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The Blues Master and the Prodigy

By Stephen Brookes • The Washington Post • November 6, 2014

When Buddy Guy and Quinn Sullivan take the stage at the Birchmere on Monday night, it might not look, at first, like they have a whole lot in common.

There’s Guy, the legendary blues guitarist.  Born in 1936 to a sharecropper family in Louisiana, he built his first guitar out of baling wire and a piece of wood, took a bus to Chicago in the 1950’s to cut his teeth with Muddy Waters, and rose to global stardom with a fiery, anything-goes style that influenced superstars from Jimi Hendrix to Eric Clapton.  At 78, he’s an undisputed giant of the blues — a six-time Grammy winner, a National Medal of the Arts honoree, and a musician Clapton himself once called “the best guitar player alive.”

Then there’s Sullivan.  He’s fifteen.  He lives with his parents in the comfortable suburb of New Bedford, Mass., where he’s a sophomore in high school.  He’s clean-cut, a bit awkward, almost painfully polite — the boy you want your daughter to date.   When he was little, he liked to dress up in a Sergeant Pepper outfit, in homage to his idol, John Lennon.

Quinn Sullivan • Photo by Chuck LanzaBut Quinn Sullivan may also be the most gifted guitar prodigy on the planet, a blues player of jaw-dropping virtuosity and depth who could turn out to be the Clapton of his generation.  With two albums under his belt, he’s already played everywhere from the Montreux Jazz Festival to Madison Square Garden, and shared a stage with B.B. King, Jeff Beck, Derek Trucks — as well Buddy Guy himself, who met the young player  seven years ago, took him under his wing, and has been touring with him ever since.

“Quinn’s the most amazing young man I’ve ever seen,” says Guy.  “His knowledge of the guitar is unbelievable, and he plays like someone thirty or forty or fifty years old, not like some kid.  He’s like lightening — he strikes you, and you have to stop and say, ‘What in the world is this?’”

Sullivan’s talent had been clear since the age of three, when he got his first guitar — a First Act acoustic — as a present, and started picking out songs by ear.  At an age when most kids are grappling with “Chopsticks,” he taught himself “Blackbird” and “Here Comes the Sun.”  

“I was a huge Beatles freak,” he says, laughing.  “Every Christmas I’d get a different outfit — the Sergeant Pepper, the white suit from Abbey Road — and that was really the start.  I would listen to their music, and try to play it.”

He began lessons two years later, and progressed so quickly that by six he’d been featured on a Boston news program, written his first song (“Sing, Dance, Clap Your Hands”), and performed on the Ellen Degeneres Show.  But it wasn’t a high-pressure childhood, he says.  His parents took him to a lot of concerts (his father is a former rock drummer), but other than that he just went to school, practiced when he felt like it, and sat in with the Toe Jam Puppet Band at the local zoo.  

“Instead of being with the kids dancing, I’d be up on stage playing along,” he says.  “That sort of sums up my childhood.”

But a DVD of Eric Clapton’s 2004 Crossroads Guitar Festival opened Sullivan’s eyes to the blues, and to Buddy Guy himself, and when the famous bluesman turned up in New Bedford in early 2007 for a gig at the Zeiterion Theater, Sullivan’s father managed to get them backstage.  The boy — then all of eight years old — asked Guy to autograph the little Squier Stratocaster he’d brought along.  When Guy handed the guitar back, he asked the second-grader to show him what he could do.

“He asked me to play a few licks, and I did,” says Sullivan.  “And he said: ‘Be ready when I call you.’ I was, like — what?”

Midway through the show, Guy called Sullivan onstage, and for the next ten minutes (there’s a video online) the two traded licks as if they’d been playing together for years.  Shifting from style to style (a little Voodoo Child, a little Sweet Home Chicago), Guy tossed out tougher and tougher lines, as Sullivan — barely as tall as the amplifiers, but as cool as they come — tossed them right back.  The crowd roared.

Buddy Guy“I couldn’t believe the way he was playing,” says Guy. “He was playing Clapton, Hendrix, everybody. When I saw how good he was, I thought, ‘I’m gonna hit some of these licks and run you crazy.’  And man, the way that kid was playing it was like, ‘Show me something I don’t know, Buddy!’  And I said to his dad, ‘Somebody else needs to know this kid can play this well.’”  

It was the start of a high-powered apprenticeship. Guy began bringing Sullivan on tour with him, guiding his development, introducing him to other musicians and teaching him the business of music.  They played the Hollywood Bowl, the Apollo, the Montreux Jazz Festival, the Experience Hendrix tour.  There were appearances on Oprah and The Today Show, and they played the Crossroads Guitar Festival together last year.  

And when Guy recorded his 2008 album “Skin Deep,” he brought Sullivan in for a solo on “Who's Gonna Fill Those Shoes” — a sign, if any were still needed, that he saw Sullivan as his musical heir.  

“When you’re with him all the time, you learn so much,” says Sullivan, whose playing has matured, since that first meeting seven years ago, into a sophisticated, introspective style reminiscent of Clapton, but with a rougher edge and a turn-on-a-dime feeling of spontaneity.  “With Buddy, nothing’s planned out on stage,” he says.  “He hates set lists, and there’s a lot of improvising.  I kind of know what’s going to happen when I get up on stage — but sometimes he just messes with me.”

“To be honest with you, I can’t show him nothing!” says Guy, laughing.  “When I was that age, I didn’t even know how to play a radio.”

Sullivan’s starting to emerge from his mentor’s shadow.  He tours with Guy several months of the year, keeping up with high school through online courses. But he’s ditched the Beatles mop-top of his childhood, released two albums on his own — 2011’s “Cyclone”  and last year’s “Getting There”  — and has another in the works. And like Guy — who calls himself a “caretaker” of the blues —  he’s getting ready to bringing the blues to his own generation.

“Muddy, B.B. King, all the great musicians, told me: ‘Look son, keep it alive.  Keep it going,’” says Guy.  

“I’ve dedicated my life to this music.  And I think Quinn will do the same.”

Posted on Tuesday, November 11, 2014 at 01:44PM by Registered CommenterStephen Brookes | CommentsPost a Comment

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