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February 17, 2015

Passing the Blues Torch: Buddy Guy and Quinn Sullivan

Text by Simone Louis

“Don’t be the best in town; just be your best until the best come around!”

For a long time now, he’s been known as one of the most influential blues musicians on the planet. Guitar icons like Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughan were inspired and educated by him, and Clapton has gone so far as to call him ‘the greatest living guitarist’. These words come back to me as I watch Buddy Guy – recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award at this year’s Grammy Awards – own the stage at the Mahindra Blues Festival 2015, and I don’t doubt them for a second.

“I didn’t learn nothin’ by the book. Blues is something you gotta feel inside you,” Guy says, before treating his spellbound audience to a charming performance of his popular track, 74 Years Young, interjecting to say, “Man, I wrote that song 4 years ago!” To watch the maestro at work is an absolute privilege; he unquestionably lives for the music, keeping a relatively niche art form alive and kicking, even in these commercial times. More than just a performer, Buddy Guy is a storyteller and a wonderful comedian, too! His mentor and idol, the great Muddy Waters, made him promise to keep the blues alive. Guy has certainly done that and then some, and today he plays mentor to a protégé of his own. He screams with so much pride, “A young man played just before me. You better remember that name.”

Quinn Sullivan played an hour-long opening set before introducing his idol and guru, and the 15-year-old couldn’t have given Buddy Guy a better introduction. The slightly awkward teenager turned into a blazing, confident guitar hero on stage…convincing everyone present that he is probably the most gifted young bluesman anywhere today. Sullivan got his first guitar when he was just three years old, and he hasn’t looked back since. Three years later, he made his first appearance on the Ellen Degeneres show. A year after that, he had his first encounter with Buddy Guy — it was the start of a vibrant apprenticeship. With a legend backing him, the young prodigy went on to play with B.B. King, Eric Clapton and other music greats.

The duo talks about this high-powered alliance, their back stories, inspirations and hopes for the future, in a relaxed dialogue with Verve.

QUINN SULLIVAN

You first got interested in music at a very young age. How did that happen?
“I was 3 years old when I developed the interest, and it was because my parents had a whole bunch of great music in the house. I was listening to artists from The Beatles and The Rolling Stones to even the Grateful Dead. Music was always playing in the house while I was growing up and I just had a really good collection of records surrounding me. One Christmas, my parents got me a little guitar, just as something new and fun to throw at me and say, ‘Hey go play around; see what you can do with this thing!’ but I ended up falling in love with the instrument. I began enjoying it on my own and then I started to take lessons when I was 5. That’s when I got more serious about it, started to form complex chords, and the rest just happened from there.”

Do you remember the first song that you played?
“I think the first one I ever learned on the guitar was Blackbird by The Beatles. Once I had that down, I just kept going back to my teacher with song after song and saying, ‘Can you teach me this one now?’”

You’ve met and played with some of the greatest guitarists of our time, but it all started with that first meeting with Buddy Guy. What was that like?
“Oh, it was nothing short of amazing. Buddy was the first great person I ever met. I live in New Bedford, Massachusetts, and he was playing at a little theatre in my town. After the show I luckily got to go backstage and meet him, and I had my little guitar with me. I asked him to sign it and he did, but when he handed it back to me, he asked me to play a little. I guess he just wanted to see if I could even play. But when I did, he said to me, ‘Be ready when I call you’…and now here we are today, in India! It’s incredible.

That meeting remains one of my most memorable and defining moments to this day. We just kept in touch after that and I would go see him whenever he was playing in my town. I think we developed a sort of friendship as time passed. He asked me to open a couple of shows for him and I couldn’t believe it. It was just a snowball effect after that.”

With all the touring that you do, how do you manage to keep up with school, friends and family?
“This is actually my first year that I’m doing school online. I’m in the 10th grade now, sophomore year. It’s been okay so far; I think the online schooling has helped open up a lot of opportunities for me to do more things and still be able to study. I wouldn’t compromise on that because, no matter what, education is important. The last 9 years I was in public school, so this is obviously really different for me, but I still get to see my friends a lot, which is really cool.”

Why, in your opinion, are the blues are still relevant today?
“I think blues music is just everlasting music; undying stories. I don’t think it will ever die because there is always someone new coming up with something new, which incorporates the blues in some way or the other. A lot of artists today integrate the style and don’t even know it. It’s a genre that grows, touches people and tells all kinds of stories.”

