Bobby Short discusses his career as a vocalist, pianist, and song writer
BROADCAST: Feb. 20, 1974 | DURATION: 00:25:55
Studs interviews Bobby Short, an African American composer, vocalist, and pianist. Short describes his performances and interpretations of songs by Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Noel Coward, and George Gershwin. Studs reads a letter written to short from Coward requesting that Short sing his songs. Studs and Bobby discuss composer and singer styles. The musical pieces are removed from this edited version of the original recording.
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Studs Terkel That is indubitably Bobby Short. And that there's only one sort of interpreter to songs of Gershwin, Cole Porter, Noël Coward and very special indeed and this is from "Funny Face" [musical] 1927. Bobby Short has his own following some say culprit's far more than that. Atlantic has issued three of his albums Gershwin Cole Porter and Noël Coward and that is Bobby Short is here. This is, by this time he will have performed to I know in a very enthusiastic audience at the Auditorium Theater last week. Thinking about you and how it came to be Bobby, from Danville, Illinois and your manner with songs we call showtune in the best sense of the word Gershwin, Porter, and and Coward, say as examples how it came to be.
Bobby Short Well music has always been my life or my main interest in life Studs, and when I was a very young child I was surrounded with music in our home in Danville. We had a radio of course and a phonograph and every home in those days had a piano in the parlor. And then when I was 11 years old I left Danville and got involved in show business. I was what they called a child prodigy and I toured around in Vaudeville and I was exposed in those days to a lot of sophisticated music and knowledgeable musicians.
Bobby Short Well I think that too often today in the 1970s lyrics are are dawdled over. There's a lot of haste in in what we do today in the music business. Very often a singer is handed a song a half-hour before recording session or a broadcast, has to learn it and you cannot possibly absorb a song in a half-hour. You can't possibly convey the meaning of the lyrics with only a half-hour given to pre-study. Very often I find that a song does not reach the peak I wanted to reach for my satisfaction until I've sung it for months and months and months.
Studs Terkel So that's what happens. Yeah, cause now we're talking now about a very taken for granted lyricist Ira Gershwin. George's brother who wrote some of the most marvelous of lyrics, "S'Wonderful" is an example of what we'll hear in a moment. "Let's Kiss and Make Up" from "Funny Face" nineteen-Now what do you do, this is interesting to me. The lyrics then you think about them and you play them and different nuances appear there, don't they?
Bobby Short Well I suppose so but Ira played with words a great deal. He perhaps was the best game player I can think of an American popular song writer- writing. He played with sounds, played with words. He couldn't resist puns. He couldn't resist coining words for his own satisfaction from time to time and in his book, "Lyrics on Several Occasions," he sets down specific instructions as to how he wants certain songs sung to say, 'S Wonderful, 'S marvelous, 'S awful nice, 'S paradise" that's typical of Ira Gershwin's approach to a lyric. On the other hand he could write a very tender very romantic lyric when he wanted to like "Embraceable You", "A Foggy Day In London Town" and so forth.
Bobby Short Marvelous
Studs Terkel We'll talk about this to what Bobby Short is able to do as far as telescope time, too. And the songs and not only songs but also expressions of a period of a certain time so 'Let's Kiss and Makeup.' Isn't it funny? Bobby Short my guest and these are songs from his marvelous albums Atlantic albums. Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Noël Coward and this Gershwin. Ira Gershwin, the lyricist. In the hands of someone less deft they could be banal lyrics and suddenly there's-pick up- you spoke of his punning. Let's try to pick up the pieces. Let's pick up the pieces
Bobby Short Never.
Bobby Short Yes.
Bobby Short Well in the beginning George was the was the composer and [match striking] Ira didn't come along as his as his lyricist for a number of years. George was out writing songs and cutting piano rolls and working 25 hours a day as it were. And Ira came along much later. I think in the beginning, Ira even wrote songs with a under a pseudonym and then he joined his brother and became his lyricist. But George wrote a lot with Brian Hooker and with Gus Kahn. He wrote with Irving Caesar. A number of other American lyricists he wrote with.
Bobby Short [laughter]
Bobby Short Yes.
Studs Terkel Let's try an experiment, from two of your albums one from the Porter album and the Coward album the same song. "Why Shouldn't I?". What would happen? They have a sort of private gag here?
