Lessons Gleaned About Cabaret and Performance From Bobby Short

KJ and I have long been admirers of the work of Bobby Short.  I recently got a copy of his autobiography, entitled “Bobby Short:  The Life and Times of a Saloon Singer,” with Robert Mackintosh, and I would encourage any cabaret singer or accompanist to pick this great volume up and read it.  The book is highly entertaining and the kind of read that you won’t be able to put down.  There were several statements that Bobby Short made in this book that give a little bit of insight into what he thought cabaret performance was about, and I thought it could be applied to cabaret performance today.  Here are just a few examples:

  • This is taken from the section that deals with the time when he was performing in California from 1946 to 1952.  It was at this time that he thought about  his audience.  He speaks of his audience in this way:  “I think it began back there at the Haig [a club in Los Angeles], seeing for the first time the importance of  a personal following.  Oh, I had garnered some fans in Southern California, but I had shared them with the headliner of the evening, the star of that particular gig.  At the Haig, slowly but surely, I learned what I was in the overall scheme of this segment of showbiz.  The intimate performer, sharing that intimacy with the crowd–and the crowd there at the Haig showed me what it was like to be on my own turf.  It was a new direction–maybe the first real direction.”  So the first idea I learned is to know what it is you are trying to do, and then finding an audience that appreciates that performance style.  Later on he says that “I realized there was a group that could be called ‘regulars’ coming in night after night.  I loved looking at these remarkably attractive girls . . . . models who came in with the photographers they posed for.  And artists fresh out of Chouinard Institute, others who were designing or wanting to–most of them longing for New York.  I became aware of these people because of their complete attention to my work and the way they looked, the way they dressed–oh boy, were they it!  And they were my followers, my first real fans.  Before long they were my chums, too.”  After you have exhausted your friends and family (and bless them for their great good support), the real goal in cabaret is to develop a fan base of people who come to hear you because of your talent, not just because they happen to be family or know you.  When people you’ve never met start showing up at your shows, you have made it.
  • An interesting take on success:  “John [the club owner's] reaction [to Bobby Short's success] was ambivalent–surely somewhere deep down he had to be touched by and proud of such a paean for his protege and the Haig.  But, as his little shack became more and more popular, the overflow of new faces was clearly unsettling to the old-guard patrons–and perhaps to John himself.  At twenty-one, how could I know that success constitutes a threat to the status quo?”  Something to think about as you gain success–as a new-comer, your success can be off-putting to older performers and older patrons of an establishment.
  • Other people that Mr. Short had in his California audiences at this time:  “Performers were finding their way into the Haig after work . . . . actors, musicians, and ballet dancers were showing up at the little shack on Wilshire.”  Artistic types of people are often drawn to cabaret, and this can help when it comes to deciding where to advertise your shows.
  • Fashion vs. style:  “Fashions run in music as in everything else, even in the Haig days, but fashion was not what I was about.  Style was my goal . . . and I’ll be foreever grateful for the guidance that came my way back then. ”  He got song ideas from the club owner, song pluggers, and those in the music publishing business.  It is good to find mentors who can offer advice about songs that might be right for you to perform.
  • Sometimes, even when you have success in performance, it is time to push yourself to greater heights.  “By the spring of 1948, I felt restless.  Five years earlier I had arrived on the West Coast.  I had been playing in and out, off and on, ever since–The Radio Room, the Trocadero, out in the Valley.  And now, quite happily, at the Haig.  But voices inside me kept saying move along, push on.”    Success is great, and there is joy in it, but it is important to continue to grow, learn and improve.
