When he's not turning somersaults, doing backward flips, and standing on his head — all while playing, of course — Guitar Shorty is prone to cutting loose with savagely slashing licks on his instrument. Live, he's simply amazing — and after some lean years, his latter-day albums for Black Top, Evidence, and Alligator have proven that all that energy translates vividly onto tape.
Born David Kearney on September 8, 1939, in Houston, TX, he started playing guitar at an early age. His early influences included fellow blues guitar slingers B.B. King, Guitar Slim, T-Bone Walker, and Earl Hooker. By the time he was 17, Kearney was already gigging steadily in Tampa, FL. One night, he was perched on the bandstand when he learned that the mysterious "Guitar Shorty" advertised on the club's marquee was none other than him! His penchant for stage gymnastics was inspired by the flamboyant Guitar Slim, whose wild antics are legendary. In 1957, Shorty cut his debut single, "You Don't Treat Me Right," for Chicago's Cobra Records under Willie Dixon's astute direction. Three superb 45s in 1959 for tiny Pull Records in Los Angeles (notably "Hard Life") rounded out Shorty's discography for quite a while. During the '60s, he married Jimi Hendrix's stepsister and lived in Seattle, where the rock guitar god caught Shorty's act (and presumably learned a thing or two about inciting a throng) whenever he came off the road. Shorty's career had its share of ups and downs — once he was reduced to competing on Chuck Barris' zany Gong Show, where he copped first prize for delivering "They Call Me Guitar Shorty" while balanced on his noggin.
Los Angeles had long since reclaimed Shorty by the time things started to blossom anew with the 1991 album My Way or the Highway for the British JSP logo (with guitarist Otis Grand in support). From there, Black Top signed Shorty; 1993's dazzling Topsy Turvy, 1995's Get Wise to Yourself, and 1998's Roll Over, Baby were the head-over-heels results. In 2001, the appropriately titled I Go Wild was released on the Evidence label, proving that Guitar Shorty had no intentions of slowing down, as he clearly remained a master showman and lively blues guitarist. Watch Your Back appeared in spring 2004. A single-disc overview of his career, The Best of Guitar Shorty, appeared from Shout! Factory in 2006, as well as a new studio album, We the People, from Alligator Records. A second Alligator release, Bare Knuckle, appeared early in 2010.
Bare Knuckle is the first Guitar Shorty album to appear in four years. He won the W.C. Handy Award for Best Contemporary Blues Album of the Year for We the People in 2006. That record, which showcased his rugged, showy style of electric blues in a variety of song settings — not the least of which were his originals, which had a socio-political bent — sent blues fans to the record stores in droves. This set picks up where We the People left off, with the killer “Please Mr. President,” which pleads for Mr. Obama to “lay some stimulus on me.” There is no irony in the lyric. The man’s serious as cancer and it shows in his biting leads, his shouting vocal, and the everyman tone in his delivery. Produced by longtime bassist Wyzard, Shorty is backed here by keyboardist Alex Alessandroni, and drummer Harold Seay (with the exception of two tracks where Alvino Bennet, his former skin man contributes). There are alternating rhythm guitarists and a guest appearance by Keb' Mo’ playing acoustic rhythm guitar on the aforementioned cut. Other fare here is diverse, such as the funky reading of James C. Johnson’s “Too Hard to Love You” with flipped-out-sounding psychedelic organ and electric piano sounds. There’s also the reggae-blues(!) of “Slow Burn," written by Wyzard, Vida Simon, and Jon Tiven. It sounds twisted, but Shorty’s vocals are soulful, and his lead guitar stings against the bubbling rhythm section, so it works. The other two Shorty-penned numbers are the straight-ahead shuffle on the good-time “Texas Women,” and the rumbling Chicago-styled “Too Late,” which contains some of his most emotive lead work on the set. The album closes on “Temporary Man,” an updated, growling, Delta-esque roadhouse rumble, written by Dennis Jones. Guitar Shorty's live show is never captured on record and that’s a shame, but his records have their own wild and woolly charm, and Bare Knuckle is another example of what he does best after 50 years in the blues biz.
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