It’s hard to decide which quality Guitar Shorty possesses in greater abundance: stratospheric onstage energy or extreme resiliency in the face of unexpected hardship.
Regarding the latter: in May of 2016, the veteran Los Angeles-based blues guitarist got home exhausted in the wee hours of the morning after a long gig and a longer drive. He gratefully hit the sack and was awoken not long thereafter by some extremely unpleasant news. “The neighbors were knocking on the door,” remembers Shorty. “They said, ‘Shorty!’ So I got up, opened the door, and she said, ‘I thought you were gone!’ I said, ‘Oh, I decided to come on back home.’ Because I’d played San Diego, which is about 100 miles from here.
“When she first said she thought my van was gone, I thought she was kidding. I ran out the door, I got to the garage and looked, and there was a big empty spot where my van was sitting. I don’t know why nobody didn’t hear it.” The haul was massive. “They took the van and the trailer and all of my connections. I had my guitar behind the driver’s seat. That’s the only one they didn’t get,” he says. “I always put the guitar behind my seat. The guitar, I took it out, put the strap on my shoulder, closed the door, locked it up, and went inside the house. I was so tired I didn’t pull my clothes off. I just took my shoes off.”
Although the stolen gear and vehicles have yet to surface (“I still think it’s going to turn up though, some of it,” Shorty says hopefully), the L.A. blues community did an admirable job of pulling together to help a friend in need with a pair of gala benefit shows. “I put the word out,” he says. “Next thing I know, the internet started loading up. And I got enough money to get the van. And about three weeks after that, I found a trailer. So I got a van and a trailer now. But I don’t have all those tools in there.” Nonetheless, an undaunted Shorty hit the road with his replacement equipment in tow, overcoming what could have been a devastating blow to a career that spans more than six decades and a whole lot of touring miles successfully logged.
Everything else had been going well in recent years. Shorty’s touring itinerary has remained lively, and his last three albums—the rampaging, no-holds-barred Watch Your Back (2004), We the People (2006), and Bare Knuckle (2010)—came out on high-profile Alligator Records and continue to attract interest. “People are still buying ‘em. When I take a shipment with me, people buy ‘em. They love my stuff. I’m glad of that,” reports Shorty. “I enjoy playing them too, every time I play.
“Bruce Iglauer came to see me in New Orleans. He liked what he heard and what he saw, and we talked for a while. Then he told me, ‘If you ever decide you want to go with another label, here’s my card. I like you, Shorty. I like what you’re doing. I like the way you perform. You handle the crowd good, and the crowd loves you. I think I can do something for you.’” Alligator’s big boss man was true to his word.
Prior to that, Shorty cut three CDs for Hammond and Nauman Scott’s Black Top imprint. “Hammond said he’d been trying to catch up with me for a long time. He could never get a number on me, because every time he ran across somebody, they wouldn’t know where I was,” says Shorty. “He said he’d been looking for me for over three years.” 1993’s savage Topsy Turvy (featuring a cover photo of the acrobatic axeman playing while standing on his head, a staple of his live shows) was followed on Black Top by Get Wise to Yourself a couple of years later, and Roll Over, Baby in 1998 (in between Black Top and Alligator, Evidence released his I Go Wild! in 2001). Taken as a whole, Shorty’s three Black Top discs attractively introduced the blues world to an artist whose athletic showmanship was a perfect complement to his fiery guitar work and rowdy vocals.
Born David Kearney on September 8, 1939 in Houston, Shorty was raised from age nine by his grandmother in Kissimmee, Florida. His earliest lessons on his chosen instrument came from his uncle, Willie Quarterman. “He taught me how to play,” says Shorty. “He was playing the Delta blues on guitar. I always wanted to be like my uncle Willie. He used to sit me on his knee and play for me. When I got big enough to put my hand around the neck of the guitar, he started teaching me.”
At 17, the guitarist moved to Tampa, where booking agent Hubert “Pawnshop” Lewis bought him an electric guitar and Dewey Richardson, the owner of the Club Royal, offered him a gig in his 18-piece house band, led by keyboardist Walter Johnson. They wisely allowed the newcomer to get his feet wet gradually. “I didn’t know no tunes,” he says. “I only knew three tunes I could play by myself.” Two of them were “The Huckle-Buck” and “Three O’Clock Blues.”
Richardson mounted the stage one night with a special announcement. “He said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, we have a brand new star coming in next week. I think you’ll like him. His name is Guitar Shorty!’ And people stood up and started applauding. Then, ‘How would y’all like to hear Guitar Shorty?’ And they started applauding again. ‘Okay, just for that, next weekend Guitar Shorty will be right here!’” says Shorty. “After we stepped down, I said, ‘Boss?’ He said, ‘Yeah, David?’ I said, ‘This guy Guitar Shorty, is he real good? I’m worried about him!’
“‘Oh yeah, you’ll love Shorty!’”
