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Tall on Talent

Guitar Shorty brings his acrobatic style and soulful playing to B.B. King's.

September 17, 1998|JAMES E. FOWLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Veteran blues man Guitar Shorty, who performs at B.B. King's on Saturday, is not really very short, but the "Guitar" part of his moniker is certainly on the money.

"I know I'm not the greatest guitar player in the world," Shorty said somewhat modestly. "But I want to be recognized as one of the greatest guitar players."

Guitar Shorty is known for executing acrobatic flips on stage while laying down flashy but soulful guitar licks. Shorty sings and writes songs, but it's his guitar work that stands out. His inspiration was the late jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery.

"He would pick with his thumb and all his fingers," Shorty said. "He was my idol, along with B.B. King and T-Bone Walker and someone called Earl Hooker.

"Earl Hooker was the baddest blues guitar player I ever heard. He never made it, but I think of him and it helps."

Born William David Kearney in Houston, Texas, in 1939 and raised in Kissimee, Fla., Shorty, who is 5 feet 10, got the nickname when he first started performing professionally at age 14. "When I got my first dollar for performing, I couldn't believe it," he said. "I told everyone--I thought I was rich."

By the late 1950s, Guitar Shorty was recording. His 1957 single "Irma Lee" was produced in Chicago by the legendary Willie Dixon. And he was touring the country with artists such as Sam Cooke, Otis Rush, Little Milton, Johnny Copeland, T-Bone Walker and Ray Charles.

"I first worked with Ray Charles back in the 1950s," Shorty said. "When things weren't right, Ray would rehearse the band at the end of the night before they could go home. That's why Ray Charles is where he is today, but I never had any problem with Ray."

Shorty started performing his acrobatic flips after touring with Guitar Slim (no relation), who was also known for wild stage antics.

Once, while going through his routine, Shorty got tangled up in some cables on stage.

"I hit the floor of the stage and dislocated my shoulder," Shorty said. "I got up, still playing, but I was in so much pain."

Still, he finished the song. But he was a victim of his own success: The audience called him back for seven encores.

Shorty settled in Seattle in the early 1960s and married a woman whose stepbrother was a young guitarist named Jimi Hendrix. "Jimi was a very quiet person, but he was very wise," Shorty said. "He never had too much to say, but when he spoke, he made sense."

Hendrix confided to Shorty that he had gone AWOL from the Army just to catch some of Shorty's performances in Los Angeles. Shorty claims some of Hendrix's licks in "Purple Haze" and "Hey Joe" are really Shorty's that Jimi appropriated.

Shorty moved to Los Angeles in 1971. He recorded with several companies during the 1970s and '80s. He recorded his first full-length CD, "My Way or the Highway," in 1991 and it won a W.C. Handy Award that year. His latest CD, "Roll Over, Baby," was just released on Black Top Records.

The 59-year-old performer still has a few goals before he hangs up his guitar.

"My dream is to be onstage with Eric Clapton and with the Rolling Stones," Shorty said. "And I want to have some hit records."

Guitar Shorty performs Saturday night at B. B. King's Blues Club, Universal CityWalk, 1000 Universal Center Drive; (818) 622-5464.

*

Other Options: Don't just sit there alone in your room.

This is "guitar" weekend in the Valley. Besides Guitar Shorty performing Saturday, B.B. King's will offer Guitar Jack on Friday evening. Also Saturday night, Cozy's will offer Roy "Guitar" Gaines.

If guitar is not your cup of tea, consider boogie-woogie pianist Rob Rio at Cozy's or the sultry Francesca and the Flames at Smokin' Johnnie's on Friday.

If 1960s-'70s R&B is what you like, check out the Vibe Tribe at Cafe Cordiale on Saturday. Or if "Star Trek" is more your thing, Tim Russ, a.k.a. Vulcan Tuvok, performs Saturday at Common Grounds in Northridge.

Have a good time.

BE THERE

Cozy's Bar & Grill, 14058 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks; (818) 986-6000.

Smokin' Johnnie's, 11720 Ventura Blvd., Studio City; (818) 760-6631.

Cafe Cordiale, 14015 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks; (818) 789-1985.

Common Grounds, 9250 Reseda Blvd., Northridge; (818) 882-3666.

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