Under the organization of Charleston musician, bandleader, and blues enthusiast Gary “Shrimp City Slim” Erwin, Bill Blizard (a member of the Kiawah Arts Council), and the Town of Kiawah Accommodations Tax Committee, the third annual “Blues by the Sea” event is set to take place at Mingo Point, located just outside the main gates of Kiawah Island (45 minutes southeast of downtown). Guitar Shorty — a.k.a. David Kearney — headlines this year’s event. After nearly 50 years in the blues business, Shorty is still going strong.
Born in Houston in 1939, Guitar Shorty started playing guitar at a very early age. His early influences included blues guitarists B.B. King, Guitar Slim, T-Bone Walker, and Earl Hooker. By the time he was in his teens, he was gigging steadily in the Tampa area. One week, when he was 17, his bandleader told the group to get ready for the debut of the great talent “Guitar Shorty,” Kearney had no idea that he was the one to be introduced as the featured act.
“I’ve been playing in front of people all my life — ever since I was seven, really,” says Shorty, speaking by telephone this week from his tour van. “When I was 13, I started working for a band in Tampa under the leadership of a man named Walter Johnson. He had five horns and a great rhythm section. I couldn’t really play, but he took me in because he was friend of the family. I sat on a small stool behind a music stand back by the horn section. He told me to play with the amp and guitar turned down — just play along with the songs — until I got the hang of things. ‘Three O’Clock in the Morning’ was the first song I learned to play and sing together. After a while, he let me turn up.”
Around that time, Shorty began recording with the likes of Ray Charles, Willie Dixon, and Guitar Slim. In 1957, under Dixon’s direction, Shorty cut his debut single, “You Don’t Treat Me Right,” for Chicago’s Cobra Records. Shortly thereafter, in New Orleans, he fronted his own group and collaborated with such blues and R&B greats such as Big Joe Turner and Little Richard.
Shorty lived and worked in both Los Angeles and Canada until, in 1961, he met his wife, Marcia, in Seattle. Marcia was the big sister of young Jimi Hendrix, who came to see Shorty play often.
“I’ve had these ideas from all the way back,” says Shorty. “All the way to my time on Olive Branch Records and JSP Records out of London and Black Top Records in Chicago. I was with Black Top until just a few years ago, and they never really let me do my music the way I felt. Alligator has been great since they took me on. They let me do what I want to do.”
Shorty’s signing to Alligator in 2004 led to the release of Watch Your Back and the brand new We the People. His current touring lineup features electric guitarist Sam Pemberton, keyboardist Matt Farrow, bassist John Forrest, and drummer Mandrell “Foots” Allen.
“Shorty always keep a good band,” he laughs. “It’s blues/rock, but when you really look at it, it’s still just blues, but with an edge. It caters to the younger generation. A lot of kids now, they love my new album. A lot of young kids come on out to check it and see how I get my sound and all of it.”
This year’s lineup also features Lowcountry Blues Bash vets Eddie Kirkland and Skeeter Brandon, and Australian-born/Mississippi-based singer and harmonica and didgeridoo player Peter Harper.
Opening act Eddie Kirkland, a Jamaican-born singer/guitarist, grew up in south Alabama and relocated to Detroit in the 1940s. In the ’50s and ’60s, he recorded with various Motor City bands and musicians, developing an R&B sound and a lively performing style. By the late-’60s, he was situated back in the South. His latest disc is a 12-song disc titled Booty Blues.
Calvin “Skeeter” Brandon, a longtime blues and soul artist who spent time with Walter “Lightnin’ Bug” Rhodes’ band, Highway 61, Clarence Carter, and The Chi-Lites.
Peter Harper (a.k.a. “Harper”), recently signed to Blind Pig Records and released a studio album titled Day by Day that demonstrates a soulful blend of world, indigenous folk, and blues styles.
“It’s rain or shine as we have a covered facility big enough to hold a huge crowd,” says organizer Erwin. “Mingo Point is outside the gates of Kiawah. It’s a gorgeous marsh-side location looking out on the river. We’re going to have a full bar and lots of food for sale. No coolers please. Bring a lawn chair or blanket and make yourself at home.”
Shorty says he’s looking forward to the afternoon concert by the marsh. “I can’t wait to get there to Charleston. The audience are gonna hear the best of Guitar Shorty — everything I ever knew. I’m gonna give them my heart. I’m gonna give them a good show that they’ll never forget. I don’t wanna ever let anyone down. I still play every show like it’s my last time, like there’s no tomorrow. You never know if you’ll even make it off the stage, so you gotta play each show like it’s your last time — that’s my motto.”