Before the term "guitar hero" existed, Guitar Shorty was one.
His ear-reaming tones were a known influence on Jimi Hendrix, who may have lent an eye to Shorty's showmanship as well. Born in Houston, Shorty took up music in Florida; in Louisiana he opened shows for Guitar Slim, who called his guitar "the Devil" and used it as a prop in his wild onstage gymnastics. It was Slim who inspired Shorty to do the harrowing backflips that are his trademark. Back and over he goes, great arcs of hair gel going airborne to mark his trajectory.
Such histrionics should be backed with a strong pedigree, and Shorty complies. His first recordings were for Cobra under the direction of Chicago blues bossman Willie Dixon (who also directed then-tyro Buddy Guy to cop from Shorty's act). He toured with Otis Rush, and then went to L.A. to cut near-masterpieces for the label Pull. "Hard Life" and "How Long Can It Last" were nape-rippling minor-key blues; "I Never Thought" a hard-hitting shuffle. Living in Seattle by the early '60s, he married Jimi Hendrix's stepsister and hung around with jazz guitar hotshot Larry Coryell.
After leaving Seattle, Shorty settled in L.A. and was a fixture on that city's blues scene until a car mowed him down in 1984. His mashed leg took four years to mend, but after recuperating he was backflipping again, performing with such energy that--finally--he gained the attention of a bigger audience; unsurprisingly, it was overseas. Ignored by stateside labels, in 1991 Shorty cut My Way or the Highway for the United Kingdom's JSP label, receiving a rave review from picky Living Blues magazine (which has traditionally lambasted JSP product). The New Orleans label Black Top was quick to hop on the Shorty bandwagon; unfortunately, their debut Shorty CD Topsy Turvy (1994) was nowhere near as good. But in 1996, the label recovered with Shorty's best modern work, Get Wise To Yourself, a jumper with the ever-reliable Kaz Kazanoff playing sax and providing the horn charts.
Shorty's real name is David Kearney, and he's not to be confused with John Henry Fortesque, who was also called Guitar Shorty. The latter was a Trix recording artist and very countrified; he is also dead and likely Mr. Kearney will be anything but at his upcoming Blue Cat show. One caveat--those averse to getting sprayed with hair gel might want to get tables that aren't quite stageside.
Guitar Shorty plays Blue Cat Blues Saturday, April 12.