Fame’s fickle spotlight eluded Guitar Shorty for a good quarter-century, before rediscovering him the past few years. A spirited blues guitarist with a strong rock sensibility, Shorty disappeared for much of the ’70s and ’80s before making a comeback in the ’90s.
While generally well-reviewed, the Houston-born Shorty’s first few ’90s releases suffered for the failing health of his label, Black Top Records. After Black Top collapsed in 1999, Shorty eventually moved on to Black Top’s distributor, Alligator Records, for 2004’s Watch Your Back and 2006’s We The People, and his luck quickly changed. Both releases were nominated for Blues Foundation awards, and last year We the People won Best Contemporary Blues Album.
“I’m very thankful for everything. I’ve reached another level, and the next thing I want is to be on stage with Eric Clapton,” says the 68-year old guitarist from an Austin hotel room. “I love what I’m doing. If I fall dead on stage with a guitar in my hand, I’ll die
It’s certainly a far cry from Shorty’s appearance on The Gong Show in 1978 when he desperately needed some extra cash. He won with a rendition of “They Call Me Guitar Shorty” performed while standing on his head. The stunt wasn’t particular spectacular for Shorty, who helped make a name for himself with his acrobatic showmanship early in his career.
Shorty began playing guitar with a bar band in Tampa, Florida when he was 13, earning his nickname as much for his youth as his size (currently about 5’10”). While other kids were off at summer camp, a 17-year old Shorty backed up Ray Charles, who took him on the road for the first time. “I was shaking,” Shorty recalls.
While on the road with Charles, he saw Guitar Slim, who had a hit at the time with “The Things That I Used to Do.” Slim’s show included walking through the crowd playing while standing on someone’s shoulders, then playing the guitar behind his head as he wormed across the floor. Shorty resolved to add his own bit of flair – a front flip – though he might have practiced it first.
“The first time I tried it was on a concrete floor,” he says, recalling the fateful weekend gig. “I backed up the stage and ran with the guitar and jumped in the air and landed right on my head. I got up and it looked like it was part of the show, nobody knew that I was hurting.”
Undaunted, he tried the flip yet again, and was again unsuccessful. He told his buddy Barney Lewis, the horn leader, who’d gotten them the gig, he was going to “do it if it kills me. And he says, ‘Well Shorty, I’m not going to play behind you as you kill yourself, and took the horns off the stage,” but the rhythm section they’d hired kept playing, thinking it was all part of the show.
“I said to the Lord, ‘Please don’t let me get hurt again, but I gotta do it.’ I started running again with the guitar, jumped in the air, closed my eyes, and by accident, I landed on my feet,” Shorty says. People threw money on stage (“almost $1000”) and a martial arts teacher, who sounds suspiciously like Cain’s instructor from the TV show Kung Fu (“old white guy with hair so light it was kinda silky”), helped him master the onstage gymnastics before he cracked his skull open. After suffering a dislocated shoulder in 1995, Shorty became more selective about the flips.
“Now I pick my places and times,” Shorty says, adding that if the feeling’s there and the stage is big enough he’ll still do them.
Not that the show requires it. Shorty knows how to entertain an audience – whether it’s wandering amongst the crowd and getting personal with patrons, playing the guitar in some contorted manner, or even leaving the building – without ever missing a note. Shorty can also carry his weight as a writer. Songs such as “A Little Less Conversation,” with its familiar male plea for “a little less fight and a little more spark,” or the slow smoldering “A Hurt So Old,” which recalls a wound that still stings 17 years later, delight with their rubbed-raw passion.
His latest, We The People, wades into the political arena, decrying the fate of the working poor with a searing wah-aided guitar wail on the title track, while the dirty, Delta-picking blues stomp, “Cost of Livin’,” considers an everyday concern with timeless juke-joint swagger. The playing is so sharp, it’s not surprising that he’s been doing it for 50 years, only that it’s taken so long to get his due. “Tough breaks and bad decisions,” he sings on “Story of My Life.”
Shorty relates one particularly devastating occurrence, shortly after his marriage to Jimi Hendrix’s half-sister Marsha failed, and he moved back to Los Angeles. Returning from a first-night soundcheck, his car broke down, and through a series of machinations, his guitar and songbook ended up in the backseat of a blue ’67 Cougar as it drove away. The guitar — freshly outfitted with new frets and pickups — was the only one he owned, and the songbook included two songs that Stax Records reps considered buying, and wanted him to bring to their meeting the next day. The record deal and the gig fell through, and tough years followed, but what kind of bluesman is blessed his whole life? The important thing is that, while his life was turned upside down for years, Shorty sure enough landed back on his feet again. •