What's it take to reach the crossroads? Were it only as simple as selling your soul, blues legend Guitar Shorty probably wouldn't hesitate. As it is, Shorty remains the most criminally underappreciated blues artist alive today. A man who inspired Jimi Hendrix, he records critically acclaimed albums for the prestigious blues label Alligator Records, but still hasn't been able to wrangle an invitation to play Eric Clapton's Crossroads Guitar Festival.
"My dream is to do Crossroads," says the 71-year-old performer. "The company's trying to get me on it, but nothing happens. I see all my buddies have worked the Crossroads, but I haven't been able to get there. I've been trying and trying and trying. I am so happy to be where I am today and, God willing, I'm going to keep on pushing it. I got to get on up there."
It's been a long road for Shorty. Some 55 years after he recorded his first single, "You Don't Treat Me Right," for Willie Dixon at the tender age of 16, the Texas native is still an amazing live performer. He first learned the value of showmanship as a teenage guitar prodigy backing the legendary Guitar Slim in the '50s. During shows, Slim would climb on the shoulders of his driver, and play the guitar from behind his head while being walked through the audience. Then he'd jump into the audience face down and surf the crowd while playing behind his back. The young guitar prodigy was impressed.
"I saw him do that one day, and I said if he could do that, I could turn flips," says Shorty, recalling the genesis of his signature stage move. "Sometimes now I still do it, if I have a good rhythm section behind me. Because when I'm running and jump up in the air, all that's right on the beat ... People think [because I'm older] I'm going to come out there dragging my heels and can't hardly get up. I can jump up just like the next youngest guy."
Years later, while Shorty was married to Jimi Hendrix's half-sister, Marcia, he met Jimi at a family reunion. "He said, 'Welcome to the family' and embraced me. While he was embracing me, he said, 'Shorty, thank you, man. You're one of the most extraordinary guitarists I ever seen or heard. I learned a lot from you,'" Shorty recalls. Indeed, he told Shorty he started setting his guitar ablaze because he couldn't do a flip.
While he enjoyed some success in the '50s and '60s, it was followed by a long fallow period in the '70s and '80s. He had to take part-time jobs and mechanic work just to make ends meet. At one point, he even appeared on The Gong Show, performing "They Call Me Guitar Shorty" while balanced on his head in 1976. (He won.)
Yet he's kept pushing, enjoying his resurgent popularity since the millennium, much like his friend Buddy Guy. Shorty released the terrific Bare Knuckle in 2010, his third album in seven years, and shows no sign of letting up.
"I ain't ever going to get old, because I love music. As long as you have music in your heart you will never grow old," he says. "I just love it, and I told them if I die with my guitar in my hand, I'm gonna die happy."