The teenager woodshedded all week at his grandmother’s. “I went to sleep with the guitar laying across my stomach,” he says. “Didn’t take my clothes or nothing off. I was practicing before the big day came.” Richardson had a master plan. “He made me turn my guitar volume down—all the way down,” says Shorty. “Because I was hitting on sour notes, and sour notes sound bad when you’re playing it and you’re not playing the right tune. So anyway, we did a band tune, and then Mr. Johnson’s wife, she sang a song. I’m up there going through the motions like I’m playing it. I didn’t know none of the stuff she was doing, but I went through the motions.
“She got through singing her song, and Mr. Richardson came up and asked the crowd, ‘You like the show so far?’” says Shorty. “He said, ‘Right now, the star of our show! You’re gonna like him! He’s going places! But he can’t go nowhere without you people supporting him.’” Anticipation was building to a fever pitch. “Then he said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, without a doubt, I’m giving you Guitar Shorty!’ By that time, Mr. Johnson’s band took off and they kept on playing.
“I turned around and looked, and he’s standing up there holding the mic and pointing at me. And I froze. So he had to kind of pick me up and bring me out in front. That’s where it was. The first thing I did was ‘The Huckle-Buck,’ and people were out dancing too. And then after that, I did ‘Three O’Clock In The Morning.’ And when I finished that, they started applauding. They said, ‘We want more! We want more!’ I did one more tune for them, and when I finished, I backed away from the mic and they still kept on applauding. So that’s where Guitar Shorty came from–right there at the Club Royal on Central Avenue.”
The newly christened Guitar Shorty was a fast learner. In 1957, he arrived in Chicago to make his debut platter for Eli Toscano’s Cobra Records under the expert production of Willie Dixon. “The guy who was supposed to be my manager, his name was Hosea Hill, he said, ‘We’ve got to break Shorty out of Tampa, Florida.’ He said, ‘We’ve got a recording we want you to do. I don’t know how I’m going to do it yet, but we’re going to find some kind of way to get you up in Chicago,’” says Shorty, who deeply impressed one of the Windy City’s finest. “Willie Dixon came over to my house one night. Came there and said, ‘How would you like to do a recording?’
“I flew up there. And he took me in this place, the studio there, and he said, ‘Now, I’m going to take you in the studio with me. You do everything you can to go on and make a good record.’ I said, ‘I am.’ So they got me in there and got everything all hooked up, I started singing. I sang one song over and over and over. It didn’t look like I could get it,” says Shorty. “Hosea said, ‘Willie, take him on up to his place and work with him.’ And he took me on up to his place and we worked with the song ‘til we got it right. Then he took me back to the studio a couple of days later, and it came out.”
Shorty wrote “Irma Lee,” the aggressive Guitar Slim-influenced rocker that proved so vexing in the studio, while Dixon split author credit with Tampa saxist Charles Brantley on the other swinger, “You Don’t Treat Me Right.” Both sides featured sizzling solos from the rookie. “The rhythm guitar player on there was Otis Rush,” notes Shorty, who also played on singer Clarence Jolly’s single cut that day at Cobra’s backroom studio on West Roosevelt Road (Jolly sang with Brantley’s band in Tampa). “He came in after me,” says the guitarist of Jolly.
Dixon, who doubled as Shorty’s bassist on his Cobra single, was a nurturing presence. “We called him ‘Whistlin’ Dixie.’ He was nice. In fact, I learned a lot from him.” Through Dixon, Shorty was something of an inspiration for one of his labelmates, Buddy Guy. “He even talked to Buddy Guy about me. He said, ‘Look, if you want to get these people riled up, I know this guy that came from Florida.’ He told them about me throwing the guitar up in the air, upside the wall and everything.”
Shorty soon hit the road opening for none other than Ray Charles. “He done got me out of Tampa,” says Shorty. “Ray Charles took me under his arm like I was his son. He liked to hear me sing ‘Sweet Little Angel.’ He was crazy about that song. That was his song when he came onstage, when they said, ‘Ray Charles, ladies and gentlemen.’ That’s what I played for him to come out. He’d take the piano over, and he would play it.”
The flamboyant Eddie “Guitar Slim” Jones, one of Shorty’s primary influences and a showman extraordinaire, was still riding high off his ‘54 smash “The Things That I Used To Do” when Shorty snagged a supporting role with Slim’s revue (his other warmups at the time were singers Carol Fran and James Davis). “Guitar Slim was my idol when I was coming up,” says Shorty. “He heard me, and I heard him play and everything. I sang, and my show was close to his. He took his guitar and run off the stage out in the audience the length of his cord, which was pretty long. The kind of suit he had on, he’d lay down on the floor and kick his heels up in the air, hammer on the guitar. When I saw him do that, I said, ‘If he can do that, I can do flips!’
“So I tried it one night,” he continues. “I took the guitar and ran out in the crowd, and a few were following me. Then I turned around, went back to the stage. They gave me some room, and I started running with the guitar, jumped up in the air, and landed right on my head! They didn’t know I was kind of out of it. I was kind of dizzy too. And I messed around, got the hurt off me, and I turned around and went back to the wings and turned around, and started running with the guitar again. Jumped up in the air, tried to turn a flip, and landed right on my head again! They didn’t know I was hurt though. They kept applauding for me. So I turned around and went back and I started talking to the Lord. I said, ‘Lord, don’t let me get hurt again. Please help me!’ I kept on playing the guitar, got the hurt off me, started running with the guitar and jumped up in the air, and landed on my feet!”
