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The Traditional Delta and Country Blues

Featured Interview – Quinn Sullivan

“It sounds like something straight out of a fairy tale.

A dad slides in a DVD of Eric Clapton’s first Crossroads Guitar Festival and a young 5-year-old sits and watches in amazement as the venerable Buddy Guy tears up the stage at the Cotton Bowl.

Fast forward 11 years and we find that same young man –at the time, a grizzled 14-year-old – standing side-by-side with Buddy Guy, tearing up the stage at Madison Square Garden with a scorching version of “Damn Right, I Got the Blues” at Eric Clapton’s most recent Crossroads Guitar Festival.


But this isn’t some lavish fairy tale, nor is it some other work of fiction or wild imagination.

This is just a small slice of the life of the amazingly-talented Quinn Sullivan, and it’s all true.

“To go from watching him (Buddy Guy) playing Crossroads to then getting a chance to play with him at Crossroads … I mean, that’s extraordinary,” Sullivan said recently. “I just never would have ever thought something like that could happen.”

Sullivan, who is poised to finish his freshman year of high school in his hometown of New Bedford, Massachusetts, has been like a virtual Cyclone – which incidentally was also the name of the first album he issued when he was just 12 – ever since he first picked up the guitar at age 3.

But wait … there’s more.

Just a year after getting turned on to the magical powers of Buddy Guy via the 2004 Crossroads DVD, Sullivan burst upon the national conciseness with an appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. Only 6 at the time, Sullivan mesmerized the studio audience (along with those watching at home) with a solo take of The Beatles’ version of “Twist and Shout.” 

“I was 6 years old at the time and that was my first time on a plane and my first trip to California. And yeah, it was my first national TV appearance. It was all new to me,” he said. “It was a good experience for me and it taught me a lot about being on TV and I think it’s made it easier for me to do it now. She (DeGeneres) was awesome; just really nice and generous.”

‘Generous’ might be an understatement. DeGeneres gave Sullivan a Gibson ES-235 (which he still has today) after his first time on her show. Sullivan earned a return engagement to Ellen in January of this year, where he performed “She Gets Me” off his latest album, Getting There (SuperStar Records). And this time, Sullivan went home with a coveted Fender product tucked under his arm, once again, thanks to DeGeneres. 

“She gave me a 1954 reissue Fender Stratocaster (60th anniversary model, which had a limited production run of 1,954) and I think mine was one of the first 30 or so they made,” he said. “That was awesome. Both of my experiences on her show were really cool.”

With the completion of his ninth-grade year in high school just around the corner, Sullivan has his summer schedule filled to the brim with plenty of concert appearances …here, there and everywhere.

“In late June, I’m opening a couple of shows for Buddy Guy and in July, we go to France to play L’Oympia Theater in Paris, so that’s going to be awesome,” he said. “Then we’re doing the jazz fest in Vienne, France and the Montreux Jazz Festival – which I did a few years ago with Buddy – with Tedeschi/Trucks, so I’ve got some really, really exciting stuff coming up. It’s an honor to get to go to Europe and it should be a lot of fun. Then we’ve also got a lot of other stuff going on over here (in the USA) this summer, so I’m going to be busy, but it’s going to be a lot of fun.”

Even though he’s been out on the concert circuit for just a little over five years – and part-time at that – Sullivan has still managed to play some of the most hallowed venues and well-respected festivals and events that one could imagine. Madison Square Garden, Montreux Jazz Festival, the Hollywood Bowl, Gathering of the Vibes, Lollapalooza, Experience Hendrix Tour and the Crossroads Guitar Festival … the list simply goes on and on.

“Every single time that I’m playing one of those places, or when I’m in the presence of amazing people – not be corny, but sometimes you do have to pinch yourself to make sure this is actually happening,” he said. “Some of the stuff that’s happened is really unbelievable. Being only 15 and having these great, great experiences, I mean, I’m very humbled to be doing all of this. It’s incredible.”

Sullivan also was chosen to take part in the ‘Howlin’ for Hubert’ tribute held at Harlem’s legendary Apollo Theater a couple of years ago. The All-Star gathering – which included such luminaries as Jody Williams, Keith Richards and Eric Clapton, among others – paid homage to the late, great Hubert Sumlin, long-time guitarist with Howlin’ Wolf.

“That was so awesome … just incredible. That was the first time that I met Eric Clapton,” Sullivan said. “That was just so huge to be invited to be a part of that.”

Regular high school life can be plenty daunting when forced to balance academics with the seemingly endless choices of extra-curricular activities, such as sports, civic clubs and other school functions. That easily gets ratcheted up several notches when your academic calendar says it’s a typical November school day in New Bedford, but your business calendar says you’re supposed to go on stage at The Iridium in New York City. But when you’ve got an understanding and enlightened school district behind you, such matters can be worked around, says Sullivan.

“It’s really not been much of a struggle for me this year – not like I thought it might. The teachers and the school have been pretty cool with letting me go places during the (school) year. Most of the things I do are in the summer, but when I do have to miss school, they give me the work ahead of time and I do it and bring it back with me the day I come back,” he said. “They let me go and do stuff and they know I’m not out being a truant, so the attendance thing worked fine for me this year.”

In addition to the normal reading, writing and arithmetic, Sullivan has been busily promoting Getting There. Recorded last year in Nashville, Getting There was produced by the ultra-in-demand (and Grammy Award winning) Tom Hambridge.

“He’s just such an amazing person … not just an amazing producer, but an amazing person. The way he works in the studio, everything’s natural and nothing is forced. He’s not pushy about anything,” Sullivan said. “He really knows how to work together with you and he’s open to a lot of things, so we kind of bounce ideas off each other. It’s just a really nice atmosphere to work in. He’s just such a nice guy.”

