Does Guitar Shorty still do flips during his performances? You bet! Is he still one of the best guitar players around? Absolutely! Dressed in his flashy bright red suit, his hands loaded with jewelry and his quick smiling face, Guitar Shorty is the consummate showman. Learned in part from his early association with the flamboyant Eddie "Guitar Slim" Jones.
Airborne, upside down and still playing his guitar--seeing Shorty doing his tumble and roll is something else. But if that was all there was to his performance, some flashy acrobatics, it might get old soon. In reality, Guitar Shorty is on that short list of great blues guitar players who I never get tired of watching and listening too. Even if he never did another flip I would still keep coming back to see his show every time he comes to town--his guitar playing is simply that good!
Born David Kearney, September 8, 1939 in Houston, Texas, Guitar Shorty said he is part Irish and has a ball whenever he performs in Ireland. He said they adopt him like one of their own when he goes over there. Around the age of 6 his parents split up and his dad moved to Florida. He remained with him mother who soon followed hoping to get back together with her husband. They eventually divorced but remained close friends for the rest of their lives.
It was in Kissimmee, Florida (outside of Orlando) that the young Shorty first learned to play the guitar. He tells the amusing story of how he would sneak into his uncle Willie’s bedroom during the day when his uncle was at work and try and play his guitar. His uncle played delta style blues and didn’t want young David messing with his guitar. "I'd come in from school and go steal the guitar from under the bed and tried to play it like him," laughs Guitar Shorty. "I would lean it against the wall because I was too small (to hold it) and tried to play. I'd mess about with it. I couldn't hardly get my arms over it like my uncle and I'd fall down on the floor and I'd throw tantrums because I couldn’t do what I wanted to. So during one of my tantrums my grandmother came running in the room and said, ‘what’s the mater with you boy?’ I’d be crying and all. So she asked my uncle one morning before he went to work, ‘will you do me a favor? I want you to teach this boy how to play the guitar before I kill him.’"
That’s how he got his start and by the time he was a young teenager, maybe around 13 years old or so, he was good enough to be playing with Walter Johnson on a regular basis in clubs on the weekends. It wasn’t long before he was on the road playing with people like Ray Charles, Otis Rush and Guitar Slim.
Shorty liked to listen to people like Guitar Red and Earl Hooker and related another very funny story about how he got his nickname. He said, "I got that from a guy named Dewey Richardson. He was a promoter in Florida. I was playing at one of those weekend shows with Walter Johnson when Richardson announced at the end of the show that there was going to be a special guest next week. A very exciting new guitar player called Guitar Shorty." David said that after hearing that he was really curios and started to get all nervous. Everyone else was in on this little ruse except for David. If he was going to be on stage with this exciting new guitar player he wanted to put on a good performance himself. So he went home and practiced really hard that week. When the day came he was sitting back stage with the band when the promoter was out making the announcements about this exciting new guitar player. When he introduced Guitar Shorty, David was looking around trying to see where he was until he saw that everyone was looking at him. He said he just froze when he realized they were talking about him. They had to practically carry him out on stage.
I asked him how he first met and started playing with Sam Cooke?
He said, "I was working with Guitar Slim at the time (in the late 50s) and I had a few words with Guitar Slim’s manager, but it wasn't angry words, I was just fed up. Every time I’d look over he was rehearsing James Davis and they'd take him to Houston, I was staying in Louisiana at the time and every day they were grooming Davis. I'm saying to myself. When its time to go out on the road, if Slim had too much to drink I'd fill in for Slim, because he couldn't handle it. And I was thinking to myself, I'm going out here on the road, I'm doing this man's show, filling in for him. But still they are rehearsing this guy not even thinking about me (to take my place in the band). I'm just wasting my time away. So I finally told him, I said I love you but I got to move on. I didn't have anything to do so I moved to New Orleans and I was staying right behind the Dew Drop Inn. I got me a job working (at a local club) just for shelter, cleaning my clothes and food in my stomach. I saw many acts come through there, T Bone Walker, BB King, Little Richard, Huey Smith, Little Willie John, Fats Domino. When it was slow I'd play."
"So somebody told Bob Tate, Sam's band leader at the time, about me. I was laying in the bed one morning (about 3 or 4 in the morning). When I heard this loud banging on the door, I said, ‘who is it?’ He said, ‘Bob Tate,’ open the door. I said, ‘Bob Tate who?’ He said, ‘just "open" the door.’ Like that. So I opened the door he looked at me and I was looking at him. He said, ‘what’re you going to do just stand there and look at me or are you going to invite me in?’. So I invited him in and he sat down. He said, ‘I am Bob Tate. I am the band leader of Sam Cooke. We’re looking for a guitar player. I been hearing so much about you. They tell me you are a bad MF’er,’ was how he said it. I said, ‘I don't know about that. I try to entertain the people.’ He said, ‘how'd you like to try it with me and Sam Cooke?’ I looked back at the girl I was with, her name was (Hazel), he said, ‘don't look back at her talk to me, I'm talking to you.’ So I said, ‘I would like to. Depends on the money man.’ He said, ‘why don't you come over tomorrow, Sam would like to hear you.’ So I went down the next day, and did 2 numbers and looked around. Sam was at the back of the band stand nodding his head, looking at Bob. Bob stopped the band, walked up to me and said, ‘you got it.’ ‘I did?’ He said, ‘yeah, now do you want to go?’ I said I got to talk to my girl first. He said, ‘I'll tell you right now she’ll let you go.’ Anyway I talked it over with her and I promised I'd go back and get her after I got to California. But I never went back," he said shaking his head. "Now every time I go to New Orleans I still be looking for her. I don't know if she is living or dead. I ask for her but nobody don't know anything about her."
