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Music lessons -- Be true and give it your all

May 30, 2008|By TIFFANY ARNOLD

Before Guitar Shorty was born on a marquee in Florida, there was an aspiring blues guitarist by the name of David Kearney, who attended school by day and gigged at Florida clubs at night.

He had already come a long way from having to prop his Uncle Willy's guitar against the wall in order to play because it was too big for him to handle, and an even longer way since the days he'd cry to his granny when he couldn't get Uncle Willy's guitar to work like he wanted.

But it was one night at a gig that the name "Guitar Shorty" adopted David Kearney - someone had put "The Walter Johnson Band featuring Guitar Shorty" on the marquee. Guitar Shorty, the final act at this year's Western Maryland Blues Fest, was destined for greatness.

"Everywhere they act like the blues is the last thing on earth, all this talk about the blues is dying," Shorty said by cell phone from Los Angeles, his home, shortly after touring in Scotland. Shorty performs Sunday at City Park.

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"But there will always be the blues," Shorty said. "The blues is the last true expression because it tells the truth."

Shorty has been keeping the music alive, in his own rock-meets-the-blues way.

"I don't like playing that old stuff, with the harmonicas," Shorty said. "That stuff's before my time anyhow."

He's performed with the best of them - touring with Ray Charles's band as a teenager, playing with T-Bone Walker and Johnny "Guitar" Walker. And he's about to start recording his 12th album. He's signed with Alligator Records.

Shorty was born in Houston, but was raised in Kissimmee, Fla.

The story goes that as a little kid, Shorty would crawl up to the upright piano at his house. He was too short to see the keys, so he would reach for the notes, picking out a boogie-woogie tune.

He learned guitar first from his uncle, and later from a man named Mr. Washington, who was "just tall enough to not be called a midget," Shorty said. But Mr. Washington was one of the best guitar players he knew, Shorty said.

Sometimes, Shorty would spend eight to 10 hours a day practicing. "At night, I'd crawl in the bed - guitar laying on my chest - wake up, and start practicing again," Shorty said.

He was a quick study, so good that one day Mr. Washington, according to Shorty, said, "Son, you gon' be a better guitar player than I ever was."

"I said to him, 'You'd tell me anything,'" Shorty said.

But in a few years, with his grandmother's permission, of course, Shorty would spend his high school summer breaks touring with Ray Charles' band - Charles' manager had caught Shorty's act in Florida and had asked him to tag along.

This is when he learned his first lesson about the business: Always deliver.

While on tour, Shorty had to open for Charles. "I was so scared, I was sweating like someone threw water on me before I went on stage," Shorty said.

Once, Shorty caught a cold on a gig night. He thought he couldn't hit the high notes, which meant he couldn't sing all the songs Charles expected him to sing. So he told Charles, who said, according to Shorty, "If you can't sing with a cold, you can't sing without one."

Shorty got on stage, reluctantly, and sang, cold and all. He got a standing ovation. Lesson learned.

Shorty went on to record a single under the wing of Chicago great Willie Dixon. He later toured with Guitar Slim, a flamboyant bluesman with a lifestyle as wild as his stage show. Some say Slim's stage swagger rubbed off on Shorty, a nondrinker, who was known to do back flips on stage in his day.

Guitar Slim inadvertently taught Shorty another lesson: Seize opportunities.

Things seemed to be slowing down for Shorty when he was touring with Silm. While artists around him were recording records, Shorty was only performing on the weekends. When Shorty wasn't playing, he was sitting around doing nothing.

"I wasn't getting nowhere staying there," Shorty said. "I wanted to make a career out of this."

So he said good-bye to Slim and headed to New Orleans, where he got work at the Dew Drop Inn. He led the house band Sundays through Thursdays, but got to sit in on the big national acts - Little Richard, Fats Domino and Otis Redding - on Fridays and Saturdays.

After Dew Drop, he took a job with Sam Cooke's band, which landed him on the West Coast. He lived and worked in Los Angeles and Canada up until 1961, when he met his wife, the stepsister of Jimi Hendrix. They lived in Seattle and had a child.

They had a stormy, failed marriage, and Shorty didn't record in the 1970s and part of the 1980s.

He's been working on the relationship with his daughter, who is now an adult.

"She thinks that I just ran off on her, but the things that happened between me and her mother, I'll never tell her because I love her," Shorty said.

Shorty bounced back in the latter portion of the 1980s and has been cranking out records ever since. After decades of music-making, Shorty said he's learned his biggest lesson: Stay true to yourself.

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