Yet he initially got his start with help from another musician--his uncle.
"When I play guitar now, I think of him," he says.
At age 13, Shorty became a professional musician and quickly began moving up in the blues-guitar world. He has since recorded more than 10 albums and has been touring for the past five decades.
Growing up in Florida, David William Kearney was raised by his grandmother. She, along with his uncle, noticed his early passion for music. He received the nickname Guitar Shorty at a young age for his ability to hit the chords on the guitar, and for being slightly shorter than the rest of the group he was performing with at the time: Walter Johnson's 18-piece band.
"It was scary; I had never been away from home," he says about going on the road for the first time.
Shorty stayed on the road for many years, at one point joining Ray Charles' band. A favorite performance was the last time Shorty played in Charles' road band. Shorty had the guitar solo in "Sweet Little Angel," which was Charles' cue to come on stage.
"It was the greatest moment of my life," Shorty says. "(Charles) knew how to deliver a song."
Yet life on the road became routine, and soon Shorty was in the studio recording his own tracks. Willie Dixon and Charles assisted Shorty by encouraging him to focus not only on the guitar, but on vocals as well.
After laying down tracks in the studio, Shorty began to steadily play gigs across the country--many with the same musicians who had inspired him as a young boy, like T-Bone Walker and B.B. King.
After meeting future wife Marcia Hendrix in Seattle in 1961--the half-sister of Jimi Hendrix--Shorty discovered he was himself inspiring young musicians, including Hendrix.
"Jimi said to me, 'Every time I see you perform, I learn something,' and he told me I was an amazing guitarist," Shorty recalls.
In the early 1970s, Shorty relocated from Seattle to Los Angeles, where he currently resides. He worked days as a mechanic and played gigs at night. In 1975, Shorty once again became a full-time musician.
Shorty became known for his lively stage shows, in addition to his guitar licks and vocals. He's even been known to perform while standing on his head.
"I give the audience everything I got--like it's my last performance," he says.
Throughout the '80s and '90s, Shorty released album after album and toured outside the United States. He was awarded the 2002 Blues Music Award for Contemporary Foreign Blues Album for his album with Otis Grand, My Way or the Highway.
"People tell me, 'You have never cut a bad album.' I am so happy and thankful," Shorty says.
In 2006, Alligator Record released Shorty's We the People, inspired by experiences with love, old friends and the adversities of modern living.
"It's difficult for the poor man to survive," Shorty explains.
Shorty's words of wisdom on his new album, which garnered Shorty another Blues Music Award, rely on past experiences. He says he's happy that he has attained his dreams.
"I am blessed; I have had many, many people to help me," Shorty says. "(My success) came from hard work and suffering to make ends meet."
Embarking on yet another tour this summer, Shorty is exactly where he belongs--on stage.
"The most rewarding thing is seeing people happy and clapping," he says.
Guitar Shorty will be joined by his band at 8 p.m., Friday, June 15, at Old Town Artisans, 201 N. Court Ave. Tickets are $18 in advance--available at CD City, Antigone Books, online at rhythmandroots.org or by calling (800) 594-8499--or $20 at the door. For information, call 440-4455 or visit guitarshorty.com.
Shorty is looking forward to visiting Tucson.
"I want to leave a legacy in case I don't return," Shorty says.