Bobby Short That's Jubilee [musical]. And it's it's I call it a bittersweet ballad. I think that most of Cole Porter's love songs are poignant and meaningful because they are a bit a bit bittersweet. I think Porter recognized love as a fleeting kind of thing. I think he must have been in love a great deal of,of the time and in love with different people and his songs reflect that.
Bobby Short Yes
Bobby Short Yes
Studs Terkel such as Joni Mitchell and Carly Simon. And much is made and justifiably of their way of saying love is transitory and freedom was terribly important. And this is of the undercurrent of their songs. The fact is Porter did it
Studs Terkel in
Bobby Short Yes
Studs Terkel Of course, Bobby here's a case in point of Cole Porter knowing events of the day, too. Miss Peg-for those young of you don't Miss Peggy Joyce's Peggy Hopkins Joyce. Nine times married and divorced, Miss Peggy Joyce says it's good and people in Hollywood say it's what?
Bobby Short Yes.
Bobby Short Well I think that Cole Porter must've been a caution to have dinner with because if he sat next to somebody or across the table from somebody and found them particularly amusing in a secret way, you know he was writing songs about them that very minute. Many of his songs, many of his fun songs that I like to sing, are about people that we've all met but didn't dare talk about and so he just wrote a song about them. Mrs. Lowsborough Goodby, Mrs. Otis.
Bobby Short Peru
Studs Terkel Peru, Indiana. You see, two Midwestern, small towns, are two of the best you an interpreter and he creator of a very, very sophisticated ballads and and humorous songs too. That's interesting too isn't it? Almost an outsider
Bobby Short I
Bobby Short Yes
Bobby Short Yes
Bobby Short Yes, of course. That happened again with another song called "Let's Do It" which was big it became very very famous. "Let's Do It" being a very popular song in America. Got a whole sort of renaissance in England because Mr. Coward chose to write a whole set of more or less English oriented lyrics for the same song which he which he recorded himself over and over again.
Bobby Short Well I tried, the Cole, the Porter song, "Let's Fly Away", of course it's Porter's lyrics and music and he uses American people like Texas Guinan and so forth to show off what we're trying to fly away from. And I guess the idea of leaving and flying away appealed to Mr. Coward, just as well or sir Noël , I should say. And he wrote the whole thing with an English background. I've treated the, the Porter lyric with a bit more jazz than I did the Coward because Coward of course was much more tightly laced than Porter in his lyric writing I believe.
Studs Terkel So we hear both, first Porter and then Coward, and then later on comments about this. It's marvelous. We're comparing the two in a moment. This Bobby Short is my guest and he's the prime interpreter of the songs of this instance of Porter and Coward and Coward taking off on Porter lyrics, that is using his melody. In a moment, the two different approaches. We'll take a slight pause for a moment and return with my guest Bobby Short. It's just these albums. We talk also about clarity. Clarity as far as lyrics are concerned and the importance of it today. In an almost wistful way too after we hear this message. [pause in recording] Resuming the conversation with Bobby Short who had performed and very beautifully at the Auditorium here in Chicago last weekend. And the songs of well aside from Porter and Gershwin and Coward and Alec Wilder
Studs Terkel Yeah. And let's go, we just heard a moment ago before the break the difference. [coughing] Now here is here was Cole Porter's own song. "Let's Fly Away." Song of 1930 and he had name he's named in the news Rudy Vallée and Chrysler Building and Texas Guinan of those I don't know. Texas Guinan had a nightclub and she "What'll the boys in the backroom have?" Grover Whalen as the greeter for Mayor Jimmy Walker and his prohibition knows Walter Winchell and he, so he uses names. Let's get away from all this stuff that's obsessing us says Porter. Now what does Coward do?
Bobby Short Coward, I think is more the the philosopher. Coward dug deeper into things that were obsessing us that were political I think. Things that were ecological. Of course I think that as a performer which Porter was never. Coward was was was much more obsessed by by his his fellow man than Porter was. Porter was able to remove himself from society and as an American aristocrat he did so very nicely. He was a very hardworking sincere person but Coward came into contact with other actors and with audiences which Porter never did. And I think that Coward was often more outspoken about the problems of the world than Mr. Porter allowed himself to be.
