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Musician Git Shorty to celebrate 84th birthday with concert at The Barn

Musician Git Shorty to celebrate 84th birthday with concert at The Barn

ZANESVILLE — At a Denny’s restaurant on Interstate 70 in Zanesville, internationally renowned music artist Git Shorty sits quietly in the corner of a stained table, drinking coffee from a delicate ceramic cup and wearing a captain’s hat.

“People know me by my hat,” he says, as the clinking of glasses and subtle conversations create their own music. He lifts his eyes and smiles from the crinkled corners. You know right away that there’s something special about this Maestro who can play any guitar you put in front of him. The bass isn’t his favorite instrument, he says, but that doesn’t matter. He still loves music.

“I’ve been through a lot,” says Git Shorty, 83, who was born Elbert Ferguson in 1940 in Roney, Ohio, to Selma and William Ferguson. He lived briefly in Zanesville as a toddler before moving to West Palm, Fla. He returned to Zanesville in the 1980s and settled quietly into a house on Lee Street.

He takes a sip of coffee and looks out the dirty window as cars come and go in the parking lot. He glances at me and smiles again. Everything you need to know about this rebel who lights his guitar on fire during his performances is in his gaze. A gentle, confident honesty that you only hear from a man who has lived his life well and learned from it.

“I’m a triplet,” she says of herself and her triplets Everett and Edward, both of whom have since passed away. “I weighed only one and a half pounds when I was born.”

He was delivered by a midwife. He is lucky to be alive.

“My mother was very strong,” Shorty says, adding that she gave birth to 21 children before dying of an aneurysm at age 57. His father died at age 87. This Sunday, July 14, Shorty turns 84. He’ll be celebrating at The Barn with the love of his life — his music.

The ceremony will be held from 5 to 9 p.m. and will be open to the public. Several of his musical friends will be in attendance, including guitarist David Granati, who toured with Van Halen in the 1980s, and the North Carolina blues band The King Bees.

Shorty has five children, four grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren. He doesn’t think any of them will come.

“They don’t support me,” he says. He seems to accept that as part of the ebb and flow of his life. He’s never been married. His love has always been music, whether people agree with him or not.

His face brightens.

“I went to a bar one day and I told the guy, ‘I left my wife in the car,’” Shorty said with a scoundrel’s grin. “He said, ‘You left your wife in the car?’ And I came back with my red guitar, Mrs. Shorty, and I said, ‘Yeah, my guitar.’”

From the very beginning it was Shorty and his guitar against the world.

“I learned to play in church,” Shorty says, nodding and fiddling with his cup, now empty. A waiter comes over to refill it. Shorty shakes his head politely. “I started strumming guitar.”

Shorty, with a twinkle in his eye, recounts how he often had to sneak away to play his guitar, hiding in the basement and other carefully chosen places where the musical notes could not reach his parents’ ears. If they somehow escaped his hiding place and his mother or father heard the melody on the wind, Shorty would be targeted: “Don’t play that devil music!”

“So I’d sneak out,” Shorty says with a wink. “I’d walk about a mile and a half down the road to get to my car, and then I’d go to the club to play.”

I feel like he’s not just proud of his ability to play music and entertain any crowd he gets in front of – he’s also proud of what he had to do to be able to play. It was a sacrifice every time he plucked the chords he loved so much.

The struggle to play the game was as great as the music he created.

“When I started, I knew nothing,” he says as a noisy table sits down next to us. He notices them for a second before turning to me. “I’ve been everywhere.”

Shorty traveled the world for 67 years, playing with some of the greatest musicians to ever sing a note. In fact, it was the legendary James Brown who took Shorty under his wing in 1961 after seeing him sing and play “Hound Dog” as a backing band at the Sir John Hotel Talent Show in Miami.

“He told me, ‘I’ll help you,’” said Shorty, who released his own album, “Git Shorty,” on Bonedog Records in 2000 and is currently working on another release. “He offered me a job.”

Shorty was quickly hired by The James Brown Revue and later attended Juilliard under Brown’s tutelage.

“Juilliard taught me how to play,” he says with a confident nod. “Other things—James Brown taught me how to be a professional. He taught me what I do.”

Shorty nods as if Brown and Michael Jackson were in the room and he’s giving them their due. It’s a memory that humbles him. He attributes his musical professionalism—including never smoking, drinking or doing drugs—to learning valuable lessons from the greats.

