Guitar Shorty, a renowned blues guitarist and singer who dazzled audiences with his acrobatic showmanship, doing backflips, headstands 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.
A touring musician from his teenage years, Shorty — born David William Kearney — played with musicians including Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, B.B. King, Lou Rawls, Otis Rush and his mentor, Guitar Slim, whose flamboyant performances inspired him to attempt increasingly dangerous maneuvers onstage. “You have to have a little edge in this business,” he once told the Palm Beach Post, “and doing somersaults and flips are mine.”
As Shorty told it, the first time he tried to flip during a concert he landed on his head. On his second attempt, he “hit the concrete so hard it kind of bounced me back up on my feet.” His horn section left the stage, apparently fearing he would kill himself if he continued. But after saying a short prayer, he tried once more, getting a running start and closing his eyes as he jumped into the air. “By accident, I landed on my feet,” he told the Chicago Tribune. “Then I got a standing ovation.”
By 1978, his performances seemed to defy the laws of physics. Appearing on Chuck Barris’s quirky TV talent contest, “The Gong Show,” that year, he won first prize after balancing on his head and playing “They Call Me Guitar Shorty.” (He stood about 5-foot-10, and was nicknamed by a Florida club promoter because of his size and youth while playing with an 18-piece band as a teen.)
Although he acquired 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 while serving in the Army. For a time, the two guitarists were family: Shorty married one of Hendrix’s stepsisters, Marsha Jinka, in 1962, although they had separated by the time Hendrix died in 1970 at 27.
“After I became part of the family,” Shorty recalled, “Jimi told me, ‘Shorty, you’re the greatest guitar player I’ve ever seen. I used to go AWOL from the Army just to hear you play.’ ” Hendrix adopted a similarly theatrical playing style, smashing his guitar at the end of sets and sometimes using lighter fluid to set it aflame. “He told me the reason he started setting his guitar on fire was because he couldn’t do the backflips like I did,” Shorty said in an interview with Texas Monthly.
“To me, you can hear his influence on Jimi Hendrix pretty clearly — the rawness of tone, and the fact that the music simply doesn’t go where you expect it to,” said producer Bruce Iglauer, who founded the Chicago label Alligator Records and worked on several of his albums.
“Shorty was a wild player,” he added in a phone interview, “a seat-of-the-pants musician who was self-taught and just didn’t follow the blues rules. His guitar sounds were sometimes anything but polite. He could sound like B.B. King, tonally, but chose not to — he loved playing loud, like rock players, and would often have two amps connected so that he could have twice 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 experienced a late-career revival when he started putting out albums, “My Way or the Highway” (1991), a collaboration with guitarist Otis Grand, and “We the People” (2006), which Billboard magazine reviewer Philip Van Vleck called “a tour de force.”
“His latest project bristles with the sort of galvanizing guitar work that defines modern, top-of-the-line blues-rock,” Van Vleck added, “while his vocals remain as forceful as ever. … In a downtempo mood, ‘A Hurt So Old’ and ‘Down That Road Again’ are virtually lick-by-lick primers in how to put the fever in slow blues.”
The oldest of four children, Shorty was born Sept. 8, 1934, in Loughman, Fla., according to his sister, although he usually gave his birthplace as Houston and said he was five years younger. His father was a mechanic and his mother was a homemaker; they separated when he was a boy.
Raised by his maternal grandparents in Kissimmee, Fla., he learned the acoustic guitar from his grandfather (Shorty often referred to him as an uncle), strumming chords as his grandmother and other relatives sang gospel songs in a home that had no electricity but was often filled with music.
He dropped out of high school his sophomore year, taking jobs to support the family, and was soon playing professionally. At age 15, he also married Trudie Mae Black, according to his sister. They divorced after two years, with Shorty moving to Houston and later playing at 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 later settled in Los Angeles and had a cameo in the 1990 movie 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.
Long past retirement age for most gymnasts, Shorty continued to flip onstage, even as he suffered injuries including a dislocated shoulder in 1995. The acrobatics were meant to enhance the show and get people excited, he said, although it irritated him when audiences seemed more interested in his stunts than his music.
“It hurts me when someone in the crowd yells out, ‘Hey, when are you gonna do those flips?’ … right in the middle of one of my songs,” he told 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 guitar player, not just as some kind of daredevil or acrobat. Maybe the only way to do that — to make the music come first — is to play and sing as well as I possibly can. And that’s really all I can do.”