Lamott weren't willing to dress in motley, take pratfalls and laugh
at herself and the Almighty, many of her resolutely secular fans probably
wouldn't sit still for all the Jesus talk here. But Lamott's screwball
approach to soul searching, one that she first adopted six years ago in her
best-selling book, "Traveling Mercies," doesn't come off as a mere marketing
strategy. Rather, goofy humor is essential to Lamott's worldview and,
therefore, to her absurdist Apostles' Creed. Throughout the short essays that
compose this book, most of which were first published online in Salon.com,
Lamott's attitude seems to be that if God is worth believing in, he, she or it
surely has to be big enough to take a joke.
Lamott's universe has shifted a bit since she last visited the subject of
religion. She's menopausal now, still wearing dreadlocks, but suddenly
sporting two stomachs: a regular tummy and another one below that which she
calls the subcontinent. Her beloved son, Sam, whose babyhood Lamott described
so magically in her memoir "Operating Lessons," is now a teen-ager. Nothing
more need be said. She has a steady boyfriend these days, but family and
close friends have begun dying off.
And then there's the presidency of George W. Bush. You can read and love
"Plan B" if you're not a believer, but I don't think you'll love it if, in
Lamott's view, you're a political infidel; that is, a Republican. For Lamott,
Bush's presidency is so horrific that in a wacky theological twist, it deepens
her faith. Here's an excerpt from the essay "Market Street," in which Lamott
describes the revelation she had as she dragged herself out of bed one morning
to go to yet another demonstration against the war in Iraq.
`I wondered if I actually even believed in God anymore. It seemed ridiculous,
this conviction that I had an invisible partner in life and that we were all
part of a bigger, less punishing and isolated truth. But then a small
miracle. I started to believe in George Bush. I really did. In my terror, I
wondered whether maybe he was smarter than we think he is and had grasped
classified intelligence and nuance in a way that was well above my own
understanding or that of our era's most brilliant thinkers. Then I thought,
"Wait, George Bush?" and relief washed over me like gentle surf, because
believing in George Bush was so ludicrous that believing in God seems almost
Lamott doesn't temper her opinions out of Christian charity. Agree with what
she preaches or not; her willingness to offend, to cast a cold comic eye on
herself and others is one of her biggest assets as a writer. It saves her
from the mortal sin of cuteness. Some of the more emotionally pitiless essays
here deal with the death of her mother, whose funeral urn Lamott left in a
closet for two years so that her mother could stew in her own ashes. Lamott
prays for a softening of her own heart even as she recognizes that, `From day
one after she died, I liked having a dead mother much more than having an
Looking back in her decision some 15 years ago to have a baby, her son Sam,
even though she was poor and single, Lamott recalls that, `I could not face
more abortions, and my eggs were getting old, like eggs you'd get at the
7-Eleven. I decided to have the baby.'
Not all the essay subjects in "Plan B" are so momentous. In fact, some of the
most wince-making and revelatory confessions have to do with minor stuff. In
"Flower Girl," for instance, Lamott describes being a 50ish, slightly
flabbyish flower girl in a friend's wedding along with an eight- and
three-year-old, and having to wear an outfit that made her look like Dame
Edna. `I felt despondent for caring,' Lamott admits, `I'm a feminist and a
progressive. I'm sure I'm on the attorney general's enemies list. At any
rate, he's on mine.' Lamott prays for sanity and militant self-love to return
before the wedding day. And off and on, her prayers are answered.
Lamott's brand of Christianity augments the standard catechism with the
Gnostic gospels according to Oprah and Mother Jones. Hilarious, passionate
and smart, "Plan B" should win even more converts to Lamott's fold.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed "Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith" by Anne Lamott.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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