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“It doesn’t matter what you play,” says Shorty. “Just be the best at it.”

Before his secret meeting with Brown, Shorty had his first professional gig with Florida bluesman Big Joe Dynamo in 1958. In 1960, Shorty played with his guitar teacher A.C. Jones & the Chanceteers, featuring George McCrae. McCrae had a hit with “Rock Your Baby.” In 1963, Shorty played with Ace King and toured regionally with Sam and Dave. He was a regular at the TK studios and played shows with O.V. Wright, Tyrone Davis and J. Blackfoot, according to his biography.

He claims he learned something from each of them.

“We all have something different to offer,” Shorty says. His face takes on a serious expression. “I didn’t want to be like anyone else. I always did it my way.”

This is what caught the attention of bluesman Willie Dixon.

“They had a guy in Florida named Shorty who used to do tricks on the guitar,” Dixon wrote in his book I Am the Blues of Shorty’s guitar acrobatics, according to Shorty’s biography. “He was the guy Buddy Guy reminded me of, because I would show Buddy how to spin the guitar, throw it in the air, upside down, all kinds of little tricks to get people excited. Shorty was the first one I saw with that idea, and I started playing with Buddy.”

In the 1970s, Shorty’s music scene began to fade, so he headed to Pennsylvania and took a job at J&L Steel.

According to his biography, in 1975 he could no longer play due to injuries sustained at work.

But not for long. In reality, nothing can stop Shorty from the connection he has with music.

“It’s my therapy,” he says, nodding. Now he’s honest about his passion. “I can be sick. Pick up my guitar. And time flies. I always have to do it.”

He smiles broadly. Music is not only his love, it is the air he breathes. His joy comes from music.

“I’m always happy,” he smiles. His finger taps a flyer on the table that says “Stay Happy.” There are three photos of him smiling. Two of them are of him wearing a captain’s hat. One is of him wearing a shiny gold jacket and pants, and the most amazing white shoes I’ve ever seen.

“I did it,” he says of the gold suit.

“What? A costume?” I ask.

He nods with a smile. He likes that he surprised me again.

“I sew,” he says, regretting that he makes his own costumes. Another layer of a complicated man is revealed.

He taps the photo of the camper on the flyer. “It’s got 4 million miles on the clock.”

The plates are clattering and I must have misheard. I ask, “Did you say 4 million? 4 million miles?”

He nods with another proud smile. This is great fun for him. “Since 1977. I’ve been taking care of her.”

It was this sense of humor that kept Shorty smiling even in the face of blatant discrimination, like being forced to sleep in tents instead of hotels when he was young because of the color of his skin. Or even that morning, before this interview, when he was reported for having his camper in an alley.

“I just keep telling myself, ‘They’ll change,’” Shorty says with a shrug. Music is the great equalizer, after all. “That’s how I cope. I let my music do the talking.”

He is modest in every way.

“God has blessed me to still be here,” she says. “And I will help anyone I can. I don’t turn anyone away.”

As an ode to that, he says he still puts in the work to be the best musician he can be, even today. Then he interrupts the conversation to ask what my sign is. Sagittarius, I say.

“I’m a Cancer,” he says, before returning to the question.

“My fingers are still the same speed they were when I was 16 or 17,” he says of the work he put in. “I could play for 12 hours. I draw strength from the audience.”

He says the audience is everything. Without them, he is nothing. He will continue to work, he says, to please them.

“I’m always thinking about how to do better,” he says. He stops and looks into my eyes for a second. “I’ll never be good enough for myself.”

It’s time to go. The noisy table next to us has long since departed, and our waiter has disappeared after several failed attempts to refill our glasses. I glance back at the “Stay Happy” flyer and notice different words on the page.

“That doesn’t mean everything is perfect,” it says in blue letters and simple font. “It means you’ve chosen to look beyond the imperfections.”

I looked up and saw Shorty slowly sliding out of the cab. He smiled at me.

“Can I take a picture with you?” he asks. I smile, humbled by his question. I’m no one special. But you’d never know it from his sincerity.

“Of course,” I say.

I hug him as the iPhone clicks and he immediately says, “It was nice meeting you.”

I smile when I see the joy in his eyes as he remembers the time we spent together at a plain, white table in the middle of nowhere.

All I can say is, “No, Shorty, it’s my pleasure.”