NEW YORK – Cabaret singer Bobby Short, the tuxedoed embodiment of New York style and sophistication who was a fixture at his piano in the Carlyle Hotel for more than 35 years, died Monday. He was 80.
Short died of leukemia at New York Presbyterian Hospital (search), said Virginia Wicks, a Los Angeles-based publicist. The hospital did not immediately return a call seeking further detail.
As times changed and popular music shifted from Sinatra to Springsteen to Snoop Dogg, Short, a three-time Grammy nominee, remained irrevocably devoted to the "great American songbook": songs by Cole Porter (search), Duke Ellington (search), the Gershwins, Billy Strayhorn (search), Harold Arlen (search).
"I go back to what I heard Marian Anderson say once: 'First a song has to be beautiful,'" Short told The New York Times in 2002. "However, 'beautiful' covers a wide range of things. I have to admire a song's structure and what it's about. But I also have to determine how I can transfer my affection for a song to an audience; I have to decide whether I can put it across."
With his classic songs and suave presence, he entertained thousands over the years in the Carlyle's Upper East Side boîte. In 2003, he celebrated his 35th anniversary there.
His fans inevitably included New York's rich and famous: Norman Mailer and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in the '70s, Barbara Walters and Dominick Dunne in the new millennium.
Short, despite his veneration of the classics, was no nostalgia act. His musical taste, like his smooth voice and elegant wardrobe, was always impeccable. As an ambassador of vintage songs, Short played the White House for presidents Nixon, Carter, Reagan and Clinton.
"My audience," he once said, "expects a certain amount of sophistication when they are coming to hear me."
When Short first played the Cafe Carlyle (search) in 1968, the Vietnam War was raging and Mayor John Lindsay was in City Hall. The quintessential "saloon singer" remained through another five administrations, becoming as familiar a New York landmark as the Empire State Building or Central Park.
He appeared in the movies "Hannah and Her Sisters" and "Splash," along with the television miniseries "Roots" and the program "In The Heat of the Night."
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."
Robert Waltrip Short was born Sept. 15, 1924, the ninth of 10 children in a musically inclined family. By age 4, he was playing by ear at the well-worn family piano, recreating songs heard on the radio.
By age 9, the self-taught pianist was performing in saloons around his Danville, Ill., home to earn extra money during the Depression. Even then, his material included Ellington's "Sophisticated Lady."
Within two years, Short graduated to playing Chicago under his nickname, the "Miniature King of Swing."
Short played the vaudeville circuit: St. Louis, Milwaukee, Kansas City. On one date, he teamed with Louis Armstrong (search). And by age 12, he was headlining Manhattan nightclubs and regular engagements at the Apollo Theater.
But Short, afraid of missing out on his youth, returned to his hometown and his high school. Four years later, a still-teenage Short was back performing; by 1948, he had a regular gig at a tony Los Angeles club, the Cafe Gala.
Three years there left Short in what he called "a velvet rut," and he left the United States for gigs in London and Paris. His success overseas led to an album for Atlantic Records.
During the '60s, Short's audience began to shrink. The Beatles and the British Invasion dominated music; suburban flight and urban crime cut into the nightclub business.
He overcome those woes in 1968 with an extraordinary concert featuring singer Mabel Mercer in Manhattan's Town Hall; their live album became a success. He signed a deal with the Cafe Carlyle in the same year: six nights a week, eight months a year at the lounge inside the posh East 76th Street hotel.
During his vacations, Short spent much of his time in Mougins, France.
Short lived on Sutton Place in Manhattan, sharing an apartment overlooking the East River with his pets. He was never married. Short is survived by his adopted son Ronald Bell and brother Reginald Short, both of California, Wicks said.
Short made headlines in 1980 when designer Gloria Vanderbilt (search) filed a discrimination complaint against the posh River House apartments, which had rejected her bid to buy a $1.1 million duplex.
Short had appeared with her in television ads promoting her designs, and she claimed the board was worried that the black singer might marry her. She later dropped the suit.