Blues musician Guitar Shorty dies at 87

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Guitar Shorty, a renowned blues guitarist and singer who wowed audiences with his acrobatic showmanship, doing backflips, handstands and somersaults while commanding the stage with a muscular style that influenced peers such as Buddy Guy and Jimi Hendrix, died April 20. in Los Angeles. He was 87 years old.

His death, at the home of his friend and collaborator Swamp Dogg, was confirmed by the guitarist’s sister, Gertrude Kearney. She said he suffered from congestive heart failure and dementia and was diagnosed with cancer in January.

A touring musician since his teens, Shorty – born David William Kearney – has performed with musicians such as Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, BB King, Lou Rawls, Otis Rush and his mentor, Guitar Slim, whose blazing performances inspired him to attempt more and more dangerous manoeuvres. on the scene. “You have to have a little edge in this,” he once told the Palm Beach Post, “and doing somersaults and flips is mine.”

As Shorty said, the first time he tried to roll over during a gig, he landed on his head. On his second attempt, he “hit the concrete so hard that he kind of bounced me to my feet.” His horn section left the stage, apparently fearing suicide if he continued. But after saying a short prayer, he tried once more, getting a flying start and closing his eyes as he leapt into the air. “By accident, I landed on my feet,” he said. the ChicagoTribune. “Then I got a standing ovation.”

In 1978, his performances seemed to defy the laws of physics. Appearing on Chuck Barris’ quirky television talent show, “The Gong Show,” that year, he won first prize after balancing on his head and playing “They Call Me Guitar Shorty.” (He was about 5 feet 10 inches tall and was nicknamed by a Florida club promoter because of his height and youthful appearance while playing with an 18-piece band as a teenager.)

Although he achieved national recognition relatively late in his career, by many accounts he was a key influence on guitarists, including Hendrix, who saw him perform in Seattle in the early 1960s, apparently then. that he served in the army. For a time the two guitarists were family: Shorty married one of Hendrix’s half-sisters, Marsha Jinka, in 1962, although they separated when Hendrix died in 1970 at 27 years.

“After I became part of the family,” Shorty recalled, “Jimi said to me, ‘Shorty, you’re the greatest guitar player I’ve ever seen. I used to go far away from the armed just to hear you play.” Hendrix adopted a similar theatrical playing style, smashing his guitar at the end of sets and sometimes using lighter fluid to ignite it. “He told me the reason why he started setting his guitar on fire was because he couldn’t do the backflips like me,” Shorty said in an interview with Texas monthly.

“To me, you can hear his influence on Jimi Hendrix pretty clearly – the brutality of the tone and the fact that the music just doesn’t go where you expect it to,” said producer Bruce Iglauer, who founded the label. from Chicago Alligator Records. and worked on several of his albums.

“Shorty was a wild player,” he added in a phone interview, “a pants-seat musician who was self-taught and just didn’t follow the rules of the blues. His guitar sounds were anything but He could sound like BB King, but chose not to – he liked to play loud, like rockers, and often had two amps hooked up so he could have double the volume.

For decades, Shorty worked primarily as a touring artist, releasing only a handful of singles and traveling across the country in a bus or van that he insisted on driving himself. But he enjoyed a late-career revival when he began releasing albums, “My Way or the Highway” (1991), a collaboration with guitarist Otis Grand, and “We the People” (2006), which Billboard magazine critic Philip Van Vleck called it “a tour de force”.

“His latest project bristles with the kind of galvanizing guitar work that defines modern, high-end blues-rock,” added Van Vleck, “while his voice remains as powerful as ever. … In a downtempo vibe, ‘A Hurt So Old’ and ‘Down That Road Again’ are practically lick-by-lick primers on how to put the fever in slow blues.

The eldest of four children, Shorty was born on September 8, 1934, in Loughman, Florida, according to his sister, although he usually gave his birthplace as Houston and said he was five years younger. Her father was a mechanic and her mother was a housewife; they separated when he was a boy.

Raised by his maternal grandparents in Kissimmee, Florida, he learned the acoustic guitar from his grandfather (Shorty often called him an uncle), strumming chords while his grandmother and other relatives sang songs. gospel songs in a house without electricity but often filled with music.

He dropped out of high school his second year, taking jobs to support the family, and soon began playing professionally. At 15, he also married Trudie Mae Black, according to his sister. They divorced after two years, with Shorty moving to Houston and later playing blues clubs, including the Dew Drop Inn in New Orleans, where he was offered a chance to tour with Guitar Slim.

“I learned showmanship from Slim,” he told The Washington Times, “and Ray Charles taught me music.”

In 1957 he recorded his first single, “You Don’t Treat Me Right”, which blues musician Willie Dixon produced for Cobra Records in Chicago. He then moved to Los Angeles and had a guest appearance in the 1990 comedy “Far Out Man,” starring Tommy Chong.

Survivors include five children and more than 20 grandchildren, according to his sister. He was predeceased by two sons from his first marriage.

Well past retirement age for most gymnasts, Shorty continued to perform on stage, even though he suffered injuries, including a dislocated shoulder in 1995. The acrobatics were intended to enhance the show and to excite people, he said, although it irritated him when the public seemed more interested in his stunts than his music.

“It hurts when someone in the crowd yells, ‘Hey, when are you going to do those flips?’ …right in the middle of one of my songs,” he said. the Los Angeles Times in 1998.

“What I’m doing now,” he added, “is trying to get people to see me — and respect me — as a singer and guitarist, not just some kind of daredevil or acrobat. Maybe the only way to do that – to put the music first – is to perform and sing as well as possible. And that’s really all I can do.

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