[BLUES] Guitar Shorty gets no respect.
Actually, that’s not entirely true. Among hardcore disciples of the blues, the 73-year-old singer and guitarist—did you think he played flugelhorn?—is legendary for his gritty licks and wild showmanship. He’s been nominated for Grammys and won awards from blues associations. But even at this late date, the man who insists on being called Shorty is still striving for recognition. He’s campaigned for years to get on Eric Clapton’s annual Crossroads Guitar Festival, to no avail. And though he’s written songs in support of President Obama—including one called “Please Mr. President,” in which he implores the commander in chief to “lay some stimulus on me”—he’s yet to realize his ultimate dream of performing at the White House. It’s been this way for much of his career: In the ’60s, his then-brother-in-law, Jimi Hendrix, stole his stage tricks (and, Shorty claims, the opening riff of “Purple Haze”) and catapulted into immortality. Meanwhile, Shorty’s greatest mainstream exposure came a decade later, when he won first prize on The Gong Show for playing guitar while balanced on his head.
At his age, most musicians, if they haven’t retired, are only playing for a paycheck. Shorty keeps touring and recording because, after more than a half-century in the business, he’s still got things to prove.
“Sooner or later,” he says over the phone, in a patient Texas drawl, “I’m going to break through.”
If B.B. King is the last of the original blues superstars, Guitar Shorty is the last blues cult figure. The Houston native cut his teeth as a teenage prodigy in the ’50s, touring with the likes of Ray Charles, Sam Cooke and Big Joe Turner. But the epochal moment of his career happened even before that, back when he was known as David Kearney. As the story goes, a promoter at a club where Kearney had a regular gig began hyping some new talent named “Guitar Shorty.” After a week of worrying about losing his job, Kearney arrived at the venue to realize the young savant the promoter had been talking about was him. “He said, ‘Do not change this name, it’ll bring you good luck,’” Shorty says. His transformation into Guitar Shorty wasn’t complete, however, until he began incorporating physical stunts into his live shows—backflips, somersaults, playing guitar with his teeth—inspired by the time he spent on the road with the notoriously flamboyant Guitar Slim, who’d often leap into the crowd, drop to the floor and do the Worm. “Back in those days, people ate it up, because no one had seen anyone do that kind of stuff,” Shorty says. “When I saw that, I thought, if he can do that, I can turn flips.”
These days, Shorty stays planted to the ground, but his rigorous touring schedule has hardly let up in the decades since. He can still pack clubs, and often blows their roofs off with his searing leads and guttural vocals. And yet, wider fame has eluded him. But Shorty isn’t one to complain. Because if there’s one thing he’s learned from all these years playing the blues, it’s that you shout down disappointment, not wallow in it.
“I’ve seen so many
people who’ll sit with me and start talking about how they’re old and
have aches and pains, and I’m like, ‘Look, if you keep saying you’re old
and talking about all these pains you’re having, I’m gonna walk away
from you,’” he says. “Because you’re here now. And while you’re here, do
everything you can to make it worth living for.”