Those who maintain that "real" blues is never fancy or pretty, never meant to accompany a latte, should use "Watch Your Back" by veteran bluesman Guitar Shorty to emphasize their point. After four decades of constant recording and touring, undeterred by elusive stardom, Guitar Shorty is a blue-collar musician, writing, playing and singing the thoughts and emotions of those who either work for a living or wish they could.
Friday night, Bakersfield blues lovers finally get a chance to see firsthand the great American bluesman when he performs the 80th show of the No Stinkin' Service Charge Blues Series.
David "Guitar Shorty" Kearney was born in Houston in 1939 and raised by his grandmother in Kissimmee, Fla. At 6 years old, back when young boys looked forward to careers as cowboys, soldiers or Tarzan, David decided to be a guitar player, dedicated himself to his instrument.
He turned professional when he was 13.
By 17 he was the featured guitarist in a highly regarded 18-piece band in Tampa. Being much younger and shorter than the rest of the band, a club owner dubbed him "Guitar Shorty," and the name stuck. Future Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Willie Dixon happened to catch a show and immediately took the young guitarist into the studio, where, backed by veteran guitarist Otis Rush, Shorty cut his first singles in 1957 at the age of 18.
From there he hit the road as a member of Ray Charles' band. Touring brought Shorty to New Orleans and a chance to meet his idol, Guitar Slim. Slim impressed Shorty with the need to have a signature stage show that would catch people's attention. Slim's was to do backflips while playing.
Shorty next joined Sam Cooke's touring band and ended up in Seattle in 1960, where he met and eventually married Marsha Hendrix, stepsister to James Marshall "Jimi" Hendrix.
Guitar Shorty was a solo artist now and was building an audience, not only because of his guitar prowess, but for the somersaults and flips he did while playing. Jimi spent a lot of time watching Shorty, even going AWOL on several occasions from his Army post to catch a show.
"I'd see Jimi at the clubs," Shorty recalls. "He'd stay in the shadows, watching me. I 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 backflips like I did."
World Records dialed in to Guitar Shorty in 2004 when we began playing his release, "Watch Your Back," a perfect match of music, lyrics, vocals and musicianship. So at 65, when others that age aspire to walk the dog, Guitar Shorty released the biggest-selling album of his career, sporting lyrics such as:
"In Chapter 1, I was glad to be alive. I discovered a woman along about Chapter 5. Spent all my money by Chapter 10. Been stuck in Chapter 11 ever since then."
Those are textbook Guitar Shorty lyrics -- difficult, real-life circumstances told by a man who has lived through worse and is able to find some humor, confident that he will also make it through another bump in his road.
Shorty's next release, "We the People," continued the momentum, winning Best Contemporary Blues Album at the 2006 Blues Music Awards. Shorty writes from the trenches of the economic downturn:
"I get up in the morning, go down to the store. Prices are getting' higher, I can't take it no more. Grab my guitar, try to bend a note. I look at my neck and even my strings are broke."
The state of the economy -- jobs, bailouts and opinions about what needs to be done -- get a lot of attention these days. Seems plenty of folks, even those who shower in the morning, can relate to the stance Guitar Shorty takes in his latest release, "Bare Knuckle":
"Please Mr. President, lay some stimulus on me. 'Cuz I'm just a working man tryin' to feed my family. I don't know how to be a bad guy. I'm not going to steal or rob. But if I'm going to feed my children, I got to have some kind of job."
Guitar Shorty is like the overwhelming majority of signed, professional recording and touring artists. They no longer just write on behalf of struggling, working people. They are in the thick of it, trying to make each recording and tour pencil out, trying to keep their job.
Guitar Shorty, a scrappy bluesman in the 55th year of his recording career, offers just the right dose of passion and inspiration for We the People.
-- Pat Evans is founder of the No Stinkin' Service Charge Blues Series and owns World Records downtown