Bobby Short Yes he was. I happened to see some plays of Coward's. Three plays in fact in London a few years ago. He was acting in them and I believe they're being produced partially in New York very soon and they were almost autobiographical. They were about Coward. He was appealing- becoming quite outspoken about what he thought was wrong with the world and quite involved in himself in his own problems and his own difficulties. He was a very patient, very sincere man. I think Mr. Porter was too but there again you have the difference between somebody who was a born aristocrat and somebody who had to struggle very hard for recognition.
Bobby Short Well I'd like to think they were. I think that certainly I had no more cordial composers in my audience than Coward and Porter. Mr. Porter was always extremely cordial, extremely grateful that I sang his songs and Noël Coward and I were friends for quite a long while and he was always very intrigued and as a matter of fact sent along the little note that's on the inside of my Noël Coward album.
Bobby Short Well we've extracted that from a long letter he wrote to me in which he had begged off and said he couldn't possibly write notes because he wasn't good at that sort of thing. But then of course in typical fashion he dashed off a few sentences and we used them.
Studs Terkel Dear Bobby, you know how much I've enjoyed and admired your work. You have an unmistakable unique quality, we'll come to this in a moment which never fails to give me special pleasure. Hurry up and record my songs. I'm already looking forward. Now do he and Porter talk you both specifically about what you did with their lyrics, too?
Bobby Short No, the only composer I have in my following, in my friendship, my coterie, who discusses his lyrics with me now is Stephen Sondheim. He and I have discussed lyrics a lot. And of course Ira Gershwin and I discuss lyrics a lot.
Bobby Short Yes.
Studs Terkel Gershwin, you see. And so and so, there's something here that, that goes beyond generation and that is your clar-, your respect for the poet, your respect for the lyrics and I'm bothered. Suddenly I realized my hearing is not as bad as I thought it was. I'm bothered very much by rock musicians some of whom are good and singers of - folk - popular songs and the words are lost and the words are gone. So maybe my hearing is going bad. Now,
Bobby Short I think it's lack of information, quite frankly. I had a concert in Los Angeles on February 18th and there was supper party afterward and I sat at a table and there was a young person there a young man of 23 and he kept putting his foot in his mouth and he he, his favorite song was a song I sang called "Gimme a Pigfoot". He said you're very HOT.
Bobby Short Yes. Why don't you just sing songs like that all night long? And I said well because that's not what I'm about. They said 'you didn't sing one single Cole Porter song' and I said 'yes indeed I sang 3 Cole Porter songs' but he wasn't aware. And I think somebody has to make people who aren't aware, aware of the fact that people did indeed take time and write intelligent lyrics.
Studs Terkel You know you talk something else a break in continuity. In some case you hear they admire young singers and writers who are very good but somehow I think it began with them like say the themes of in-constant love. I think it began with
Bobby Short It's produced in England never has never never never done in this country at all I can recall. And it was one of the few songs that that- a Coward songs that never was popular in America as as Cole Porter's by very natural reasons and "Room with a View" is one of the few sort of [French] songs that you will hear in London like a popular song even now you if walk into the Savoy or the Ritz.
Studs Terkel Yeah. The question must arise in the case of Bobby Short and his playing, the years, the variety of song- your repertoire so huge but I mean you've asked this many times. Do you in playing songs night after night after night, the question, do you find new nuances all the time? How often I know you are tired you know and yet you're you're excellent as a performer. But the problem comes up doesn't it? Of of night after night.
Bobby Short Well I've made it a point to select songs that had a great display of endurance that way you don't get tired of them. I don't think it's lofty of me to, to compare the songs I sing to songs that are considered high class music. That is the, the German leader and even the Italian opera. Those melodies have sustained over all the years and I think there are certain popular songs that have that have those qualities. Mr. Porter's melodies never tire me out. I'm intrigued by, by them always. There are certain Gershwin songs that never tire me out, certain Rodgers melodies speaking the lyrics of Mr. of Mr. Porter gives me a great delight. I mean it is like, it is, it is like, mouthing, how can I put it, milk and honey to, to, to, to let those words slide out. Mr. Coward turned the phrase so exquisitely that it it it, is a thrill to to utter those phrases.
Bobby Short And once in a while, somebody in the audience understands what that's all about, most of the time, I hope and comes to me and tells me how, how meaningful the lyrics are and of course that's always lovely. I'm simply using those songs as vehicles because I could never, never expect to, to compose a lyric melody quite so fine.