Those gravity-defying flips and somersaults remain part of Shorty’s act even now. “Sometimes I do it. Not all the time. I also lay down after I turn a flip. I land on the floor, then I turn around on the side, like I’m running with the guitar, around and around on my elbow. I don’t miss a note either!”
There was also a stint with the road company of the great Sam Cooke that commenced when Shorty was performing in New Orleans at Frank Painia’s Dew Drop Inn. Cooke sent his baritone saxist, Bob Tate, to sound Shorty out about joining his troupe. “(Bob) said, ‘He wants to hear you play. We’ve got an audition going tomorrow, and a rehearsal. You want to audition?’ I said sure, and how much was it paying if I went? When he told me how much it was paying, I said, ‘What time you see me being there in the morning?’ He said, ‘I want you to be down at Longshoremen’s Hall.’ That’s where he was rehearsing at. ‘I’ll see you there at nine o’clock.’
“Went down there and I did one number and was going into the second number, and I saw Sam Cooke standing down at the end at the dressing room. When I went into the second number, he gave Bob the signal—they had a signal that they worked together when he wasn’t on the stage. And he turned around and he looked at me. He said, ‘You don’t have to play no more, Shorty.’ I thought he was going to tell me he didn’t invite me. He said, ‘You’re hired!’” Shorty even signed a management contract with Cooke associate J.W. Alexander during his stint with Sam. “Never did nothing for me at all,” says Shorty. “Nothing!”
The guitarist settled in Los Angeles and inked a deal with Charlie Reynolds’ Pull Records in late ‘59, debuting there with the doom-laden minor-key slow blues “Hard Life,” penned by Tate and Shorty. “That was (inspired by) a girl I was going out with,” chuckles Shorty (the torrid jump “Ways .Of A Man” stood in stark contrast on the flip). He encored the next year on Pull with a luxurious “How Long Can It Last” backed with the wild swinger “Love Loves” and completed his brief Pull tenure with a bouncy “Pumpkin Pie” and its horn-leavened B-side “I Never Thought.” The hitmaking “5” Royales added vocal harmonies to “Pumpkin Pie.” “They used to be down there in Florida quite a bit, the ‘5’ Royales did,” he says. “I can’t think of the club they used to be at now because it’s been so long, but the club was right there off of Central Avenue in Tampa.” Spectacular though they were thanks to Shorty’s impassioned vocals and blistering lead guitar, his Pull singles, all waxed in L.A., failed to hit.
The guitarist spent considerable time in Seattle during the ‘60s, becoming romantically entwined with and eventually marrying a lady named Marsha who just happened to be the stepsister of Jimi Hendrix. “He picked up a lot from me. He tried the flip too, with the guitar. He told me, ‘You can have them flips! I’m not gonna try that no more!’” laughs Shorty. “I loaned him my wah pedal,” says Shorty. “He liked the way it sounded. He said, ‘Shorty, I sure like this, man. I’d like to try this out.’
“He was getting ready to go on this little tour. So he asked me if it was okay if he borrowed it. I said, ‘You can have it if you want to!’ (He said), ‘I just want to take it out, just to experiment.’ I let him have it, and he came back. He said, ‘I like this stuff, man.’ I said, ‘If you like it, why don’t you get one?’ He said, ‘I think I’ll take one of those!’ So he went back to England, and when I saw him again, he had one that had his name on it!” Shorty would later pay tribute to his late brother-in-law on Roll Over, Baby with a tough rendition of “Hey Joe.”
Eventually Shorty returned to Los Angeles, where Chuck Barris emceed a zany TV talent contest program called The Gong Show. Since Barris and his representatives scoured the country for fresh acts perhaps best described as unusual for his adoring viewership, Shorty fit right in when he tried out for the show in 1978. “They took me out to introduce me to him,” he says. “When I did my little audition there, right away when I was leaving, he said, ‘Wait a minute, Shorty! Hold it! Hold it!’ I didn’t think he liked what I did. And he said, ‘Yeah—I want to use you!’ I said, ‘You want to use me?’ He said, ‘Yeah!’ So he gave me the date and everything, when to come down, to do the rehearsal.” He won the show he appeared on by playing while standing on his head.
Mobile once again, Guitar Shorty is as dedicated to the blues as ever. “I’m back on the road,” says Shorty. “They’re trying to get me set up now to head out towards Chicago. I guess I’ll be able to get some connections, some of my connections going out there, because I’m going to work hard. That’s the only thing I know to do.”
Interviewer Bill Dahl is a lifelong Chicago resident who began writing about music professionally in 1977. He’s written for Vintage Rock, Goldmine, Living Blues, Blues Revue, Blues Music Magazine, the Chicago Tribune, and the Reader, and is the author of The Art of the Blues, a 2016 book published by University of Chicago Press, and 2001’s Motown: The Golden Years (Krause Publications). Bill was awarded the Blues Foundation’s Keeping the Blues Alive Award in journalism in 2000.