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Standing Tall

Guitar Shorty
Rick Oliver

Whole Lotta Shorty: Hands aren't the only thing showman Guitar Shorty uses to coax the blues out of his instrument.

Audiences are getting wise to bluesman Guitar Shorty

By Nicky Baxter

ACROBATICS have never been confined to the gymnasium in African American culture--just slip in a videotape of a Buddy Guy or a Jimi Hendrix in performance. Bluesman Guitar Shorty (who appears Feb. 21 at JJ's Blues) has also been known to roll and tumble while picking his ax. The last time he was in the Santa Clara Valley, two, maybe three years ago, the singer tore the house down, playing his instrument with everything but his hands at one point.

The 56-year-old Texan has been critically praised, yet he remains on the periphery of blues superstardom. Before that last appearance, Shorty discussed his muse and influences over the phone from Los Angeles. Initially inspired by flamboyant bluesman Guitar Slim, Guitar Shorty is also a fan of many other great guitarists. "T-Bone [Walker] and Earl Hooker--they was the baddest cats I ever heard in my life," he says.

B.B. King, he adds, is another blues player whose style had an impact on his own. His admiration for King was evidenced later in the evening at what used to be JJ's Downtown in San Jose, where he served up a jaw-dropping version of B.B. King's "Whole Lotta Lovin.'"

Observing a Guitar Shorty perform, and makes other name players come to mind, most especially Jimi Hendrix and Buddy Guy. "I really loved Jimi; he like a brother to me," says Shorty. "He used to follow me when I was in Seattle [Hendrix's hometown]. He never said much; he just watched me play."

Though his live performances have always been his trademark, Guitar Shorty has cut some fine albums as well. During the 1950s, he recorded a few singles for the Cobra label; it would be much later before he was afforded the opportunity to record full-length LPs. Like Hendrix, Guitar Shorty had to cross the Atlantic to kick-start his career properly. My Way or the Freeway (1991) won the prestigious W.C. Handy Award. Noted blues label Black Top signed him on a year later.

Get Wise to Yourself, the stocky guitarist's most recent disc for Black Top, is full of low-down city blues. The title track is built from the ground up by a taut bass figure, snappy drums and a raucous horn section. Slicing through the boogaloo are Shorty's acidic lyric and terse Albert King­flavored guitar fills. Shorty's own compositions, particularly "You Don't Treat Me Right" and "Hard to Stay Above the Ground," offer ample evidence that he is a capable songwriter as well.

Yet, as fine as the album is, it cannot approach a Guitar Shorty performance. Guitar Shorty must be seen to be believed. Now if only Black Top could hook him up with an audiovisual CD-ROM package.

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From the February 20-26, 1997 issue of Metro

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