The relationship between Sullivan and Hambridge actually dates back to 2008 and Buddy Guy’s highly-touted Skin Deep (Jive Records) album.

“Buddy asked me to do a song on Skin Deep – “Who’s Gonna Fill Those Shoes?” and that’s when I met Tom. He’s also a great drummer and I’m lucky enough to have him playing drums with me the whole summer,” said Sullivan. “Great producer, great drummer, great songwriter … Buddy calls him ‘the white Willie Dixon.’”

It’s par for the course for any relatively-new artist to exhibit a marked growth between their first and second releases. That’s certainly the case with the musical strides made from Cyclone to Getting There. In Sullivan’s case, however, there’s more going on than just an increased sense of confidence between his freshman and sophomore albums.

“If you listen to Cyclone and then listen to my voice now, it’s pretty funny because I recorded it when I was 11 and my voice hadn’t really dropped then,” he said. “And once it dropped, it was like, ‘Wow. It sounds different.’ And even now, listening to Getting There, it’s amazing how my voice has dropped even more. Hopefully on the next album, my voice will kind of be where it’s going to end up.”

While his vocal range may have yet to hit its final resting spot, Sullivan rattles off an impressive array of vocalists that he admires and looks up to, a list that makes one think he may be closer to age 50 than to age 15.

“There are a whole lot of singers that I love, from a lot of different genres. I really love Susan Tedeschi, she’s one of my favorite vocalists of all time. I’ve gotten to meet her – and (her husband) Derek Trucks, who is one of my favorite guitar players and they’ve always been really generous and really nice. And I love Steve Winwood. I’m a huge fan of Traffic and Blind Faith, so he’s awesome,” Sullivan said. “And Stevie Wonder … Warren Haynes, Gregg Allman, Otis Redding … there’s just so many great, great singers that I really like.”

Too often in life, we are denied the opportunity to personally acknowledge those that initially inspired us to begin the journey down the path to our chosen profession. But thanks to his personal relationship with Buddy Guy, Sullivan has been afforded the chance on many occasions to let his mentor know that the ‘Legend From Lettsworth’ was the reason that playing the blues quickly became a driving passion in his young life.

“The first Eric Clapton Crossroads DVD … that’s what really opened my mind to that kind of music, especially seeing Buddy Guy playing on it. I just remember being 5 years old and watching it and seeing Buddy walking out,” he said. “I mean, you don’t see someone playing like that all the time. It was incredible and I thought, ‘That’s what I want to do.’”

Just a couple of years after seeing Guy on his TV screen, Sullivan met the man himself at New Bedford’s Zeiterion Theater in 2007. Actually, Sullivan –who was 8 at the time – did more than just get introduced to Guy backstage; he was also invited on the bandstand to jam.

“Luckily enough, I got to meet him and play with him and all that stuff that night,” he said. “It was amazing and it was the start of a journey that has continued on. He’s obviously been the biggest help that anyone could ever ask for. You couldn’t pick a better mentor, someone to take you around the world and introduce you to so many people. I’ve gotten to meet so many of my heroes and play so many iconic venues, all over the world, because of him.”

Hanging with Buddy Guy and talking about the blues has got to be a lot like hanging with Thomas Jefferson and taking about the United States Constitution. After all, if you want to know the history of a subject, you go straight to the source.

“Buddy has a life that not many people have lived. He’s full of stories and even when you shake his hand, you can really feel the life that he’s lived. Just being around him and listening to the stories he tells and all the life experiences he’s had, along with a lot of the ‘do’s and don’ts’ of the music business, has offered a lot of valuable lessons,” said Sullivan. “It’s important. It’s almost like going to a history class every time you talk to him. It’s so cool to hear what all he’s been though and all his struggles and how he’s managed to come out on top.”

His immense talents have drawn praises from blues and guitar aficionados from all corners of the globe ever since his first appearance on Ellen. And although a lot of his classmates in New Bedford might be more into 50 Cent or Lady Gaga, they’re still hip to Sullivan’s abilities on a six-string.

“Yeah, they’re more into pop, but I’m not strictly just in love with the blues; I like a lot of pop music, too. The blues is my base, but I can listen to a whole bunch of pop and rock and stuff like that. But the main music my friends listen to is rap and hip-hop and that kind of stuff,” said Sullivan. “They obviously respect what I do, but I think they think it was a lot cooler that I was on Ellen than it is that I get to play with Buddy Guy, you know?”

That may well be the case, but that has given Sullivan a shot to play the role of teacher to his peers.

“I think if I had never gotten to play with Buddy, that they may have never known who he was. So a lot of my friends do know who Buddy Guy is now, just because I’ve played with him,” he said. “So it’s nice to have that and to be able to open up some new music to them. But a lot of it has to do with who is playing music in the house. I mean, if you don’t have parents like I do that love and appreciate all kinds of music, I don’t think kids get exposed to a lot of different styles. It’s important to start at a young age, listening to a whole bunch of different kinds of music and not limit yourself to just one style. It’s nice that I’ve been able to listen to a whole lot of different music growing up.”

With all the accomplishments that he’s stuffed under his belt at such a tender age, it might be tempting to think that Quinn Sullivan has seen it all, done it all and has no goals or dreams left to tackle. While it might be tempting to think that, according to Sullivan, that line of thinking couldn’t be farther from the truth.

“Hopefully down the road, I’ll be continuing what I do now, but maybe on a higher scale. Maybe doing it more full-time,” he said. “I would like to have a really successful album one day and get to play some even bigger places and do my own tour. You always have dreams and it’s important to think like that, because it could happen … a lot of dreams, a lot of dreams.””

To find out more about Quinn visit his website at: http://quinnsullivanmusic.com/
Photo by Arnie Goodman.

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