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Guitar Shorty's Got a Right to Sing the Blues

David Kearney isn't the type of senior citizen who wants to fade off into retirement. At the age of 72, he still sees himself as a confirmed bachelor, checks his email every day, loves his full-time job, and doesn't plan to slow down anytime soon.

Kearney, better-known to the world as Guitar Shorty, has lived the life of a bluesman for as long as he can remember. Check his résumé and you'll see he's worked with some of the best blues guitarists of all time: Earl Hooker, T-Bone Walker, George Benson, and others.

And while he should be living off the royalties and riches of his blues career, Shorty's still out on the road three to four times a year like most blues artists. It's not just because he wants to continue playing but also because he has to. Retirement for blues artists doesn't really exist. The musicians pretty much keep going until they drop. But Shorty says that's a fate he accepted a long time ago, so he doesn't really have a problem with traveling and doing what he loves.

"I really can't imagine a life doing anything else," Shorty says during a recent phone chat. "I knew ever since I was young that I'd be playing the blues up until my very last day."

That's good for us, the listening public, who get to see Shorty do his thing for a while longer while good health is still on his side. It's the same Guitar Shorty who used to record with Otis Rush, Lowell Fulson, and Little Milton back in the '60s and '70s, then struck out on his own with seminal albums On the Rampage and Topsy Turvy helping to carry the genre forward.

He and I chatted a bit last week, since he's got an upcoming gig at the Back Room Blues Bar this weekend. Back Room is one of the few blues joints still left in South Florida. These aren't the best times for blues musicians. Venues that cater to the genre seem to be closing left and right all over the United States, and booking a cross-country blues tour isn't as easy now as it was in years past. Most of the guys Shorty used to play with are no longer living, and some would argue that when the old-time generation of blues singers dies off, the genre may well disappear with them. Shorty doesn't let any of that get him down, though. He's been in this business for more than 50 years, and when you talk to him, it's obvious he's got the utmost faith that the blues aren't going anywhere.

"People are always trying to step on the blues, walk on it, bury it, and everything else, but it's always going to be here," Shorty says "The younger generations always find some kind of music they think they like better for awhile. But the blues is going to be here forever — 'cause it's an every-day life experience. Doctors, lawyers, presidents, they all have to get the blues too."

For Shorty, his venture into the blues started out with his rural upbringing in Kissimmee. Although he was born in Houston, Texas, he moved to Florida as a baby and lived here until he was an adult. He got his professional start at age 13, playing juke joints (none of which still exist) in Tampa and Central Florida. That's where he first earned the nickname (Guitar Shorty eventually grew to be 5-foot-10) and where he started coming up with all of the guitar tricks he's known for today.

He eventually started playing rhythm guitar for Ray Charles in the late 1950s, which is an experience that would guide the rest of his career.

"I was 16 years old when I first started playing with Ray Charles," he remembers. "I would go out with him on the road during the summers, but I was still in school, so I had to come home when school started up again. Off and on, I lasted with Ray about two and a half years, and a lot of the stuff that I learned about the blues and entertaining came through him."

Charles wasn't the only celebrity Shorty got a chance to play with. As luck would have it, in 1961, Shorty married Jimi Hendrix's sister-in-law and as a result may have helped inspire one of the greatest rock guitarists of the 20th Century.

"Jimi was a strange guy," he recalls. "We didn't play together too much. I remember he would get his buddies in the service to cover for him and go AWOL just to watch me play."

Although Hendrix became the better-known performer, there are things in Shorty's repertoire that nobody can touch. To this day, he can still play the guitar upside down, with his face, or with his butt for that matter, and he still does somersaults on stage, all without missing a note. In years past, Shorty used to do backflips while playing, but that hasn't happened in a few years.

But what he's lost in agility over the years, he makes up for in songwriting ability. It's what helped his latest album, We the People, win a WC Handy Blues Award last year for best contemporary blues album.

His straight-from-the-gut songwriting will be on display for us locals this Saturday night.

"I'm gonna get out on that stage and play this here guitar like it's the last time I'll ever play it," he says. "If I've got my health and my strength, I can guarantee the crowd is going to have the time of their lives."

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Jonathan Cunningham