The impact of television as a mass communicator and career-reinforcer has nowhere been more emphatically felt than in the case of several singers heard in the past year or so on commercial jingles.
Ella Fitzgerald's pitch for Memorex probably did more for her than a hundred concerts; and Arthur Prysock, a singer whose career was more or less in limbo, is widely known now as the burnished baritone extolling the virtues of Loewenbrau, just as Lou Rawls has become the voice of Budweiser. But the most remarkable case is that of Bobby Short.
Variously known as the last of the great saloon singers, a latter-day troubadour and a musical antiquarian, Short has a new image, thanks to Charlie, the perfume commercial.
"It's incredible," says the chic singer-pianist who has long been the darling of Cafe Society from Paris to Park Avenue. "This one-minute spot, during which I am on camera maybe two seconds, has eclipsed all the work I have done for the past 30 years, in terms of mass impact. This was my very first major national commercial. It's in its third year now, and has been seen in Europe, and everyone thinks I made $10 million on it and am fixed for life, which of course is nonsense; but I'm delighted that it happened, and flattered that Revlon actually came after me to do it."
Short, however, need no more rely on jingles than on singles. He remains the quintessential album artist, dedicated to the preservation of Cole Porter, Ellington, Gershwin and their contemporaries, whose work he began absorbing as a child prodigy in the late 1930s.
Instead of taking the indiscriminately nostalgic attitude sometimes adopted by singers of the pre-rock era, Short cites chapter and verse in his litany of complaints about what he hears as a present dearth of quality songs and elegant singers.
"I heard Yip Hardburg, who wrote the words for 'Old Devil Moon,' 'April in Paris' and hundreds of others, complaining during a radio interview that there are no lyricists coming up today. Well, in the old days, if you were a successful songwriter on his level, you were pretty well versed in literature. You had read Browning, Keats, Shelley, you had paid attention to people like Gilbert and Sullivan. So you came from a background of knowledge, for which we have no parallels today.
"I really resent the long-windedness of today's popular songs. They take forever to tell you whatever little message they have to offer.
"Melodically, too, I find no more giants roaming the earth. They used to say that you could play a Jerome Kern song with one finger and still hear all the implied harmony, and they were right.
"I miss the extravagance of a Vincent Youmans, who would do unheard-of things with the harmony of a song, stretching a singer's range from here to there without batting an eye. He was Strauss-like in his determination --Richard Strauss, that is. I wish we still had that kind of challenge in a popular song."
Because he finds such a paucity of material that measures up to his requirements, Short nowadays has trouble adding brand new songs to his repertoire; he prefers digging back to rediscover arcane material such as early works by Duke Ellington, some of which he performs as piano solos.
There are occasional exceptions to his rule. "I went to Boston to see the preview of 'A Little Night Music,' and came back with 'Send in the Clowns' --but that was five years ago. Stephen Sondheim certainly knows his English, and that is a marvelous song; but in general, the elegance and sophistication we once associated with fine songs, the lyric quality, is gone. Sure, Carolyn Leigh, who wrote 'The Best Is Yet to Come' and 'It amazes Me,' writes pretty lyrics when she feels like it, and I think it's sensational that Alan Jay Lerner is now doing the score for a show with Burton Lane. I love Lane's music.
"The classic pop writers constructed a song with painstaking attention to details. For example, some vowels cannot be uttered on a high note. A really skillful lyricist understands that, and if he wants his words to come off well, he'll give the singer a nice open vowel to sing on that high note."
Just as he deplores that absence of new Porters and Gershwins, Short finds no comfort in the failure of the vocal world to produce a young counterpart for Lee Wiley. "Many of the Rodgers and Hart songs that I sing today I learned from her records. She had an indefinably beautiful timbre.
"By the same token, there's no Ethel Waters around. She was incredible in her day. And there's no new Lena Horne. The more I look at what is happening in this business, the more I realize that it's all a matter of determination and discipline. If you reach that sad point where all that matters is earning a buck, it becomes quite discouraging.
"When rock came along, I found it hard for awhile to find a job. But it was even sadder to hear gifted people turning themselves inside out in an effort to adapt to rock; they wound up only becoming half-assed rock performers, neither fish nor fowl."
Bobby Short's dim view of the contemporary scene does not take into account the significant fact that he is presently busier, more fashionable and more secure than ever before, singing only the kinds of melodies and lyrics that conform to his very special standards.