“I am a Negro who has never lived in the South, thank God, nor was I ever trapped in an urban ghetto. I grew up in Danville, Illinois, where my family always lived on a pleasant street, in a pleasant neighborhood where the houses had front yards and back yards, with flower beds and vegetable gardens. Many of our neighbors were white.”
So begins Bobby Short’s 1971 autobiography, “Black and White Baby.” When I reread it a few days ago, obeying the stay-at-home order, I was struck by its duality: the story of a child prodigy and the story of his beloved hometown.
Short, 1924-2005, detailed his boyhood in show business. At age 4, he could play the piano by ear, replicating tunes heard on the radio. He could sing scores of songs. Starting in Danville living rooms, churches and bars, he advanced to the vaudeville and nightclub circuits, and eventually became the featured troubadour at the Café Carlyle, where he worked for decades.
There, in an elegant corner of Manhattan’s swankiest hotel, he was the suave, tuxedoed darling of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Barbara Walters, Norman Mailer and other sophisticates, specializing in the works of Cole Porter, Noel Coward and the Gershwins. He had homes in Manhattan and in Southern France.
“We were so much in the minority that white Danville did not feel endangered by our presence, and because they felt no danger, few open conflicts arose,” Short wrote. “There were not enough of us to rock the boat, not enough of us to threaten the labor market, real-estate prices or city hall.”
Yes, blacks faced bias in theaters, restaurants and social organizations, he said, “but the injustices leveled against us were petty … nothing compared to the violence and terrorization to which Negroes were subjected in so many other sections and cities in America.”
During the Great Depression, he said, poverty was “a great leveler.”
The ninth of 10 children, Short lost his father at an early age. Bobby’s amazing musical gifts became apparent at church, at Garfield School, all around town. By age 9, he was playing in roadhouses, taverns and hotels, then the Danville Country Club, the Elks Club, and at parties.
Managed by white managers, he dressed in tailor-made white tails, performed in Chicago’s Palmer House and New York’s Apollo Theater, and met scores of entertainers, including Cab Calloway, Ethel Waters, Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, even the Three Stooges.
Hungry for a normal education, he returned to Danville in 1938 and performed at school events, parties and in nightclubs. The book ends with his 1942 DHS graduation. His yearbook photo shows him handsome, bright-eyed, beaming, perfectly coiffed and sporting a moustache, wearing a herringbone jacket, a sweater vest, and a dark shirt, buttoned to the collar. No tie.
Clearly, Bobby “Rocket” Short, the black-and-white baby, was ready for takeoff.