William David Kearney, aka Guitar Shorty, just might be the greatest active blues guitarist and vocalist who hasn’t attained his deserved measure of fame. Shorty’s worked and played alongside many legends, and built a solid reputation as a dynamic entertainer, powerful singer, and frenetic, slashing guitarist. He’s done everything except score that elusive major hit that would establish him beyond the network of blues fans and musicians who constantly echo his praises and cite him as an inspiration and influence.
But things might be changing; his newest release, Roll Over, Baby (Black Top), is his finest of this decade, and he’s been earning rave reviews for his recent concerts, including an appearance at this year’s Chicago Blues Festival that earned wild applause and multiple encores.
“Well, I sure hope this will be the one,” says Shorty, who’ll be making his second Nashville appearance of the year on Monday night at the Bourbon Street Blues & Boogie Bar. “I really had a great time the last time I was here, even though it turns out I just missed those tornadoes that came through.
“I was in a hotel in Atlanta right after that,” he continues. “We’d driven straight through, and since I’d done most of the driving, I was tired and planning to get a shower and go to bed. I turned on the water and then heard on the television that a special news bulletin about tornadoes hitting Nashville. Man, I was so shook up that I just stood there and stared for a long time.”
He’s every bit as dramatic a performer as he is a great storyteller; Guitar Shorty earned his nickname as a teen performer playing in his hometown of Kissimmee, Florida. A 14-year-old featured guitarist and vocalist in Walter Johnson’s orchestra, he was younger and shorter than everyone else in the band; the club owner at the orchestra’s regular venue dubbed him “Guitar Shorty” and a legend was born.
During the ’50s, he became a celebrity, touring with Ray Charles and Sam Cooke, and recording with Otis Rush on bassist/composer Willie Dixon’s Cobra label. Shorty credits Dixon with teaching him the rudiments of performing, writing, and singing.
Shorty also has fond memories of Cooke, as well as his encounters with Charles and Rush.
“You hear a lot of negative things about Ray Charles in the business,” says Shorty, “but he’s always been nothing but nice to me. He’s a perfectionist. If you don’t get things right on that bandstand, whether it’s rehearsal, whatever, you’re going to stay until he’s satisfied.
“Otis Rush, on the blues side, he’s one of my idols. That man can take a string and bend it to Jerusalem and back, and it won’t snap on him. Him and Albert King. When you hear Otis, you’re hearing Albert, too.
“Sam Cooke, man, he could take any song you want and make it great,” Shorty continues. “It didn’t matter what kind of lyrics, he’d sing that song and you’d say, that’s great. He was a wonderful person also, one of the nicest people you’d ever come across.”
While touring with Cooke in the early ’60s, Shorty encountered guitarist/vocalist Guitar Slim in New Orleans. Watching him, Shorty was enthralled by Slim’s on-stage acrobatics and performance.
“My whole stage show is a takeoff on Slim. He’d wrap up his show with a song where he’d sing ‘your love is like quicksand.’ His valet would go sit on the bandstand and Slim would climb on his shoulders. They’d take a 200-ft cord and go walking in the crowd, then Slim would come back on stage, fall on the floor with his guitar behind his head, flail away, kick up his legs, play the guitar, everything. When I saw that I said, ‘If he can do all that, I can do flips on the stage.’”
During the ’60s, Shorty kept working steadily, eventually settling in Seattle. He met and eventually married Jimi Hendrix’s stepsister Marsha, and later found out Hendrix had been closely studying his music for years.
“I’d see him in some of the clubs occasionally,” says Shorty. “He’d come in and stay in the shadows, watching me. After I got married, he welcomed me to the family and told me, ‘Man, I used to go AWOL to see you play.’ He also told me the reason he started setting his guitar on fire was because he couldn’t do the back flips.
“I remember when he died; it was on a night I was playing at a club in Vancouver, B.C. When the news broke, I went back in the club and you could hear a pin drop. That was devastating, because he told me he was going to help me out with my career.”
But Shorty persevered, overcoming a serious auto accident in the mid-’80s, and cutting some poorly distributed singles for local West Coast labels. Things began to break in early 1990, when he recorded his first complete LP while on tour in England. My Way Or The Highway, a JSP release, earned Shorty a Handy Award for Best Foreign Contemporary Blues Album, and also revived his career stateside.
Black Top owner Hammond Scott tracked him down shortly after the Handy Awards, and eventually signed him to the label. Two subsequent releases, Topsy Turvy in 1993 and Get Wise To Yourself in 1995, won enough praise and recognition to make Shorty a staple on the domestic and international blues festival circuit.
Now he’s poised for a breakout with Roll Over, Baby. The disc smartly combines a vast array of blues styles-there’s slithering Texas-shuffle numbers, bawdy comic pieces, a New Orleans R&B piece, and four tunes written by the king of underground country-soul, Swamp Dogg, a comrade of Shorty’s. He’s been on tour much of this year, including visits to China and Malaysia, but Shorty’s dream date has yet to occur.
“My dream is to be on stage with Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones, and Bonnie Raitt. These are all people that I admire and also people with whom performing [alongside] onstage can really help a career. I’m still out here and I’ve still got a lot to say. I just hope people are ready for it now.”
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