If cynicism breeds contempt, obscurity can often breed cynicism. This is common knowledge in the blues world, which for decades has been overpopulated with hard-bitten also-rans untouched by the hand of popularity. For all the B.B. Kings, Robert Crays, and Buddy Guys out there who have parlayed their years of nightclub success into lucrative careers playing before hordes of mostly white fans, there are hundreds of artists still slogging it out for low pay in smoky dives and beer-splattered roadhouses. Their stories are as much a part of blues history as Sonny Boy Williamson's taste for hooch and Robert Johnson's fabled pact with the Devil: They record a few singles for a small, poorly distributed independent label, maybe make a few dollars on the club circuit, then drift back into the routines of their daily lives and day jobs. Some -- such as Thirties Delta artist Mississippi John Hurt -- live quite contentedly in their small-town obscurity, only to be "rediscovered" decades later by a new generation of blues fans. Too many others, however, become jaded and bitter, scratching out a living through occasional live gigs before carrying their hurt and scorn to early graves.
Fifty-six-year-old William David Kearney, a Houston-born, Kissimmee-raised guitarist-vocalist known as Guitar Shorty, knows obscurity well. "I've always been playing, but it's been hard sometimes just staying alive," Shorty reflects on a Sunday afternoon from his home in Los Angeles. He began playing guitar at age six, and by his late teens found himself in the studio with ace songwriter and bassist Willie Dixon, who produced Shorty's first recording session in the mid Fifties for Cobra Records, the Chicago label that also featured Magic Sam, Otis Rush, and more of that city's West Side bluesmen. Shorty's slashing guitar runs and barking-dog vocals on Cobra sides such as "Irma Lee" would influence both Buddy Guy and a young Jimi Hendrix (whose stepsister Shorty married during a brief stay in Seattle) and help land him gigs with New Orleans ax man Guitar Slim and legendary soul vocalist Sam Cooke, yet his own hits never came. He spent the Sixties performing and doing session work, and in the early Seventies he moved to Los Angeles to work the West Coast club circuit (he even performed on The Gong Show in 1978). He recorded sporadically in the Eighties for several small labels, and moonlighted as a mechanic to help pay the bills.
It was a journeyman's career that closely resembled countless other coulda-beens, yet Shorty never succumbed to cynicism or self-pity, opting instead simply to stick it out. Nearly 30 years after his debut, Shorty's perseverance at last appears to be paying off: His 1991 album My Way or the Highway (on the British JSP label) won a W.C. Handy Award that year in the category of Contemporary Blues Album on a foreign label, which led to a contract with the New Orleans-based Black Top label, a respected indie whose roster includes Robert Ward, Earl King, and Anson Funderburgh and the Rockets. His pair of albums for the label -- 1993's Topsy Turvy and last year's Get Wise to Yourself -- find Shorty updating his salacious style of hard-swinging, horn-drenched blues without diluting its impact with overt pop moves. On Topsy Turvy, he manages to pull off a cover of Blood, Sweat & Tears' "I Love You More Than You'll Ever Know," while the latter features a hellacious version of "Ways of a Man," originally cut by Shorty in 1959 for the Los Angeles-based Pull label. He pours some boiling Southern funk into "I'm the Clean Up Man" and "Get Wise to Yourself" from the new album, and both sets showcase the second-line rhythms he picked back in the late Fifties while working in south Louisiana.
"This is like being home again," Shorty says of his new roost at Black Top. "Sometimes I wish it happened earlier, but I've never been jealous of anyone else who's doing well. I'm just glad this is happening. It's something I've always dreamed about and something I've wanted to do for a long time and worked hard to do. I've done mechanic work just to support my music, but it's tough because I'd always be coming and going off the road. I'd tell them what I was doing with my music and what I wanted to achieve, and some people would bend over backward to help me, but a lot of places, they'll fire you as soon as they find out you're a musician because they think you're unreliable and that you'll never show up for work. People can be cold like that."
With Shorty now spending up to nine months out of every year on the road, he no longer devotes much time to his automotive pursuits (although he'll tell you with pride that he still takes care of his 1979 Dodge touring van, whose engine he's rebuilt at least five times). The rigors of the road don't bother him, as he's racked up countless touring miles on bills shared with his early mentors T-Bone Walker and Guitar Slim. You can hear the influence of the former in Shorty's intricately picked guitar runs. From the latter -- a New Orleans guitarist renowned as much for his gymnastic stage antics as for his 1953 hit "The Things I Used to Do" -- Shorty learned the importance of showmanship. After watching Slim's rubber-legged high jinks, Shorty decided to concoct his own dazzling stage moves, including somersaults and forward and backward flips.
"When I was living in Tibodaux [in south Louisiana], we used to do these one-nighters with Guitar Slim," Shorty recalls. "He would do all this crazy stuff with his guitar. His valet would come up to the stage, and Slim would climb up on his shoulders and have him run through the crowd while he was playing guitar. He'd jump all over the stage and lay on his back and kick up his heels; he'd be on his stomach playing guitar. I thought, 'If he can do that, why can't I?' So I decided to turn flips on-stage."
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He debuted his new moves during a Daytona Beach performance with bandleader/saxophonist Barney "Goo Goo" Lewis. After two painful and unsuccessful attempts, Shorty's feet finally connected with the stage. "Oh, it was rough," Shorty admits. "The first two times I tried, I landed right on my head. It hurt so bad I could hardly see, and I had this big knot on my head, but I kept on playing. By this time most of the guys in the band had quit playing, and Barney thought I was going to kill myself. But I kept praying, 'Please, Lord, help me make this, please help me.' And I took a running start, closed my eyes, and managed to land on my feet. People started hollering and screaming and throwing money, so I kept on doing it. That's how I eventually made a name for myself -- by dancing around and doing crazy stuff with my guitar."
Although a 1984 automobile accident kept Shorty earthbound for the next four years, he says he's doing better flips now than he was 30 years ago: "I do kung fu now to keep in shape, and I do my stretches every day. The kung fu helps build up your body. You've got to take care of yourself, watch the food you eat, and keep in good shape. Too many of the people I came up with are gone now. They're just dropping like flies. But being on the road all the time really helps. I like all the scenery and getting to meet new people all the time. And I love being on-stage and making people smile. Seeing the expressions on people's faces when I'm playing makes me feel good and lets me know I'm getting my message across."
According to Shorty, that message is "just be happy and enjoy life. That's what I'm all about."
Guitar Shorty performs Saturday, February 17, at Tobacco Road, 626 S Miami Ave; 374-1198. Showtime is 10:00. Admission is $5.