David Kearney, a.k.a. Guitar Shorty, passed away April 20. The award-winning blues guitarist, songwriter, and vocalist who brought joy to the world with his showmanship, humor, and emotional artistry was 87 and suffered health issues including congestive heart failure and cancer.
Last of the old-school “blues showman” performers like Guitar Slim, T-Bone Walker, Albert Collins, and Jimi Hendrix, Kearney distinguished himself with stage shows that included somersaults and backflips while playing ferocious guitar.
Born September 8, 1934, in Houston, Kearney was mesmerized by John Lee Hooker, Guitar Slim, and B.B. King. In his 20s, “Shorty” played with Otis Rush, Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, T-Bone Walker, and his mentor, Guitar Slim. He recorded 14 critically acclaimed albums for various labels, and his spirited live shows kept him in demand around the world.
Kearney influenced millions of guitarists, including Buddy Guy and Hendrix, whom he met in the early ’60s after Hendrix would go AWOL from the Army to see his shows. Hendrix admitted to stealing guitar licks from Shorty, adding, “The reason I started setting my guitar on fire was because I couldn’t do backflips.”
“Shorty was one of the most exciting and unpredictable guitar players I’ve ever heard.” Bruce Iglauer, President of Alligator Records, told VG. “His music was rough-edged and improvisational, and his guitar sounds and note choices were constantly and spontaneously changing. He never played the same solo twice, even on songs that he played every night. He flew by the seat of his pants in a glorious way. I don’t think I ever saw anyone take so much pleasure in just playing the guitar. When he was inspired, a song could take 10 or 15 minutes, during which he was constantly exploring melodies, tones, and textures. I never got tired of hearing him.”
“I learned showmanship from Guitar Slim,” Kearney once told The Washington Times. “Ray Charles taught me music.”
He is survived by five children, 20 grandchildren, and a sister.
This article originally appeared in VG’s July 2022 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.