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New Bedford blues guitar whiz kid Quinn Sullivan is now his own guy

Quinn Sullivan plays the Narrows Center for the Arts in Fall River Friday.Justin Borucki

When Quinn Sullivan was 6 years old, he wowed Ellen DeGeneres with his cover of the Beatles’ “Twist and Shout.”

Some 16 years later, Paul McCartney’s drummer, Abe Laboriel Jr., appeared on the New Bedford blues-rocker’s 2021 album, “Wide Awake.”

That was “a full-circle moment,” says Sullivan, 23. “My first concert was Paul McCartney at the Garden when I was 5. Abe got a kick out of that. I was like, ‘Dude, my first show — you were playing.’”

If you’re familiar with Sullivan, you know the basics: At age 7, Buddy Guy pulled him up on stage at New Bedford’s Zeiterion Theater. What was supposed to be, perhaps, a cute lark, instead launched a career.

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On that 2006 episode of “Ellen,” DeGeneres gave Sullivan a Gibson ES-335, which he later had signed by B.B. King when he was 9, after a gig with Guy and King. At 14, he played “The Tonight Show.” He has joined Guy onstage at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C., and at Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival in Madison Square Garden. Along the way he’s met Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, LL Cool J and Joan Jett.

The Guy-Sullivan relationship is now the subject of a film by Jim Farrell, “The Torch.”

Sullivan has “gotta be one of the best guitar players I ever heard. And I got my fingers crossed he’s one of the guitar players everybody gonna know about,” Guy says in the film. “Jimmy Page, Clapton, I don’t know if he’ll be that good, or maybe he might be better.”

That Sullivan has natural-born talent is obvious. But rather than burn out like some who become celebrities at an early age, his star is glowing all the brighter.

“Buddy Guy probably looks at it and goes: There’s the heir apparent,” blues-rock guitarist Joe Bonamassa says in the film. “There’s gonna be the next superstar.”

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Quinn Sullivan (left) and Buddy Guy in "The Torch."C Lanza

Around 2015, Farrell began filming “The Torch.” It premiered at the Chicago International Film Festival in 2019. Because of the pandemic, it was shelved until theaters opened back up. It’s now in limited theatrical/VOD release, and available on demand. It will stream this summer on AMC+.

“I was fascinated with Buddy’s dedication to keeping the blues music going for future generations, but it was his interest in Quinn that intrigued me the most,” Farrell says via e-mail. “Blues music had always been a collaborative effort, but this felt like a special moment in time. There was an enormous amount of knowledge being transferred from one generation to another. I wanted to capture it.”

Sullivan says the film is “about passing the torch [but] I don’t think personally I could be the only one. It’s hard for one person to do that. There are a lot of people out there carrying on blues music in their own way. I like to consider myself one of those people.”

In conversation, Sullivan seems remarkably humble for a young man who’s been praised for as long as he can remember.

“I’ve heard about kids that struggle as they get older,” he says. “I think I had a good handle on it. If you have the right people around, that goes a long way, especially in this industry.”

Growing up in New Bedford, “I always had very normal friends that didn’t blow smoke up my [butt],” he says with a laugh. Touring off and on since February, including his first appearance at SXSW in Austin, Texas, Sullivan is back home to play a show Friday at the Narrows Center in Fall River.

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Sullivan first picked up a guitar at age 3. He still remembers that first touch: “It belonged in my hands. I can’t describe the exact feeling. When I was around 5, I started to take lessons. I just kept doing it. I mean, I’m still obsessed with it.”

In “The Torch,” Guy tells a crowd: “When I first met him, I was out there in New Bedford, Massachusetts, ladies and gentlemen. . . . When he started hitting them notes, I said, ‘Wait a minute. That can’t be you.’”

When Guy played a show in Lowell that summer, Sullivan met him there, too. “That was the moment it really clicked because it was more of a personal hang,” Sullivan says.

Sullivan has been playing guitar for 20 years now — most of them under Guy’s wing.

“Buddy has always been a dear friend of mine. He’s somebody I will cherish as being one of the greatest human beings to come into my life,” he says. “He’s this incredible mentor.”

But Sullivan knows there comes a time “when you have to do your own thing, and be your own artist. You can’t be under somebody’s wing forever,” he says. “A lot of people know me as Buddy Guy’s kid. My goal now as an artist is to be known as Quinn Sullivan.”

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QUINN SULLIVAN

At the Narrows Center for the Arts, Fall River. May 20 at 8 p.m. $33. quinnsullivanmusic.com

Lauren Daley can be reached at ldaley33@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @laurendaley1.