As part of his ongoing "One on 1" series, Budd Mishkin profiles famed nightclub performer Bobby Short.
Bobby Short has two of the most talented hands in New York, hands that have played the piano for more than 70 years. So he has to take special care of his hands, doesn't he?
"No, I'm not extra careful," Short says. "I'm really quite careless about those things. I unload my dishwasher sometimes, and I do get furious if it's been loaded with knives sticking up or tines of forks up - I'll think, 'who loaded this dishwasher because you can hurt yourself?' I don't want to hurt my fingers, but I'm not neurotic about it."
Bobby Short has been playing spring and fall seasons at the Cafe Carlyle since 1968. He's been performing the music of some of America's greatest composers, including Cole Porter and Duke Ellington - since he was in junior high. Amazingly, he still manages to unearth new songs - actually, old songs that have faded away like lost gems.
"It's like finding King Tut's tomb for me, if you can imagine that," Short says.
Short prepares a new show for each season at the Carlyle, but there are many songs that he's played for a half a century. At 78, what keeps him going? What's the intrigue?
"The intrigue is the nightly change, the audience, and, I suppose, what every performer has living inside him: the yen to perform," Short explains. "If I couldn't play piano, I'd be very unhappy. I'm told that one of the saddest days in Cole Porter's life was the day he could not play the piano anymore."
Short spends part of the year in France, but it's New York he calls home. His Manhattan apartment is filled with pictures of old friends, and there's a quirky collection of walking sticks from around the world.
"If anybody gives you a hard time about a performance, (I'll ask them), 'would you like to see my walking stick here?' (They'll say:) 'You didn't play stardust, I'll get you for that.'"
His other prized possession is an eclectic international art collection, which offers a view on how a young kid from Danville, Illinois, became a cosmopolitan man of the world.
"There are tastes I picked up along the way," he says. "I would never have known about Spanish colonial art; I didn't see it until someone I respect showed it to me. That's how you should live, I think."
So Short clearly has other interests — and yet his music is never far away.
"Walking around the streets, daydreaming, there is always something going on in my head," Short says. "Sometimes it can affect your sleeping — I have problems sleeping from time to time, and I think many performers do."
Short exudes a certain charm and style, and he's been a fixture in New York for so long that it's easy to forget that Short was already 43 when he became an "overnight success" in his first year at the Carlyle.
"This has been a struggle," he says of his long career. "Doing what I do is old fashioned - it has been difficult to sell myself to the masses. I think at my age, I've learned a lot about myself and about living and performing and about other people around me. And maybe I have achieved what I set out for."
Short is the symbol for a certain New York: Hs songs are performed in an elegant nightclub setting, harkening back to a more formal time. He does not live in the past, but he is clearly affected by it. He grew up poor in the Midwest, one of ten children, his father often away working in the Kentucky coal mines. At an early age, he was already aware of a world beyond his small Illinois town.
"I dreamed about living in New York and - I'll be very frank - I grew up with a great kind of consciousness of society, says Short. "And I mean that with a small 's' and a large 's.' I felt an obligation to be dignified in my performance and dignified for the profession itself, for my family, for my race. All those things entered into my persona as a performer."
By the age of 11, he was performing all over the Midwest and sending money home. He came to New York and played the Apollo. But being a young star isn't always easy.
"If you are a child performer, your childhood can be snatched away just like that," Short cautions. "If you know you've got to go out and do four shows a day and that a string of adults are depending on you to do that, it does something to you."
So at 13, Short decided on his own to come back home.
"I went back to Danville and was able to save part of my youth," he recalls. "Can you imagine how sophisticated I must have been after two years on the road in a totally adult society? To go back to Danville to pretend to be an average 13 year old was not easy."
When Short resumed touring in the 1940s, he was a young black man performing in an America that often invited him to play on the stage, but not eat at the restaurant or stay at the hotel.
"Only my youth and my sense of youthful fearlessness saved me, because I was wide-eyed and eager to perform and so I sort of brushed off all of the indignities and inconveniences as a young person is apt to do," Short remembers.
Today, Short's career has so many of the signs of New York success, including an appearance in a Woody Allen movie, "Hannah and her Sisters," as well as street named after him, Bobby Short Place at 76th and Madison, right outside the Carlyle.
Short was also responsible for the monument to Duke Ellington in the northeast corner of Central Park. He wants the music he loves to endure, and he has been steadfast in playing it through the years, even as the whole definition of popular music has changed.
"The public is a pretty fickle affair," Short says. "I saw lots of my colleagues go down in the fray - they couldn't get a job anywhere at all. So they changed themselves into something else to meet the pressures of the passing culture."
The Carlyle gig long ago established Short's place in New York nightlife. But the persona we've come to know was born long before he became the toast of the town here - perhaps as early as his years as a child performing for strangers.
"Those two years prepared me for my life - they really did," says Short. "They showed me a lot of things in advance of my maturity. I was always shadow boxing with the adverse side of my existence; I did not want to fall into that kind of·didn't want to be a drunkard, use dope, get married five or six times. So I began to protect myself, which you have to do."
Short has long hung his hat in New York and in the south of France, but the nightclub - with the lights low, the band swinging and the audience swaying — is his true home.
"Nightclubs are interesting places, they really are," says Short "You see people in interesting situations; they very often bare their souls."
"I'm always trying to make a connection with my audience," Short concludes. "And on the nights when the audience is seduced by a song, I'm the happiest person in the room because I've achieved what I set out to do."