What is still on your bucket list?
“Now, that is a tough question. I think my list would be pretty long! There are a lot of really cool things that I have managed to check off because of Buddy and the experiences that followed. But it would be great to maybe, hopefully win a Grammy one day or be on my own headlining tour. The main goal is to just do what I love and to keep making music that I love – just having longevity and not dying out is something that I wish for.”

BUDDY GUY

Firstly, congratulations on the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammy’s!
“Well, thank you very much; I tell everyone, it’s better late than never!”

What would you say has been the greatest honour you’ve received?
“Everything has been wonderful, including this award, but definitely one good one would be the time I played for the President of the United States…blues music in The White House! And that’s also tied with my encounters with B.B. King and Muddy Waters. Because as a kid coming from a farm, meeting these greats and, on top of that, playing with them? That was what dreams were made of.”

You’ve been here thrice already in the 5 years that this festival has been around. What was the first time like for you?
“You know when you eat a new and different meal for the first time and you don’t know how it’s going to taste until you taste it? It was like that. I was nervous when I first came her but at the back of my mind I knew that I could do nothing but be myself. Well, it must have worked because they invited me back again! Some people ask me now whenever I come, what’s new that they can expect from me. I can’t come here and tell you that I’m going to do something different because that’ll be messed up. I’m just gonna give you Buddy Guy, that’s what I always do. I go by what my parents used to always tell me, ‘Don’t be the best in town; just be your best until the best come around!’

What’s the story behind your trademark polka dots on your Strat and your shirts?
“Oh yeah, I have my polka dot shirt ready for the show! Well the story basically comes from when I was a kid and my momma had a stroke. I wanted to leave home at an early age to go to Chicago and make something of myself and she didn’t want me to go because she was worried. I told her, ‘I’m going to Chicago to get a better job, make a little more money to send you, and then I’m going to drive back to see you in a big polka-dot Cadillac.’ I knew I was lying to her, but I wanted her to have an image to hold on to, so she knew I’d be fine and that I’d become something great. She passed away before ever seeing me play, and I said to myself that I owe her something beautiful. So I got the polka dots on my guitars and now my clothes, too. It’s all in honour of my mom.”

If you had to explain the blues to somebody who knew nothing about it, what would you say?
“I’d say keep living, man. You’re going to run into some stumbling block in life and that’s when the blues will be there for you. Now, a lot of people assume that this stumbling block I’m talking about is always sad. That’s not true. If you listen to blues lyrics, on different albums, there is something joyful being sung about on one record and something about loss on another record. We sing about everyday life, happy or sad. The things that happen in the world is not all bad, and it’s not all good either…but blues covers all of it.”

Is there anything which your fans may be surprised to learn about you?
“Yes, and it’s that I love to cook! I cook how my momma taught me, I don’t measure anything and I don’t cook by the book. It’s the same with my music. When I do cook and people here about it back home, there are lines of folks just waiting to taste my food! They always ask me why I don’t open a restaurant. In fact, I cooked what we call Louisiana gumbo for the mayor of my city and I didn’t know he was ill, but I sent it to him. The next day, a big limo came up to my house and he said, ‘If you ever get tired of playing, open a restaurant and I’ll be there.’”

Do you think the blues are still in good hands today?
“It does worry me a bit, but with this kid, Quinn Sullivan, I think there’s hope after all. Maybe he and some other young ones can help boost up the culture and keep the sound alive.”

What were your first thoughts when your heard Quinn play?
“Oh I had to switch off the amplifier just to make sure he was actually playing! I called him on stage and he was matching me, Clapton and any other song he played. He was playing like a 30-year-old veteran rather than a 7-year-old! Players like him come around not very often.”

What message would you like to give to your Indian fans?
“I’d like them to know that I love them all very much. A lot of people tell me where they’re from when they meet me, but I believe it’s not where you’re from but it’s who you are that makes me love you. The people accepted me here and I love everything about this place. I tell the promoters they can call me whenever they want me to come back, but just don’t call me too often, because my mother always told me, ‘Don’t wear out your welcome or people will get tired of you!'”

Don’t miss: our interview with Nikki HillThorbjorn Risager and The Black Tornado and our roundup of the Blues festival.

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