Guitar Shorty was born David William Kearney on September 8, 1939 in Houston, Texas and raised in Kissimmee, Florida by his grandmother. He began playing guitar as a young boy, excited by the sounds of B.B. King, Guitar Slim, T-Bone Walker and John Lee Hooker. His first lessons came from his uncle, but when it became clear that the youngster was serious about his music, his grandmother hired a teacher for him. “I learned so fast I was always two or three pages ahead of my teacher,” Shorty recalls.
After a move to Tampa when he was 17, the young Kearney won a slot as a featured guitarist and vocalist in the locally popular 18-piece orchestra led by Walter Johnson. Being younger—and shorter—than the rest of the band, a club owner bestowed the name Guitar Shorty on him, and it stuck.
After a particularly strong performance by Shorty in Florida, the great Willie Dixon, who was in the audience, approached Shorty and said, “I like what you’re doing. You’ve got something different. I gotta get you in the studio.” A few weeks later Shorty was in Chicago and, backed by Otis Rush on second guitar, he cut his first single, “Irma Lee” b/w “You Don’t Treat Me Right,” for Chicago’s famed Cobra Records (the first label home for Rush, Magic Sam and Buddy Guy) in 1957. “Willie Dixon was a huge influence on me and my singing,” Shorty remembers. “Willie helped me find my own singing voice and showed me how to tell a story with my words.”