- Living Blues
Master bluesman Guitar Shorty will celebrate the release of his Alligator Records CD Watch Your Back with a live performance in Levittown. Credited with influencing Jimi Hendrix, 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). Shorty's album Watch Your Back was nominated for two W.C. Handy Blues Awards this year for Blues Album of the Year and Contemporary Blues Album of the Year. Performance information is as follows:
Saturday, July 16th: Bucks County Blues Society Picnic
Trease Catering Picnic Grounds Levittown, PA
5:30 p.m. Ticket Price: TBA
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.
David William Kearney was born on September 8, 1939 in Houston, Texas and raised in Kissimee, 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. At 17, he was already good enough to earn a gig as featured guitarist and vocalist in Walter Johnson's 18-piece orchestra. Being younger - and shorter - then the rest of the band, the club owner dubbed him Guitar Shorty, and the name stuck. After a Shorty performance in Tampa, the great Willie Dixon, who was in the audience, approached the teenager 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 with Dixon as producer and, backed by Otis Rush on second guitar, he cut his first single for Chicago's famed Cobra Records (first label home for Rush, Magic Sam and Buddy Guy) in 1957.
Soon after, Shorty met one of his idols - Guitar Slim, famous for his hit The Things That I Used To Do" as well as for his wildman stage antics. Inspired by Slim, Shorty began incorporating some of Slim's tricks into his own shows.
Soon he was doing somersaults and flips on stage, while continuing to hone his own high-energy musical style. He recorded three 45s for the Los Angeles-based Pull Records label in 1959. Those six sides - all Guitar Shorty originals - showcased his tough vocals and his wild guitar, and earned him a loyal following.
Shorty gigged steadily, working with Little Milton, B.B. King, Lowell Fulson, Johnny Copeland and T-Bone Walker. He eventually settled down in Seattle where he married Marsha Hendrix, Jimi's stepsister, and became a strong influence on the young guitarist. Hendrix confessed that in 1961 and 1962 he would go AWOL from his Army base to catch Shorty's performances. I'd see Jimi at the clubs," Shorty recalls, He'd stay in the shadows, watching me. I can 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."
Shorty migrated to Los Angeles in 1971, working as a mechanic during the day while playing gigs at night. By 1975 he was playing full-time again - although he still had his share of career tribulations, including a performance (albeit a winning one) on The Gong Show in 1978, playing guitar while standing on his head. After overcoming a serious 1984 auto accident, he recorded an EP and a few more singles, showcasing his fat-toned guitar licks and rough-edged vocals.
He finally cut his debut album for the JSP label in 1990 while on tour in England. Released in 1991, My Way or the Highway won the W.C. Handy Award for Contemporary Foreign Blues Album Of The Year and revitalized Shorty's career in the U.S. The New Orleans-based Black Top label signed him and released three albums during the 1990s and Evidence issued a CD in 2001. All received massive critical acclaim as Shorty barnstormed his way across the U.S. and around the world, with stops in Europe, China and Malaysia. Appearances at major festivals 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 unmatched in today's music scene.
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