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Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Longing for the Short of It

From the Vault Dept.: He described himself as a “saloon singer,” but Bobby Short was the classiest exponent of the cabaret world for much of the 20th century, settling into Manhattan’s Café Carlyle for a decades-long run, playing and singing the best of the standards and beyond. Here’s my account of his 1987 appearance at Albany’s ovoid performing arts center, followed by the set list I compiled.


BY THE FINISH of his afternoon concert at the Egg, Bobby Short had transformed the sterile environment into the sort of club in which he’s more typically found. And he did so even without any liquor service.

Bobby Short
A combination of charm, showmanship and skillful programming was responsible. Oh, it looks so casual when the natty pianist-singer does his thing, yet Short is hard at work sculpting the result. With the absolute cream of the literate songs now so difficult to discover at his disposal.

The composers? Richard Rodgers, Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Kurt Weill, Harold Arlen. Lyricists? Again, Porter, and Ira Gershwin, Lorenz Hart, Johnny Mercer.

Something about these craftsmen makes contemporary listeners nervous. Is it the deftness of the rhymes? The secure, considered way in which music and lyrics support one another? Whatever, it’s easy to dismiss Bobby Short as performer to the glitz set, a notion supported by a cameo in a Woody Allen film.

Because Short makes it look too easy. He began the first set with a mixture that included Weill, Ellington, and Rodgers and Hart.

But who else is singing the amusing One Life to Live, from Moss Hart’s Lady in the Dark? The Rodgers and Hart set began with You Took Advantage of Me, with two verses, and included the well-known It’s Easy to Remember and the little-known Do I Hear You Saying “I Love You”?

Again, in the “who else is plugging them?” department, Short presented a DeSylva, Brown and Henderson set, with three selections from the movie Sunny Side Up (in which, he explained, the production number to Turn on the Heat was just as outrageous as the song itself).

Cole Porter songs are a Short trademark; through the course of the concert they included an up-tempo Do I Love You, along with I Get a Kick Out of You, Tale of the Oyster, You’ve Got That Thing, Miss Otis Regrets, and Just One of Those Things. Only Porter could get away with sticking a line like “a trip to the moon on gossamer wings” in a pop song; only Short, these days, seems to be able to sing it with appropriate insouciance.

There are two problems with his singing. Stylistically, he’s a master; technically, he’s been losing his voice over the last decade, and the raspiness not only is uncomfortable to hear but always puts the coughers in the audience to work. The other problem is that it overshadows his piano playing, which deserves more attention. On record, we must be satisfied with a Porgy and Bess suite; during this concert he soloed with Satin Doll (the lyrics of which are too trite, anyway) and Gershwin’s Soon, using the verse as a framing device.

And Gershwin came in for an even larger share of the attention, with two obscure songs (Nobody but You and Nashville Nightingale) and one that’s known, but known in a slower tempo that Short considers correct (I’ve Got a Crush on You).

A salute to Harold Arlen comprised three diverse songs: the easygoing Let’s Fall in Love, the best-ever “hey, bartender” song, One for My Baby and the snappy Hooray for Love.

Two excellent musicians are Short’s companions, both on the road and in Manhattan: bassist Beverly Peer and drummer Robert Scott. Peer and Short must go back 20 years; Scott came aboard about a decade ago and is one of the most attentive players I’ve seen, never failing to accentuate and underscore Short’s requirements.

He finished with a pair of encores he enjoys using: Under the Bamboo Tree (written by Bob Cole and the Johnson Brothers in 1902, when Cole insisted he could make a popular song by inverting the melody of Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen, much to the Johnsons’ initial horror), and Ivor Novello’s And Her Mother Came Too.
An Afternoon with Bobby Short, Main Theatre at the Egg, May 3, 1987

Metroland Magazine, 7 May 1987

  • Weill-Gershwin: One Life to Live
  • Ellington: Drop Me Off in Harlem
  • Rodgers-Hart: You Took Advantage of Me, It's Easy to Remember, Do I Hear You Saying I Love You?
  • DeSylva, Brown & Henderson (from Sunnyside Up): If I Had a Talking Picture of You, I'm a Dreamer, Turn On the Heat
  • Porter: Do I Love You?, I Get a Kick Out of You
  • Ellington: Satin Doll
  • Duke-Gershwin: I Can't Get Started
  • Harold Arlen: Let's Fall in Love, One for My Baby, Hooray for Love
  • Gershwin: Soon, Nobody But You, I've Got a Crush on You, Nashville Nightingale
  • Porter: Tale of the Oyster, You've Got That Thing, Miss Otis Regrets
  • Rodgers-Hart: Spring Is Here
  • Dixon-Henderson: Bye Bye Blackbird (medley with Johnston-Turk: I'm a Little Blackbird Looking for a Bluebird)
  • Porter: Just One of Those Things
  • Cole-Johnson: Under the Bamboo Tree
  • Novello: And Her Mother Came Too

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