Guitar Shorty, a famous blues guitarist and singer who dazzled audiences with his acrobatic showmanship, made backwards, headrests and somersaults while commanding the stage with a muscular style that influenced peers like Buddy Guy and Jimi Hendrix, died on April 20. in Los Angeles. He was 87.
A touring musician from his teens, Shorty – born David William Kearney – played with musicians including Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, BB King, Lou Rawls, Otis Rush and his mentor, Guitar Slim, whose flamboyant performances inspired him to try ever more dangerous maneuvers on stage. “You need to have a little edge in this business,” he once told the Palm Beach Post, “and making somersaults and flips is mine.”
As Shorty recounted, the first time he tried to turn around during a concert, he landed on his head. On his second attempt, “he hit the concrete so hard that it kind of threw me up on my feet again.” His horn section left the stage, apparently fearing he would take his own life if he continued. But after praying a short prayer, he tried again, got a run start and closed his eyes as he jumped into the air. “I accidentally landed on my feet,” he told the Chicago Tribune. “Then I got a standing ovation.”
In 1978, his achievements seemed to defy the laws of physics. When he appeared in Chuck Barris’ quirky TV talent contest, “The Gong Show,” that year, he won first prize after balancing on his head and playing “They Call Me Guitar Shorty.” (He was about 5-foot-10 and was nicknamed a Florida club promoter because of his size and youth while playing with an 18-man band as a teenager.)
Although he gained national recognition relatively late in his career, he was reportedly an important influence on guitarists, including Hendrix, who saw him perform in Seattle in the early 1960s, apparently while serving in the Army. For a time, the two guitarists were family: Shorty married one of Hendrix’s step-sisters, Marsha Jinka, in 1962, even though they had separated when Hendrix died in 1970 at the age of 27.
“After I became part of the family,” Shorty remembered, “Jimi said to me, ‘Shorty, you’re the best guitarist I’ve ever seen. I used to walk AWOL from the Army just to hear you play.’ “Hendrix took a similar theatrical playing style, smashing his guitar at the end of sets and sometimes using lighter fluid to set it on fire.” He told me that the reason he started setting fire to his guitar was, that he could not do backflips like I did, “Shorty said in an interview with Texas Monthly.
“To me, you can hear his influence on Jimi Hendrix quite clearly – the rawness of the tone and the fact that the music simply does not go where you expect it to,” said producer Bruce Iglauer, who founded the Chicago record Alligator Records and worked on several of his albums.
“Shorty was a wild player,” he added in a phone interview, “a boxer musician who was self-taught and just did not follow the blues rules. His guitar sounds were sometimes anything but polite. He could sound like BB King, tonally, but chose not to – he loved playing loud, like rock players, and he often wanted two amplifiers connected so he could have twice as much volume. “
For decades, Shorty worked primarily as a touring artist, releasing only a handful of singles and traveling across the country in a bus or van that he insisted on driving himself. But he experienced a revival in his late career when he began releasing albums, “My Way or the Highway” (1991), a collaboration with guitarist Otis Grand, and “We the People” (2006), which Billboard magazine reviews Philip Van Vleck calls “a tour de force”.
“His latest project is bursting with the kind of galvanizing guitar work that defines modern, top-of-the-line blues rock,” Van Vleck added, “while his vocals remain as powerful as ever.… In a down-to-earth mood, ‘A Hurt So Old ‘and’ Down That Road Again ‘practically lick-by-lick primers in how to put fever in slow blues. “
The eldest of four children, Shorty, was born September 8, 1934, in Loughman, Florida, according to his sister, though he usually gave his birthplace as Houston and said he was five years younger. His father was a mechanic and his mother was a homemaker; they parted ways when he was a boy.
Growing up with his grandparents in Kissimmee, Fla., He learned the acoustic guitar from his grandfather (Shorty often referred to him as an uncle) while chatting chords while his grandmother and other relatives sang gospel songs in a home without electricity. but was often filled with music.
He dropped out of high school his sophomore year, took a job to support the family, and soon played professionally. At age 15, he also married Trudie Mae Black, according to his sister. They divorced after two years in which Shorty moved to Houston and later played at blues clubs, including the Dew Drop Inn in New Orleans, where he was offered a chance to tour with Guitar Slim.
“I learned showmanship from Slim,” he told the Washington Times, “and Ray Charles taught me music.”
In 1957, he recorded his first single, “You Don’t Treat Me Right,” which blues musician Willie Dixon produced for Cobra Records in Chicago. He later settled in Los Angeles and had a role in the 1990 film comedy “Far Out Man” starring Tommy Chong.
The survivors include five children and more than 20 grandchildren, according to his sister. He was left in vain by two sons from his first marriage.
Long after the retirement age of most gymnasts, Shorty continued to turn up on stage, even when he suffered injuries, including a dislocated shoulder in 1995. The acrobatics were meant to improve the show and get people excited, he said, though it annoyed him when the audience seemed more interested in his stunts than his music.
“It hurts me when someone in the crowd shouts, ‘Hey, when are you going to do those flips?’ “Right in the middle of one of my songs,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1998.
“What I’m doing now,” he added, “is trying to get people to see me – and respect me – as a singer and guitarist, not just as a kind of daredevil or acrobat. Maybe the only way to do that is “To make music come first – by playing and singing as well as I possibly can. And that’s really all I can do.”