Shorty was officially born in 1991 under the guise of vocalist Al Johnson and guitarist Mark Shippy. Along with drummer Todd Lamparelli and bassist Luke Frantom, they released three singles and two albums. Their backgrounds were diverse, which contributed to their unique sound. Shippy had formal instruction on piano and did a lot of guitar experimentation, while Johnson had taken flute, piano, and guitar lessons. Lamparelli learned the drums at an early age and performed in school jazz ensembles. Frantom had taken up bass after playing tuba in his high school marching band. When the four of them finally developed Shorty, they made the unconscious decision to hone chaotic blocks of loud rock noise pulling from influences as disparate as Van Halen, drummer Stewart Copeland, Motörhead, and Gang of Four.
Johnson and Shippy met through mutual friends in late 1986. At the time, Johnson was involved with the DeKalb, IL, hard rock/gothic band Nursery, and Shippy was in a quasi-politico art rock group called the Muckrakers from Crystal Lake, IL. In the spring of 1988, the two of them decided to form a new band, which led to their decision to place an ad in a DeKalb newspaper. The responses they received didn't amount to anything, and the duo seriously thought about departing for England to see if they'd have better luck. Just as they were preparing to pack their bags, they received a serious inquiry to their ad from Lamparelli and Ciarrocchi. At the time, Lamparelli had just quit playing drums and Anthony Ciarrocchi gave up singing in their Chicago Heights thrash/punk rock outfit Tricot Mesh. Original bassist Ciarrocchi and Lamparelli had known each other since childhood. Together, the new four-piece began playing jangly noise rock under the name Dragster, with Shippy and Johnson sharing guitar and vocal duties. After discovering there was another band named Dragster, the group renamed themselves Bomb. Once again, they found out that name was taken as well. In the fall of 1988, Ciarrocchi parted ways with the band and was replaced by bassist Tim Mescher. It was also at that time when Mescher and Mike Greenleese, who were both members of Blatant Dissent/Tar, chose Bomb's new name. As of January 1989, they were called Snailboy, a term referring to a lethargic racehorse. As Snailboy, the band released two singles, the first of which — titled Mungo — was recorded with Ian Burgess and Brad Wood. Tar guitarist John Mohr released the 7" in 1990 on his No Blow label, without any contracts being signed. At this time, Snailboy was renting out the basement of a farmhouse owned by one of Lamparelli's co-workers. For 50 dollars per month, the band could practice any day they wanted and as late as they wanted. It sounded too good to be true, and it was. The band encountered many strange happenings on the property, which included geese running around inside of the home, the co-worker's naked daughter defecating on the floors, weasels crossing drainpipes over Johnson's head while the band played, and amplifiers occupied by nests of baby mice.
After leaving the surreal practice space, the group immediately began searching for the producer who would record their second single. They admired the sound that Butch Vig was giving to bands like Killdozer, the Laughing Hyenas, and the Bastards. When they contacted Vig, he was in the process of recording Nirvana's Nevermind, but he made time to pencil in a slot for Snailboy. That August, the group traveled to Madison, WI, where they spent two days recording with Vig at Smart Studios. The second single, Spoo Heaven, appeared on the Long Beach, CA, imprint Sympathy for the Record Industry around April of 1991. Following the release, Mescher was replaced by Frantom on bass. Snailboy was living in the same house at the time of Mescher's departure. Mescher was having differences with some of the band's members, which stunted the group's development for a year. The decision was made to hire Frantom because Johnson had been a longtime friend of his, and they had played in Nursery together. Frantom was also performing with the speed metal group A Goldfish Named Blade.
With the addition of a new bassist to Snailboy came a new musical direction and band name. According to Shippy, he and Johnson agreed on the new moniker for different reasons. Shippy had always admired the unconventional playing of Guitar Shorty, while Johnson liked the name because it was a common street name. The group unofficially became Shorty in May of 1991 and decided to officially keep the moniker in September. Atlanta, GA, label Worry Bird released the band's first 7", Last One in My Mouth Is a Jerk, late that year. The band also appeared on the DeKalb, IL, compilation On a Clear Day You Can See Byron. In December of 1992, a friend of Shorty's who owned the Madison, WI, label Bovine Records released a single culled from eight-track material recorded with Steve Albini. The 7" was pressed and titled Niggerhat. Shorty then began preparing songs for their first full-length release. Around this same time, Tar was conducting a European tour. While they were in Germany, guitarist John Mohr was approached by an unknown man named Rene Herbst. He had heard the No Blow single and told Mohr that he'd been trying to contact Shorty for a long time to let the band know that he wanted to pay for their next album. When Mohr returned to Illinois, he informed Shorty of the news and put them in touch with Herbst. Shortly thereafter, Herbst sent money to the band and told them to record with whomever they wanted, and Shorty chose Albini. Shorty followed Herbst's desire to have Albini produce the record. The group spent a week laying down songs at the Chicago Recording Company and mixing them at Albini's home. Thirty five hundred copies of Shorty's debut LP, Thumb Days, were pressed by the Southern Germany based Gasoline Boost Records in April of 1993. Both Caroline and Cargo records handled the American distribution, and the record sold out prior to its official release date. The artwork and the music of the album caught the attention of Skin Graft Records' owner Mark Fischer. That September, Skin Graft issued Shorty's Kaput! 7" single. This was followed by performances with Skin Graft labelmates Zeni Geva and the Dazzling Killmen and an appearance on a John Peel compilation. The band also began work on their next album, Fresh Breath, with Albini. As their popularity in the underground began to spread, Shorty set out for a European tour in April of 1994. The band spent a month on the road with Champaign, IL, rock trio the Didjits. As they returned to America, Frantom had some personal business matters he had to take care of, which ultimately caused his separation from the band. Fresh Breath was released as a 10" album that June, as the band was calling it quits. The record featured guest vocals by John Forbes, a member of noise rockers Mount Shasta. The group's mutual friend John Barrile was recruited to play bass, and their first show with him in July 1994 at Lounge Ax turned out to be the band's last. Barrile was nervous on-stage, and Lamparelli was agitated because he couldn't hear the band clearly. To top it all off, Skin Graft had scheduled Shorty to leave for the label's Oops! Indoors! tour the following day, but the band canceled their appearances. Shorty fell apart, and Johnson and Shippy were figuring out the next step they needed to take musically when Shippy was struck by a car. After he recovered from hemorrhaging and minor injuries, he and Johnson gathered with their friends — guitarist Todd Rittmann and drummer Jim Kimball — to begin working on a new group. After replacing Kimball with Pat Samson, the new band became U.S. Maple. Shorty was featured posthumously on the 1995 Zero Hour compilation Threadwaxing Space Live: The Presidential Compilation and the 1997 Skin Graft compilation Camp Skin Graft 33 Hits! Now Wave Vols. 1-3. ~ Stephen Howell