Quinn Sullivan plays with Buddy Guy at his South Loop bar Buddy Guy's Legends.
WITH SPECIAL GUEST QUINN SULLIVAN
When: 8 p.m. Thursday
Where: Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park, 201 E. Randolph
Info: (312) 742-7649; chicagobluesfestival.us
Updated: July 7, 2013 6:52AM
Buddy Guy always has been generous in sharing his blues-guitar spotlight with up-and-comers. When he brought 8-year-old Quinn Sullivan onto a festival stage, however, his trademark smile froze in astonishment.
“I had to unplug his amplifier to make sure it was him,” Guy said after the 2007 show. “I’m like, ‘There’s no way in the world you can play these notes.’ He was hitting Eric Clapton, he was hitting me, Stevie [Ray Vaughan], Jimi Hendrix. I couldn’t even play a radio when I was 7 or 8 years old! Players like him come along once in a lifetime. I said, ‘I need to let the world know about you.’ ”
He’s done just that, and the world is finding out about this impressive young guitar phenom. Now 14, Sullivan has a resume that includes TV appearances (“Ellen,” “Oprah,” plus on Tuesday he sat in with the Roots on “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon”), a slot at Lollapalooza 2009 and a few turns opening for Guy on tour and during his annual Chicago residencies. He’s a guest on Guy’s 2008 album “Skin Deep” (on the track “Who’s Gonna Fill Those Shoes”), and in April the young hotshot traded licks with Eric Clapton, Jimmie Vaughan, Robbie Robertson, Guy and more at the Crossroads Guitar Festival at New York’s Madison Square Garden.
“I was on stage with 30 of the best guitar players ever,” Sullivan said. “It was so cool. I never thought I’d be on stage with any of them, so all at once was a real thrill, such a honor.”
As he sings on the title track to his new album, “Getting There” (available June 18), “No, I ain’t been everywhere, but I’m gettin’ there.”
For Sullivan, the two poles of his blues world always have been Clapton and Guy. But Guy has really taken him under his wing.
“I first saw Buddy on the ‘Crossroads’ DVD playing in Chicago,” Sullivan said. “That was it for me with the blues.”
Whatever a New Bedford, Mass., pre-teen might have understood the blues to be, the epicenter for his style was rooted in Chicago. Sullivan’s “Catch a Groove” even mentions “old town Chicago,” and that title track name-checks “sweet home Chicago.”
“I’ve been to Chicago so many times now, that’s why I reference it so much,” Sullivan said. “The first time was for ‘The Oprah Winfrey Show.’ The rest have been playing at [Buddy Guy’s Legends]. Chicago blues was always the big thing, though, even before Buddy came along.”
Last month, Sullivan returned some of the favor. When the National Association of Recording Merchandisers presented Guy its prestigious Chairman’s Award for Sustained Creative Achievement during the 2013 Music Biz Awards in Los Angeles, Sullivan appeared and played “Buddy’s Blues,” an autobiographical tune about Guy’s mentorship of the young axman. Guy was “visibly moved.”
“You know, that first time I just wanted to meet him,” Sullivan said of their first encounter. “I took my little black Squier Strat backstage before his show, and he signed it. He asked me to play a few licks. I played a little something. He said, ‘OK, be ready when I call you.’ I went, ‘… What?!’
“That night on stage with him was an experience I’ll never forget, and he’s such an amazing man. He just keeps on giving.”