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FEATURES -- Guitar Shorty Interview

Guitar Shorty

There’s no slowing down this triple threat guitarist, singer, songwriter and superb showman, who still feels like he’s 19.  At age 70, Shorty has put out the best album of his storied career, so far.       

Guitar Shorty by Kurgansky
photo: Michael Kurgansky


By Eric Schelkopf

After showing off his guitar and athletic prowess at the Chicago Blues Fest in June - including leaping off the stage into the crowd - 70-year-old Guitar Shorty returns to Chicago on Aug. 7 when he plays at Buddy Guy's Legends, 700 S. Wabash Ave.

He will take the stage at 11 p.m., and there is a $15 cover charge. Joel Paterson and The Blues Round Up will open for Guitar Shorty at 9:30 p.m., and there will be a free acoustic set featuring Fruteland Jackson from 6 to 7 p.m.

Born David William Kearney in Houston, Texas, and raised in Kissimmee, Florida, by his grandmother, he was dubbed Guitar Shorty by the owner of a club who noted that the then 17-year-old was younger and shorter than the rest of his fellow members in a locally popular 18-piece orchestra.


Guitar Shorty has a long association with the Windy City, dating back to 1957, when he cut his first single for Chicago's Cobra Records, which was the first label for blues legends Otis Rush, Magic Sam and Buddy Guy.


Blues great Willie Dixon got him into the studio, and Guitar Shorty cut the single "Irma Lee," backed by Rush on second guitar.

 Guitar Shorty's musical pedigree is long, including touring with Ray Charles and Sam Cooke as a member in their bands.


I had the chance to talk to Guitar Shorty about his latest record -- Bare Knuckle, out on Chicago-based Alligator Records – and about what keeps him playing and performing music.

Guitar Shorty Holek
Guitar Shorty at Chicago Blues Fest 2010.
 Photo: Tim Holek

Q - How did you like playing at Chicago Blues Fest?

I had a lot of fun. I get a lot of energy off the crowd.


Q - What did Willie Dixon teach you?

He taught me how to create. I didn't know at the time how to put feeling into the music. He told me I had a lot of talent and he could see it. I'm very thankful that he took me under his wing.


Q - How was it working with Sam Cooke?

He was the best. He had a great voice and great personality. He just drew the women. I don't know what it was.

Guitar Shorty at Chan's
Photo: Michael Kurgansky

Q - I understand you took your stage show from watching Guitar Slim on stage.

He would turn over on his stomach and put his guitar behind him. People would have a fit because that was something they'd never seen. I figured if he could do it, I can.


Q - Your album "Bare Knuckle" is getting a lot of good buzz. What kind of goals did you have making the album?

I've talked to many fans who say it's the best one yet. It's a little different than any other album I've done. It has a little funk in it, and there is a little storytelling in it. Like the song "Slow Burn," which is about a serviceman who loses his arm and leg and comes back and nobody knows him.


Q - Who are your influences?

My main influence on guitar was the man who taught me to play, my uncle. He could take anything and make a song out of it. He would press my hands up against the guitar strings because my hands weren't big enough to go around the neck.


Q - You still have a lot of energy on stage. What keeps you going?

As long as I've got my strength, I'm going to keep going on stage. I feel like I did when I was 19 years old. When I get revved up, I don't want to leave the stage.



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