Guitar Shorty did two tours with Sam and the "second time we got to California the band broke up. Cliff White was on guitar, Lou Rawls and JW Alexander were all in the band then and they all went their separate ways." Guitar Shorty ended up staying in California where he made a few recordings and worked with Big Jim Wynn (T-Bone Walker’s band leader and saxophone player). He was at the The California Club, along with Johnny Guitar Watson doing back to back shows when he had the opportunity go on a short tour with Jim Wynn to Vancouver. Shorty said he had a girl friend at the time who wanted to get married and he wanted to get out of that situation so leaving Los Angeles at that time to go to Vancouver was just what he needed. Regarding the recordings he had cut he said, "after I left, I later found out "Hard Life" took off and they couldn’t find me." He has re-recorded that regional hit on his 1993 Blacktop release, Topsy Turvy.
When he got to Vancouver he worked at a place called the New Delhi club and was booked in there for a whole month. When he finished that engagement he said, "I didn't want to come back, I'm thinking about that girl back there in LA trying to hook me, and hog time me. I said to Jim, ‘I want to stay.’ Jim said, ‘Guitar Shorty you can't stay here its not like the States, you got to go back, you’re in another country now.’ The club owner said, "me adopt Guitar Shorty, him my son." So Jim said, ‘well Shorty looks like you got a home.’ So I ended up staying there over 6 years. Soon I stared commuting back and forth over to Seattle, Washington. I started working off and on with Dave Lewis, I don't know if you heard of him or not. Little Green Thing? I worked with him for awhile then I went back to Vancouver.
I was in that area for a quite awhile, that's were I met Marsha, Jimi's (Hendrix) step sister. When I was working at the Continental Showcase the waitress came up to me one night and said, ‘there’s a girl that wants to talk to you, she’s been coming "every" weekend just to hear you sing. Then I got cold feet, I got nervous then. She loved to hear me sing the Beatles song, Hey Jude. I'd sing Hey Jude, that was her thing. If I waited until the last song that night she would stay there until I did hey Jude. She sent me a little note up there. So she wanted me to come to her table on the break. I didn't have no idea that she was related to Jimi. She gave me a $20 tip to sing the song. That got to be a regular thing. They came there "every" weekend, next thing you know I was taking her out. Go out to breakfast, you know what happens when that starts. So then she ended up getting pregnant, that’s how I got Tammy (his daughter). So I went on and married her. That was 1962. Tammy was born in 1963."
The time line seemed a little out of sequence here or maybe Shorty was thinking of another song, because if he was married in 1962 the Beatles didn’t record Hey Jude until at least 5 years after that.
I asked how he first met Jimi Hendrix.
"When Jimi came in from England for the family reunion he came by. Marsha had been talking about her brother but she never told me it was Jimi, because I knew who Jimi was. She said I want you to meet my brother. I said sure I'd be glad to meet him, he's my brother now you know. She said, 'he's going to be coming home soon for a family reunion.' I said, ‘okay. And was very surprised when they introduced me and Jimi said, ‘welcome to the family brother. I've been watching you for a long time.’ He would go AWOL (from the military) just to watch me many times and his guys would cover for him. Jimi said, ‘yeah I've watched you many times. I learned a lot from you.’ He said, I was one of the most amazing guitar players he had ever seen in his life. He then showed me some of the things that he had pick up from me. He even tried turning flips for a time with a guitar. But that didn't work, he got injured on that so he quite doing that and he started setting his guitar on fire. We buried Jimi in Seattle in October 1970 that was 2 weeks after Marsha and I broke up."
Shorty returned to California in 1971 and has lived there ever since. He said that’s where his address is but he spends so much time on the road he’s not sure where he lives.
His 1991 album, My Way Or The Highway for the JSP label (Otis Grand in support) was very well received and in the early 1990’s Guitar Shorty signed with Blacktop and has released 3 albums with them, Topsy Turvy (1993), Get Wise To Yourself (1995), which went #1 within one week after being released, and Roll Over, Baby (1998). He also has 2 other albums out on Collectables Records.
Getting back to Guitar Shorty’s show at Famous Dave’s, this was his first time back to town after his Blues Saloon show two years ago. A little too long for me. His bass player and long time friend, Howard Deere, opened the show with 2 songs. He has a deep, resonate voice and shined on the song, "Rainy Night In George," even adding a lilting falsetto at the end. Guitar Shorty took the stage and played two long sets of about 90 minutes each. His guitar playing is intricate and exciting with his songs containing very long guitar solos. He has a voice that is very easy to listen to and finished off the first set with a tribute to Hendrix on the song, "Hey Joe." It was during that song that his band prepared the stage by moving the microphones out of the way so Shorty could do one of his trademark flips. Which tonight was more of a tumble, tuck and roll. Done without missing a sing note on his guitar solo. I was anticipating his move and had my camera ready to take a picture capturing him in midair. He ended the song with an instrumental version of Battle Hymn of the Republic. The second set featured more of his spectacular guitar playing and singing with some of his guitar solos lasting 10 minutes or more. And boy could he ever turn out a scorching slow burning blues. This was one of the better shows this year and you definitely want to make a point to catch him the next time he comes to town.
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