  • On picking songs for your show:  “The best advice came from Phil Moore [a mentor, agent and advisor to Mr Short], who put it very plainly one afternoon:  “Robin [his nickname for Bobby], what you want to do is perfect an act that you can take anywhere and perform for anybody.  When you start learning new songs, keep that in mind.”  That is truly a helpful tip, because it is very easy to fall into the trap of wanting to entertain yourself with new material rather than songs you’ve already sung a lot, when your ultimate goal is to entertain the audience.  They want to hear songs that they recognize, mostly, which is why doing standards is often a good idea.  It is tempting to do new songs because they are of interest to you, but the ultimate goal is to entertain the audience.  You can use some new material, certainly, but placed at appropriate times within a framework of standards is often a good way to go.  Later in the volume, Pearl Bailey gave Mr. Short another similar tip, when she said, “But remember, Bobby, always leave them with something that they know.”  Can’t say it any clearer than that.  Another song mentor that Mr. Short had was Don McCray.  Mr. Short says that Mr. McCray “gave me advice about projecting a lyric .  He arrived at the Browns’ with piles of sheet music I was not able to read.  He found great songs from musicals that had flopped and was the first to say how good a number would be for me to perform.   He used to take the trolley out to the house, carrying stacks of new records to play on the Browns’ phonograph.  It was Don who introduced me to the inimitable sounds of Mabel Mercer and Cy Walter.  Don McCray taught me musical taste, opened my ears to more music than I can possibly list.  I play numbers today he found for me then and through the years.”  It really helps to find someone older, who has performed a lot, to be an advisor and mentor in terms of helping your find your sound. Not always easy, but they are there–look for them.  You might find them in theatre rather than in the music field.
  • On nerves:  “I still sometimes get a wild case of nerves before I sit down at the piano.  Sometimes the anxiety attack comes when I’m to perform in a new atmostphere.”  It is comforting to hear that even someone as proficient at Bobby Short got nervous about performing sometimes.  There is a skill in learning how to take the energy of the nerves and put it to work for you instead of against you.  It usually amounts to focusing on entertaining the audience rather than thinking about yourself.
  • Words about Billy Strayhorn:  “Billy was the genius who melded his own musical ideas with those of his acknowledged hero, Mr. Ellington.  Billy was called “Sweet Pea,” and with Duke he produced a sound that made the entire jazz world sit up and take notice just think of ‘A Train.’   . . . . I’ve always considered it a privilege to have known the shy little man from Pittsburgh with the sparkling eyes behind enormous round glasses.  I can hear the soft, almost purring low voice, bright with subtle humor–Sweet Pea was supremely hip.  Like a Sulka tie.  You had to understand the quality of the silk, the aesthetic of the pattern.  If you didn’t get it, you didn’t wear one.  And you missed something unique.  Like Sweet Pea.”  I love this–more coming on Billy Strayhorn, because I am reading his biography at the moment.
  • Cabaret and the theatrical influence on it–when speaking about a cabaret singer for whom he produced a show at Town Hall in NYC, Mr. Short said, ” . . . when I saw her do a cabaret act, I thought she was a singing Cornelia Otis Skinner.  No higher praise:  Skinner was one of the great monologists of all time.”  The lyrics, and the acting of the lyrics, is key to a great cabaret performance.  It is not enough to sing the notes well–you have to act the song in order to connect with a cabaret audience, who expects more from you than just a pretty voice.  It has been my observation that many singers have not really learned this lesson.
  • There is a class and elegance about the great cabaret performers.  In speaking about Leslie Hutchinson, Mr. Short writes that “His elegant manners and wardrobe made him a favorite with the English upper crust and the British royals.  In the thirties, he entertained at the Lido in Venice for Cole Porter’s parties.”  While we don’t usually have royalty in our audiences anymore, there is a class and elegance about fine cabaret performers that is worth noting.
  • The goal of every cabaret performer:  “Time is short in a saloon, and within minutes I have to establish a rapport with the audience.  And, having won that rapport, I must not allow them to lose interest.”  This needs to be memorized by every cabaret artist, because this is our ultimate job–grab their attention, and then do not bore the audience.
