ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, MAY 17, 2001
Hordes of rock guitarists have been influenced by Jimi Hendrix, but only a few would claim that he was influenced by them. According to Guitar Shorty’s latest bio, in the ’60s Hendrix would go AWOL from the U.S. army in order to catch Shorty’s gigs at venues like the Web in L.A. and the Black and Tan in Seattle. Of course, it helped that the guitarist—real name David Kearney—had married Hendrix’s stepsister.
“Jimi learned a lot from me,” says Kearney on the phone from his home in North Ridge, California. “And I was in the [Hendrix] family there for a little over five years. In fact, he’s the uncle of my daughter, Tammy.”
If it’s true that the guitar legend used to risk court-martial checking out Guitar Shorty shows, maybe that’s where Hendrix picked up his wild performance style. Kearney himself learned how to entertain a crowd by watching Guitar Slim, the Mississippi bluesman noted for the 1954 R&B hit “The Things That I Used to Do”.
“I saw him take a guitar and run on out in the crowd with about a 150-foot cord,” explains Kearney. “Then his valet would bring him back on his shoulders, and he’d get on the bandstand and lay down on the floor and kick up his heels. When I saw him do that, I said, ‘If he can do that, I can turn flips!’ ”
Before long, Kearney—who plays the Yale on a double bill with Canadian roots great Colin Linden on Wednesday (May 23)—was turning somersaults, doing backwards flips, and standing on his head, all while churning out some serious blues-rock licks. The headstands served him well during a stint on the wacky ’70s TV program The Gong Show.
“When I did the audition for the show,” Kearney recalls, “everybody said, ‘Shorty, you’re gonna win this, ain’t no problem.’ I said, ‘Oh no, I don’t think so, but at least I’m gonna give it a shot.’ Then [Gong Show host] Chuck Barris asked me what kind of work I did, and when I told him I was a truck driver, he just looked at me and started laughin’. He said, ‘Shorty, you’re not foolin’ me, I know that you are a professional. But after all this mess that I’ve been looking at and listening to, it’s about time we brought something in to break it up a little bit.’ So he kept me on it, and when I finished the show, I got 15 points plus. [Gong Show panellist] Jaye P. Morgan told me I was gonna go a long ways on my head.”