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Legendary blues guitarist Guitar Shorty dies at 87

Guitar Shorty performs at the the sixth annual Big Blues Bender at Vinyl inside the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino on September 08, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada
(Image credit: Gabe Ginsberg/Getty Images)

Guitar Shorty, a guitar legend credited with influencing scores of blues players – including a young Jimi Hendrix – has died at the age of 87, his representatives confirmed.

The guitarist – who toured with the likes of Ray Charles, Guitar Slim and Sam Cooke – died Wednesday (April 20) at his home in Los Angeles of natural causes, his record label, Alligator, said (opens in new tab) in a statement.

Born David William Kearney on September 8, 1934 in Houston, Texas, Guitar Shorty picked up the guitar at a young age, influenced by B.B. King, Guitar Slim and T-Bone Walker. As a teenager, he joined Walter Johnson's 18-piece orchestra, where his short stature earned him the nickname – from a club owner – that stuck with him for the rest of his life.

One of Kearney's performances with Johnson earned him the attention of Willie Dixon, who introduced Kearney to some of his peers in the Chicago blues scene. Kearney's first single – recorded for Cobra Records in 1957 – featured Otis Rush, and caught the attention of Ray Charles, who subsequently hired Kearney for his touring band.

Kearney's time with Charles led to another prominent gig, opening for Guitar Slim. Slim's wild showmanship rubbed off on Kearney, who began incorporating somersaults and flips into his act. 

After a stint touring with Sam Cooke, Kearney settled in Seattle and – through mutual friends – met a young, aspiring guitarist by the name of Jimi Hendrix.

"Back when he'd [Hendrix] come in off the road, when I was in Seattle, he'd come and sit around, and we'd swap ideas," Kearney told the Chicago Tribune (opens in new tab) in 1993. "He told me he went AWOL [from the army] many times to watch me."

Kearney's wild stage antics are said to have left a profound impression on Hendrix as well. “Jimi told me the reason he started setting his guitar on fire was because he couldn’t do the back flips like I did,” Kearney is reported (opens in new tab) to have said.

After settling in Los Angeles in the early '70s, Guitar Shorty became a regular local opener for the blues legends that passed through the city – including some of his early heroes, like B.B. King and T-Bone Walker. He also appeared (opens in new tab), as himself, in the 1990 Tommy Chong film, Far Out Man

Kearney was a regular performer at blues festivals around the world in his later years, and continued touring and recording well into his 80s. His final album, Trying To Find My Way Back, was released in 2019.

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Jackson is an Associate Editor at GuitarWorld.com. He’s been writing and editing stories about new gear, technique and guitar-driven music both old and new since 2014, and has also written extensively on the same topics for Guitar Player (opens in new tab). Elsewhere, his album reviews and essays have appeared in Louder (opens in new tab) and Unrecorded (opens in new tab). Though open to music of all kinds, his greatest love has always been indie, and everything that falls under its massive umbrella. To that end, you can find him on Twitter crowing about whatever great new guitar band you need to drop everything to hear right now.