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Puff Piece: Bobby Short

So, Bobby Short died the other day. This is, in its way, bad news; I never met him or heard him, and it appears that my library contains all of three of his songs, but I appreciate his stuff. In case anybody missed the last thirty years or so, Bobby Short came to define a certain kind of retardataire urbanity, and to be what many of us wanted to be: a charming, witty, knowledgeable, highly sought-after raconteur.

When I call his style retardataire, what I’m getting at is that when Mr. Short settled in at the Café Carlyle, it was already more urbane, more sophisticated, and more cosmopolitan to go to Studio 54. The purpose of going to the Carlyle was block that fact out for an evening. Even last year, when Mr. Short announced his retirement (no, he didn’t retire), what was lost was clearly an era rather than a career. It was no longer possible to pretend that it was 1934 for an evening. The astounding part of it is that in 1934, he was a ten-year-old vaudeville prodigy opening for the Three Stooges in Providence, Rhode Island. Well, there it is.

In honor of the late Bobby Short, then, here are the lyrics to the Cole Porter classic “How’s Your Romance”, as he recorded them in or around 1952. I’ve rambled on in between stanzas.

In Italia the signori
Are so very amatory,
That their passion, a priori,
is l'amor.

Cole Porter, in keeping with style and tradition of musical theater, often wrote intros to his songs that differ substantially from the song itself in style, meter, and orchestration. They weren’t just song cues, but little mini-songs in themselves. Often these intros were left off recordings made for radio and jukeboxes. Ella Fitzgerald is credited for reviving the practice of including them. It’s still a tough call; some of the cleverest puns and wildest gags are in the intros, but they can be distracting just for that reason. In this song, though, clearly the intro is absolutely necessary. In the recording, Mr. Short uses just a very light touch of piano accompanying a conversational, if animated, style that sets up the intimately conversational style of the whole song.

And from Napoli to Pisa,
Ev'ry man has on his knees
A little private Mona Lisa
To adore.
always l'amore
S� sempre l'amore.

I’m impressed, listening to this closely, that Mr. Short does not give in to the temptation to sings “... on his knees-a / Little private ...” The outrageous rhyme is funny enough without emphasizing it that way.

Result, is when Italians meet a friend who's been away,
Instead of sayin' "How's your health?"
They say...

Mr. Short builds up, both with voice and piano, the sense that the actual song is about to begin. It works remarkably well, and distracts from the awkwardness of the lyric

How's your romance?
How is it goin’?
Waning or growin’,
How's your romance?

I’ve dropped the g here, as he does; don’t interpret that as making the word one-syllable. He neither sings ‘gohn’ or ‘gwan’ nor yet ‘gwine’, but ‘go-in’. For some reason, this sounds urbane. Nobody uses that pronunciation in real life, but real life doesn’t sparkle.

Does she or not
love you an awful lot?
Cool, tepid, warm, or hot,
How's your romance?

For some reason, Mr. Short changes ‘cold’ to ‘cool’; I’m not sure if it improves the song, but it certainly doesn’t ruin it. In general, I’m skeptical of these kinds of changes, but then I’m reminded of Irving Berlin’s comment about Ella Fitzgerald. Mr. Berlin was notorious for his grouchiness about the liberties singers took with his melodies, and of course Ms. Fitzgerald brought an improvisatory attitude toward melody to her brilliant recordings of his song. When asked if he disliked them for that reason, Mr. Berlin replied to the effect that it was different when the singer was a better composer than he was.

Do you from the moment you met her
Swear that you will never forget her?
Do you when she sends you a letter,
Begin to go into a dance?

Boy, ‘letter’ doesn’t work here at all, does it? Oh, well. The tempo picks up at this verse, and at the last line he hits the gas, and we all begin to go into a dance ourselves.

Break me the news,
I'm with you win or lose,
Please tell me who's—and how's your romance?

Evidently, Mr. Porter wrote this the other way, that is, “how’s—and who’s ...” I can see why (there’s a joke about the rhyme placement there), but this works better for me, at least with Mr. Short singing. The Porter way has the singer’s real curiosity finally overwhelming his delicacy; the Short way has the singer’s real curiosity slipping out, and then being guiltily covered up with the title line. Well, and I could be wrong about the way it was originally written; I’m going by internet facts, here.

Do you from the moment you met him
Swear that you will never forget him?
Do you, when he wants you to let him,
Begin to go into a dance?

The reversal in the second time through the bridge was originally meant, I believe, for the girls chorus to come in and relieve the male singer. In the Short version, I can’t help hearing this as addressed to a man, just as the first time through. Or is that just me? And the switch from ‘letter’ to ‘let him’ makes it even worse. But the song survives that.

Break me the news,
I'm with you win or lose,
Please tell me who’s
... and how's ....
your romance?

Oddly enough, the main thing I hear in his voice as he heads into the final repetition of the verse here is triumph. It’s incredibly uplifting, joyous, and fun, but it’s also triumphant. It’s not clear what Mr. Short is triumphant at, other than singing the song really well, but then that’s really all I want. It’s one of the things that always gets me, and it’s actually fairly common at the end of good songs. It’s called ‘bringing it on home’, right? Or whatever Herr Beethoven called it in the Ninth. It caps the song, and brings you to your feet, and actually makes it a bit of a relief when it’s all over and you can applaud and sit back down (and Alban takes off his wig). It makes this song from a conversation, and an inane one at that, into a sort of drama.

Anyway, find a copy and listen to it. It’ll cost you a buck on iTunes (where it’s on the Bobby, Noel and Cole album), or presumably on your preferred music supplier. Pay attention to the way in which performance sounds light, instinctive and improvisatory and simultaneously polished, thoughtful and well-structured. It’s that combination of the sense that it’s all off the top of his head, just a free-flowing joyous outbreak into song with the sense that he’s prepared and examined the thing in tremendous detail, considered the options, and created a perfect gem, a recording that can’t be improved.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,
-Vardibidian.

Comments

He neither sings ‘gohn’ or ‘gwan’ nor yet ‘gwine’, but ‘go-in’. For some reason, this sounds urbane. Nobody uses that pronunciation in real life, but real life doesn’t sparkle.

Apparently, my life is urbanely sparkly! I *always* pronounce 'how's it going' something like 'howzit go-in', except when I'm trying to be conscious of correct diction.


Guess I'm urbanely sparkly too--I'll have to add that to my resume!


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