Bobby Short Yes.
Bobby Short I don't know. I never saw that show. I saw the film and it was a whole different sort of thing for the film version naturally but it was sung in the show as a as a ballad more or less. Porter again asked me a question because he asked questions rather often. Why shouldn't I? How's your romance? And now in this 'Do I love you"' And Miss Merman sang the song as a ballad and we've taken it here in a rather rather clipsh uptempo.
Bobby Short Oh, I love that! If the sun should desert the day, what would life be? What a nice way of putting it. Would the ocean leave the shore that's just so, so imaginative I think and so, so brilliant of Porter.
Bobby Short Yeah
Studs Terkel Before we hear that, you and audience, the songs of, you work with Sondheim a contemporary young lyricist and songwriter today. At the same time you bring back the '20s, the '30s and you make them fresh your audience. Do you have? Are there? I know people of a certain generation in the audience. Do you have young people the audience, too?
Bobby Short There is a growing, growing interest I think among young people today interested in things that went on in the 1920s and 30s. They're all reading Scott Fitzgerald again. They're reading biographies of people who existed back in those days. I think those are very very stylish days. You and I both know that know that they were very difficult days for a lot of us. I was a depression child and we had a very tough time but there were also terribly stylish days and people around the country who were able to afford it through one way or the other, did live very stylish lives and there were some rather fancy living taking place right here in Chicago, I know and certainly in New York and the rich set was all over Europe carrying on like no tomorrow. And I think that young people today are intrigued with the past in that respect.
Studs Terkel I think, I think to me what fascinates me personally from a very, very personal point of view is the continuity. What you're doing. They're historians on one level speaking of the period as oral history or they're reading the novels of that there's also a certain- the posh set. How did they live? What did they think of and who did interpret for them and who were the acrid commentators like Coward and like Porter you see. And this is what you do, too. I think everyone is related and connected with-
Bobby Short They're all inter-related, I believe. Art-they are terribly related. In the 1930s is very, it was a very popular idea among girls of of how should we put it, of good background to want to go into show business and they were known as society singers. You remember those girls, don't you?
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Bobby Short and girls who had a few, a year or two at some fancy finishing school because girls didn't go to college, really seriously in those days and they would get, get themselves into a nice [Lucy LaLong?] gown of course, and and learn what they called upper-class songs and those songs were almost invariably Cole Porter songs. Those girls all knew "Just One of Those Things" and they might have sung "Love for Sale" as an encore, you see.
Studs Terkel and has love for sale. As you, I see Bobby Short, you call himself a high class [unintelligible]. He's re-, he's chronicling musically a certain aspect of our society. I find you very amusing but also very interesting, too. But Gershwin, "They Can't Take You Away From Me". This is 1937. There's still the good depression period. And this, this was
Bobby Short Fred Astaire. Yes. Fred Astaire, I must say sang Gershwin songs terribly well and we have to, to, to, by saying that also include the fact [match striking] that that Fred Astaire who is not most sing- most people's idea of a singer being a principally a dancer, had a marvelous way with a lyric and he brought out Ira Gershwin's lyrics most, most beautifully.
Studs Terkel Right. Right. That's the one. They can't take, "They Can't Take That Away From Me", and Bobby Short inimitably. Gershwin, George and Ira and Bobby Short my guest and before we hear the last song and it's natural, it's bitter-bittersweet Coward, "I'll See You Again" which is a good way to say goodbye. The albums of Bobby Short are Atlantic and they're excellent, as Bobby Short, "Mad About Noël Coward," Bobby Short, "K-Ra-Zy for Gershwin, and "Bobby Short Loves Cole Porter". They're Atlantic. Do you also Rodgers and Hart, too?
Studs Terkel But basically we come to the question of artistic discipline and we come back that again of course in your respect for the artists come back and for the lyrics and Bobby Short. Thank you very much. What are you a phrase something about "I'll See You Again", you'd like to say?
Bobby Short Well I think it's the most, it's probably one of Noël Coward's best known songs of his, of his total outfit, and it's a song that very often finds its way into repertoires of, of what I would call serious singers. I am not a serious singer in that sense but many sopranos [match striking] and many baritones of the opera stage have often sung "I'll See You Again".