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, Jimi Hendrix. I couldn't even play a radio when I was seven or eight 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.
With special guest Quinn Sullivan
• 8 p.m. Thursday
• Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park, 201 E. Randolph
• (312) 742-7649; chicagobluesfestival.us
Now age 14, Sullivan has a resume that includes TV appearances ("Ellen," "Oprah," plus Tuesday this week he sits in with the Roots on "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon"), a slot at Lollapalooza 2009, plus 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 Madison Square Garden.
"I was on stage with 30 of the best guitar players ever," Sullivan told the Sun-Times. "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."
"I first saw Buddy on the Crossroads DVD playing in Chicago," Sullivan said. "That was it for me with the blues."
Whatever a 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, pictured with actor Noah Wylie above]. 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 his first encounter with Guy. "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."