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Blues legend Guitar Shorty
stands tall among his fellow bluesmen. Between his blistering, rocked-out guitar work and his fierce, soulful vocals, the power of his music is unmatched. Credited with influencing both Jimi Hendrix and Buddy Guy, Shorty has been electrifying audiences for five decades with his supercharged live shows and his incendiary recordings (beginning in 1957 with a Willie Dixon-produced single on the Cobra label). Through the years, Shorty has performed with blues and R&B luminaries like Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, B.B. King, Guitar Slim and T-Bone Walker. Although he had recorded a handful of singles for a variety of labels, it wasn’t until the 1990’s that the world opened its collective ears to one of the blues’ best kept secrets. His five albums since then all received massive critical acclaim, and his legendary live performances have kept him constantly in demand all over the world. Now, with his Alligator Records debut, Watch Your Back
, he’s poised for the greatest success of his career.
Produced by Brian Brinkerhoff and Jesse Harms, Watch Your Back
finds Guitar Shorty singing and playing with ferocious urgency. While his previous releases have surveyed the musical landscape from New Orleans funk to Texas shuffles to classic R&B, Watch Your Back
burns with heavy rock and roll fire from start to finish, putting Shorty’s infectious energy and guitar pyrotechnics on full display. In all the years Guitar Shorty has been playing and recording, he’s never reached the heights—either vocally or instrumentally—that he does here.
Guitar Shorty was born David William Kearney on September 8, 1939 in Houston, Texas and raised in Kissimmee, Florida by his grandmother. He began playing guitar as a young boy, excited by the sounds of B.B. King, Guitar Slim, T-Bone Walker and Earl Hooker. His first lessons came from his uncle, but when it became clear that the youngster was serious about his music, his grandmother hired a tutor for him. “I learned so fast I was always two or three pages ahead of my teacher,” he recalls. After a move to Tampa when he was 17, Kearney won a slot as a featured guitarist and vocalist in Walter Johnson’s 18-piece orchestra. Being younger—and shorter—than the rest of the band, the club owner bestowed the name Guitar Shorty on him, and it stuck. After a particularly strong performance in Florida, the great Willie Dixon, who was in the audience, approached Shorty and said, “I like what you’re doing. You’ve got something different. I gotta get you in the studio.” A few weeks later Shorty was in Chicago and, backed by Otis Rush on second guitar, he cut his first single, Irma Lee b/w You Don’t Treat Me Right, for Chicago’s famed Cobra Records (the first label home for Rush, Magic Sam and Buddy Guy) in 1957. “Willie Dixon was a huge influence on me and my singing,” Shorty remembers. “If it hadn’t been for him, I never would have recorded.”
After recording the Cobra single, Shorty’s fortunes continued to rise, as the great Ray Charles hired the young guitar slinger as a featured member of his road band. While touring Florida, Shorty met one of his idols—guitarist/vocalist Guitar Slim, famous for his hit “The Things That I Used To Do” as well as for his wildman stage antics. Slim’s manager offered Shorty the opening slot on the guitarist’s upcoming tour, and Shorty jumped at the chance, following his hero to New Orleans. Inspired by Slim, Shorty began incorporating some of the older artist’s athletic showmanship into his own performances. Before long, he was doing somersaults and flips on stage. Between his blistering talent and his wild stage shows, Guitar Shorty found his audience growing even larger. He recorded three 45s for the Los Angeles-based Pull Records label in 1959. Those six sides—all Guitar Shorty originals incorporating techniques learned from Willie Dixon—showcased his first-rate vocals and his dynamic guitar style.
He gigged steadily through the late 1950’s and 1960’s, working with Little Milton, B.B. King, Lowell Fulson, Sam Cooke, Otis Rush, Johnny Copeland and T-Bone Walker. Settling down in Seattle, he married Marsha Hendrix, Jimi’s stepsister. Hendrix loved his guitar-playing brother-in-law, and confessed that in 1961 and 1962 he would go AWOL from his Army base in order to catch Shorty’s area performances, picking up licks and ideas. “I’d see Jimi at the clubs,” Shorty recalls. “He’d stay in the shadows, watching me. I hear my licks in ‘Purple Haze’ and ‘Hey Joe.’ He told me the reason he started setting his guitar on fire was because he couldn’t do the back flips like I did.”
Guitar Shorty moved to Los Angeles in 1971 and worked as a mechanic during the day while playing gigs at night until 1975, when he again became a full-time musician. He had his share of career tribulations, though, including a performance (albeit a winning one) on The Gong Show
in 1978, playing guitar while standing on his head. After overcoming a serious auto accident in 1984, he recorded an EP for Big J Records and a few more singles (this time for Olive Branch Records) in 1985, showcasing his fat-toned guitar licks and deep blues vocals. The strength of these recordings kept him busy on the club scene, and he eventually landed a British tour in 1990.
Guitar Shorty cut his debut album for the JSP label in 1990 while on tour in England. Released in 1991, My Way Or The Highway
received the W.C. Handy Award for Contemporary Foreign Blues Album Of The Year and revitalized Shorty’s career in the U.S. With all the attention Shorty received, the New Orleans-based Black Top label signed him and released three albums (Topsy Turvy, Get Wise To Yourself and Roll Over, Baby
) during the 1990’s, and in 2001 Evidence Records issued I Go Wild
. All received an abundance of positive press as he barnstormed his way across the U.S. and around the world, with stops in Europe, China and Malaysia. The Chicago Tribune
declared, “Shorty’s forte is his high-energy style and fluid, imaginative fretboard work.” DownBeat
raved, “Guitar Shorty’s music is a funky, boisterous buffet of off-the-wall blues fun.” Appearances at major festivals like The Monterey Bay Blues Festival, The San Francisco Blues Festival and The King Biscuit Blues Festival brought him to larger and larger audiences. At the 1998 Chicago Blues Festival, Shorty opened for his old boss Ray Charles and thrilled an audience of thousands with his jaw-dropping stage show.
With the release of Watch Your Back
, Guitar Shorty’s long rise to blues stardom continues unabated. The outpouring of soulful emotion, the power of his playing and the strength of the material all add up to the toughest album of Shorty’s renowned career. According to the man himself, “this is the record I’ve always wanted to do. The songs and the arrangements are what’s been in my head my whole life.” Now he’s rocking harder, singing stronger and playing with a passion and dedication almost un-matched in today’s music scene. With dates constantly being added to his tour calendar, this guitar-wielding, soul-singing rock-solid performer is poised to bring his mind-bending music all over the world, as more people than ever will have the chance to discover for themselves a true giant of the blues.