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The Flips Side of Success Bums Guitar Shorty

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

What blues man Guitar Shorty learned about showmanship while paying dues in New Orleans clubs back in the ‘50s now seems to be the very thing backing him into a musical corner.

Impressed after seeing Shorty perform in the ‘50s with Sam Cooke at the fabled Dew Drop Inn in New Orleans, Guitar Slim’s manager offered Shorty the opening slot on the elder guitarist’s tour. This proved pivotal for Shorty’s career as he watched Slim (Eddie Jones) dazzle crowds with his wild stage antics, which included riding on the shoulders of a roadie while peeling off lick after lick.

An ambitious Shorty decided, “If he can do that, I can turn flips!”

So the fledgling musician began to feature an assortment of acrobatic moves in his own act, including back flips, headstands, somersaults and other crowd-pleasers. It wasn’t long before Shorty gained a reputation for his onstage athletics.

That wild streak won him to wider recognition, but the downside has been that it’s often taken attention off his talents as a musician. His sturdy, expressive vocals and considerable guitar chops--full of emotion and tonal variety--influenced peers including Buddy Guy and Jimi Hendrix, but fans seem far more interested in the pyrotechnics.

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“It hurts me when someone in the crowd yells out, ‘Hey, when are you gonna do those flips?’ . . . right in the middle of one of my songs,” Shorty said recently by phone from his home in Woodland Hills. Backed by his four-piece band, Guitar Shorty performs tonight at the Blue Cafe in Long Beach and Saturday at B.B. King’s Blues Club Citywalk in Universal City.

“It’s very distracting. I’ve seen some promoters bill me as ‘Guitar Shorty--The Trickster,’ and I think it just encourages that kind of thing. I don’t mind doing some flips and stuff, but I know one thing . . . I’m gonna have to quit all of that sometime. I’m not getting any younger, and let me tell ya, all them bumps and bruises are wearin’ me out.”

Shorty, 58, was born William David Kearney in Houston and raised by his grandmother in Kissimee, Fla. He started taking guitar lessons at 6 from his uncle and at 14 began playing professionally with an orchestra in a local club. Because of his age and size, the club’s owner dubbed him “Guitar Shorty.”

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In the late-1950s, toured with Cooke, Ray Charles and Otis Rush and recorded several singles on the Pull and Cobra labels, including the Willie Dixon-produced “Irma Lee.” Then in the ‘60s, Shorty toured with more blues heavyweights, including Little Milton, Johnny Copeland, Lowell Fulson and T-Bone Walker. He later moved to Seattle, where he met and married Hendrix’s stepsister, Marsha.

Once part of the family, Shorty was surprised to hear how much interest Hendrix had in his playing.

“Jimi told me that while he was in the Army, stationed in Spokane, he would sneak off to see me play clubs like the Black and Tan in Seattle,” he said. “I still hear some of my licks in songs like ‘Purple Haze’ and ‘Machine Gun.’ But he did something with it . . . he took it somewhere.”

Shorty moved to Los Angeles in 1971, where he worked the club scene hard. But the next 20 years found his recording output limited to only a few singles and EPs. It wasn’t until 1991 that he cut his first full-length album. Released in Great Britain and available in the U.S. only as an import, “My Way or the Highway” not only earned him a W.C. Handy Award for foreign contemporary blues album, but it also helped resurrect his career.

That award led to a deal with New Orleans-based Black Top Records, which signed Shorty to a multi-album deal in 1993. He’s released three albums since, including the new “Roll Over, Baby.”

Mixing Crescent City second-line rhythms (“The Porkchop Song”) and horn-spiced soul (“Roll Over, Baby”) with old-school blues (“Don’t Mess With My Woman,” “Sugar Wugar”), the 12-song collection features seven originals, four numbers written by local cult-fave Swamp Dogg (Jerry Williams) and a cover of “Hey Joe.”

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With a new record on the streets--and recent tours throughout Great Britain, France, Turkey, the Netherlands, Greece, Canada, Australia, China, Malaysia and the U.S.--Shorty has no reason to feel blue. But he says he does still feel he has something to prove.

“What I’m doing now is trying to get people to see me--and respect me--as a singer and guitar player, not just as some kind of daredevil or acrobat. Maybe the only way to do that--to make the music come first--is to play and sing as well as I possibly can. And that’s really all I can do.”

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* Guitar Shorty plays tonight at the Blue Cafe, 210 Promenade, Long Beach. 9 p.m. $7 (562) 983-7111. Also Saturday at B.B. King’s Blues Club Citywalk, Universal City. 8:30 p.m. $12 (818) 622-5464.


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