Guitar Shorty IThere has been more than one Blues player called Guitar Shorty, but something they have in common is a talent for showmanship. Jimi Hendrix‘s brother-in-law is still using that name over on the West-coast for his backflipping, flash-guitar stage act, and others may have used it too, but an older Bluesman with an similar ‘larger-than-life’ character took the name much earlier.

John Henry Fortescue was born in Belhaven NC, on the coast of Pamlico Sound in January 1923, but as a youth he moved west to live in Renston and later in Farmville. The rural Piedmont area resounded to Blues music in the 30s, with Blind Boy Fuller‘s records inspiring his imitators and competitors to play on streetcorners and in bars for the tobacco workers. John Henry took up guitar as a kid when his uncle got him started, but he soon worked out his own unique tunings which allowed him to play slide and chords in the same tune. He was always a whole-hearted performer, keen to improvise on guitar, a wizard on the spoons, liable to break out into a boogie half-way into any song, and always full of tall stories. This vivacious personality got him the name Guitar Shorty.

Shorty sings a hilarious duet with himself!


In June 1952, Shorty made some recordings for Savoy Records when he was billed as Hootin’ Owl: although ‘Love That Woman’ and ‘Wine Drinkin’ Baby’ were not issued at the time, they showed up on compilations many decades later. There is no evidence that he ever took his act on the road, but it is possible that he was the source of David Kennedy being known as ‘Guitar Shorty’, because the story goes that he showed up at a Florida club in 1956 and ‘Guitar Shorty’ was on the posters, so he adopted that name when he began performing over on the West-coast. The original Guitar Shorty got married and settled in Elm City NC, working during the tobacco season but mainly scraping a living with his guitar. In 1970, Blues fan Danny McClean recorded Shorty in his own front room and at a local radio station, resulting in the album ‘Carolina Slide-Guitar’. This showed the scope of Shorty’s abilities, with his stylish playing, his great original songs and his interpretation of classics like the Spiritual, ‘Jesus on the Main Line’ and a Blind Willie Johnson number. He told Danny he had played with Blind Willie, and with Blind Boy Fuller too, but he also claimed to have played with The Beatles and the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra. He was always full of tall stories and also liable to break in to an astonishing Elvis impersonation at any moment!
Guitar Shorty I Discography
Not to be confused with the West-coast ‘ball of energy’, this rather more laid-back character plays some superb Piedmont guitar and sings 10 of his own songs, and a superb version of Blind Willie Johnson’s ‘Near the Cross’.

ALONE IN HIS FIELD

In 1972, Pete Lowry recorded an album of Shorty’s original material which appeared as ‘Alone in His Field’, showing off a virtuoso guitar technique that has been compared to Lightnin’ Hopkins‘. It seems that Shorty was not an ambitious man, content to play his Blues around his local towns, and was happy so long as he had enough money to get drunk. He passed away in Rocky Mount NC in 1976 at the age of 53.