  • Mr. Short speaks a bit about his day-of-performance routine, and that of others:  “Professional saloon singing takes talent, experience, and discipline.  Discipline for me begins as soon as I am up in the morning.  The day is made up of preparation for going to work, even to having my main meal at lunchtime and not another bite after that.  Sometimes, though, I am tempted.  I often think of what Betty Comden said when we talked about performers’ regimines.  She told me that Rex Harrison’s formula was to have a small tin of fresh Beluga before a performance.  Energy giving, low calorie–and totally glamorous.”  People don’t often talk of the huge amount of discipline it takes to do what we do.  Diet is crucial to feeling good and perfoming well, and if you are like me, you have to curb your calories, which is often hard to do.  No alcohol either, because it dries out the vocal cords.  I treat myself after the rehearsal run and performance run is done to some wine with dinner–love it, and that is my reward for a job well done.  But it is not an everyday thing, but something special to look forward to.  Later in the book, Mr. Short related that he worked in New York over the fall, winter and spring, and spent summers in his home in France.  He writes that “My summertimes have long been spent lying in the supposed lap of luxury in the south of France, where, with a little imagination and enough red wine, any dream is possible.  But after the garden has peaked and those first few hints of fall are in the air, with great reluctance I have to face who I am and think about what makes me tick.  I think about going home to the tightrope existence, to getting up and going to sleep on schedule, eating properly, and doing two shows a night, where I look forward to those nighly gab sessions with Barbara Carroll over tea before our first acts begin.”  Routines help us to perform well, especially getting enough sleep–I definitely feel it in my voice if I am tired.
  • What makes a star a star:  “The charisma of a star is hard to describe–a magical, ephemeral something that goes along with the knowledge gained by experience.  And for a singer, one prerequisite is perfect diction.  You understand this when you listen to Mabel [Mercer--do I need to say Mercer???], Ethel Waters, or Bessie Smith.  I can still hear Avon Long’s exquisite diction as Sportin’ Life in Porgy and Bess.”  Because lyrics are key in cabaret performance, it goes without saying the diction is also key.  People have to understand what you are saying when you are singing, in order to understand what the song is all about, so diction is certainly key. 
  • About acting and singing:  “I communicate through the words I sing and the tunes I play on the piano.  People often think that the songs I choose reflect my own mood of the moment–that what I’m singing may have to do with my own angst or happiness.  Or that I sometimes sing a particular song to someone in the audience.  Perhaps for someone, but never to anybody.  My personal emotions are private.  Working in a saloon or concert hall is not my idea of privacy.  When I am thought to mean every word I sing, I consider it a compliment, meaning I have given a true acting performance.”  In slightly different words, but Judy Garland said pretty much the same thing about what she tried to do when she sang, that she had to believe every word she sang in order for the song to ring true with the audience–again getting back to her acting of the song lyrics in her sung performance, much as Mr. Short did.
  • Games that Mr. Short played with his friends: ”Musical trivia and tracing show tunes became a hobby of mine long ago.  A useful pastime, considering how many people revel in the out-of-the-way, obscure, and just plain forgotton or discarded Broadway show tunes.  Many of my friends love to play the game of singing a few lines and asking the group to guess what show the song is from–the same game I first played with Jean and Dorothy [Kilgallen], Bob and Dick, in Paris.  It isn’t at all uncommon for someone to send me a piece of music in the mail from a show that never saw the light of day after an out-of-town opening or, worse, never made it to the stage in the first place.  To this day I attempt to be fairthful to the composer’s line–true to the lyricist as well.  Time is short in a saloon, so I make no complicated references, and I never natter on about the original production.”  Good tips about creating patter–you may know all about an obscure show, and maybe even want to show off your knowledge to the audience, but don’t, because it gets boring very quickly for them.  They have come to the club, they are having a drink and want to be entertained, not lectured to, so keep that in mind.

I loved this book, and I hope you get a chance to read it as well.  Here is a youtube of BobbyShort that I like:

 

And the Charlie perfume commercial that makes you wish you were there:

Please leave a comment–what have you learned about cabaret performance from Bobby Short?  Did you ever get to hear him perform–do tell!

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About Athena at McElrath Cabaret

Athena McElrath is an entertainer with a love for theatre and singing. She enjoys delving in the area of historical cabaret, researching the singers and clubs that were in business from before 1920 to the present, in New York and beyond.
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