Not long ago, a cartoon in the New Yorker depicted a bare, deserted barroom with a solitary customer at one end of the bar addressing the bartender at the other end. "You know," he says, "a Bobby Short could do wonders for this place."
The trouble is, there's no such thing as a Bobby Short. There is only the Bobby Short, and he is no longer given to working very often in saloons.
"The only saloon I play now--and I say saloon because that's the way Variety puts it--is the Carlyle, which seats 96 people," he said. "Then there are the occasional sorties into one of the Fairmont hotels; other than that, nowadays it's just concerts and private affairs."
Private affairs can be a source of private pleasure. After all, why stay in a saloon when King Hussein will fly you to Jordan for a one-night stand at a reputedly astronomical fee? "I won't tell you how much," said Short, "but let's say the king is a generous king." (The figure was in the high five-digit zone.)
At 59, the singer and pianist from Danville, Ill., radiates the same bonhomie conversationally that one hears in his recitals of classic pop songs. The world of Gershwin, Porter, Ellington and their peers, which he has happily inhabited since their music was brand new and he was a child prodigy, still holds an unquenchable fascination for him.
Tonight at the Beverly Theatre will be unusual: Short will perform with his regular rhythm section supplemented by six horns, a percussionist and Lou Levy conducting and playing electric keyboard, with arrangements by Dick Hazard, who wrote the music for his last album.
These are eventful times for him. In the new Woody Allen feature, "Hannah and Her Sisters," he is seen in a sequence set at the Carlyle. Recently, he taped a public television tribute to Benny Goodman, appearing as a presenter who introduced the singer Carrie Smith.
His year is planned well ahead. Next week, he'll go back East "to open a new inn in Connecticut," before flying to his home in the South of France for a rest. After that come two concerts (at Carnegie Hall on March 21 and at Post College in New York on March 22) with Skitch Henderson conducting the New York Pops, a return to the Carlyle (April through June), the usual summer visit to his Riviera hide-out (July and August) and still more concerts and private parties (September), with another stop at the Carlyle in October.
Last year he took a plunge as a producer, organizing for the New York Jazz Festival a compelling and briskly paced salute to the late Ethel Waters, whom he knew and idolized as far back as the '30s. He would like to do another this year, but said, "We're running out of subjects; homage has already been done to most of the great men and women, and there are very few jazz heroes walking the earth today. It's kind of sad."
There are also, he pointed out, few songwriters producing the music he and his audiences demand. "Today's pop music--well, I have to throw in the sponge. In the old days there were goals for the writers; they could have the ambition to be chosen to write for a Broadway show. That's vanished. The same thing with movie musicals. This throws a performer like me a lot of curves; so one goes into the past and finds things that haven't been done for a long time, or that escaped public attention altogether."
Why doesn't he write some material for himself?
"I've thought about that. In fact, when I was 11 or 12 and unversed in the storehouse of excellence in pop writing, I wrote some things in the June-moon-spoon tradition. They weren't bad; the melodies were original. I suppose if I had the time I could just sit back and write.
"Maybe I should have just fewer house guests. The surest way to avoid work is to have house guests."
The same writer's block has held up production of Volume II of his autobiography. The first book, "Black and White Baby," a witty and absorbing recollection of his childhood, stopped at the age of 17 when he was about to go off to Chicago and resume a career interrupted by school.
"The book didn't do badly; not that I was that important, but I had a different story to tell in terms of the so-called black experience: my years in vaudeville as a child performer, my home life in Danville as a member of a very distinct minority."
The second volume, parts of which he has sketched out, will be subdivided less chronologically and more by way of saloons. "That, in fact, is the working title--'Saloons.' All I need is 16 months in the South of France--or the South of California. What I have to say had better be documented, because too quickly these things go down the drain, then come back again misrepresented in the form of fiction and lies."