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Guitar Shorty: 'The real music is the blues'

In town for the Long Beach Bayou and Blues Festival this weekend, the blues musician talks about his latest album, President Obama and his dream show. His onstage stunts are pretty much a thing of the past, he says.

June 23, 2012|By Randy Lewis, Los Angeles Times
  • Guitar Shorty is photographed at a friend's home June 16 in Northridge.
Guitar Shorty is photographed at a friend's home June 16 in Northridge. (Brian Vander Brug / Los Angeles…)

Blues musician Guitar Shorty has pretty much given up the mid-performance back flips and other extreme physical antics that helped establish his onstage persona in the 1960s and '70s.

It's not because he's no longer capable, says the 72-year-old guitarist, singer and songwriter. But the stunts were always just a means to an end: getting audiences to notice his music.

"I don't have to do that any more," he said by cellphone on a tour that brings him back to the Southland for an appearance Sunday at the 2012 Long Beach Bayou and Blues Festival at the city's seaside Rainbow Lagoon Park. "When you play so much guitar like I do, you don't have to do all that crazy stuff. I figure once in a while, it can give me a little advantage, so I might play with one hand, put the guitar behind my back or sometimes play guitar with my mouth. . . Sometimes I do a flip. The last time was a few years back."

The acrobatics Shorty (born David William Kearney) relies on these days are primarily musical, his approach crystallized in the title of his latest album, "Bare Knuckle," released in 2010.

It opens with a wry request to the nation's chief executive, "Please Mr. President," in which Shorty speaks on behalf of all working people when he asks "Please Mr. President, lay some stimulus on me."

"I'm a family man who's trying to take care of my family," he said, "like everybody out there who are trying to find jobs today."

And like the back flips of yore, it's also a not-unsubtle bid for a little more attention.

"I got so many calls from people saying, 'Shorty, how come Obama doesn't have you there to play in the White House?' I just say, 'Maybe it's not my time yet.' I got another one I've started that's about him. I'm singing 'Obama for President — and you better listen to me!' Maybe that'll get me in there," the Houston native said with a laugh.

Playing for the president is one of two goals Shorty cites when asked about any dreams that still lie ahead, the other being "I want to play with Eric Clapton so bad it hurts. That'd be my dream because it would be a chance for a lot of people to see me. I want to be on that Crossroads blues festival of his."

"Bare Knuckle" contains a solid cross section of the various hues of blues Guitar Shorty incorporates into his wide-ranging live shows: the chugging shuffle of "Texas Women," the ominous churn of the talking blues-rooted "Slow Burn," the muscular rock punch of "Too Hard to Love You" and the hard-swinging swagger of the boastful "Temporary Man." His voice shares some of the same clenched emotive quality of B.B. King's, and he's capable of an earthy growl like John Lee Hooker's signature "how-how-how-how."

He picked up a lot of what he learned during years of apprenticeships playing in the bands of Ray Charles, Sam Cooke and others after leaving Texas to pursue his career.

"I had a wonderful time with Ray," he said. "Going on the road with him was the first tour of my life. I was shaking like a tree. Sometimes he would yell at me and I'd be happy and glad and scared too. I learned a lot from him."

The life of a working blues musician often is a hardscrabble existence, but Shorty has seen signs of continued growth in recent years. His 2004 album "Watch Your Back" became his biggest seller to date, according to his record label, Chicago-based Alligator Records, and the 2006 follow-up, "We the People," earned him a Grammy nomination and a contemporary blues album of the year win at the annual Blues Music Awards.

"That hit me so hard, words are not enough," he said. "I put a lot of work into what I'm doing, and I try to reach more people as well. I want to be happy, too, doing it, and an award like that makes me work even harder for the next one."

He's been a Southland resident for most of the last 40 years after moving to Anaheim in 1971. He recently went home to Texas for a short time, but decided he'd rather be back in Southern California, so he moved back last year.

One thing he came away with from those who mentored him was a lifelong respect for the importance of encouraging young musicians. So he sometimes brings talented young musicians on stage with him, or even gives lessons on his days off.

That also ties in with an observation he shares with King and other accomplished blues players who have bemoaned the dearth of young black musicians taking up the form.

"A lot of the kids today figure they'll go after the money real fast, and so they go into R&B and rap," he said. "But that's not the real music.

"One day they are going to be playing the blues," he said. "The older they get, they'll be playing it. I was fortunate to be born with the blues. The real music is the blues. Everything else that's out there comes from the blues. The mother of all music is the blues."

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