October 2, 2012 – British session guitarist Big Jim Sullivan died at the age of 71

OCTOBER 2, 2012 – British session guitarist BIG JIM SULLIVAN (b. February 14, 1941 in Middlesex, England as James George Tomkins) died at the age of 71 due to complications from heart disease and diabetes.Best known as a session guitarist in the 1960s and 1970s Sullivan was one of the most in-demand studio musicians in the UK. Sullivan started his career in 1959 as a member of Marty Wilde’s band and when Wilde bought Sullivan a Gibson Les Paul guitar, it was allegedly the first one in Britain.

Sullivan taught his neighbor (and future Deep Purple guitarist) Ritchie Blackmore to play guitar, as well as helping Yes and Asia guitarist Steve Howe on his road to success. His playing is featured on 55 #1 hits and around 800 charting singles over the course of his career.He worked with George Harrison, Frank Zappa, Thunderclap Newman, Love Affair, Long John Baldry, Marmalade and The Tremeloes.

October 2, 2012 - British session guitarist Big Jim Sullivan  died at the age of 71

During Jimmy Page’s session career, he was known as “Little Jim,” to differentiate him from Big Jim.Sullivan’s mother died when he was just 2 years old, and his grandparents raised him until he moved in with his aunt and uncle as a teenager. Sullivan first picked up the guitar at age 14, and like many fledgling, young guitarists around England, it was the music emanating from America that captured his heart. “It was the early days of rock ’n’ roll in this country,” Sullivan remembered on his website. “We were all struggling to learn music; it might be country, jazz, classical, blues, or even rock ’n’ roll. None of us younger musicians wasted too much time doing teenage things.”At the age of 14, he began learning the guitar, and within two years had turned professional, calling himself Jimmy Sullivan because it was lyrically similar to Lonnie Donegan. In 1956, Sullivan had been playing guitar only a year when he was invited to join a band called The Soho Group. The group played mostly coffee houses around London such as the Troubadour at Earl’s Court and the Two I’s to small crowds of mostly fellow musicians.

It was at the Two I’s that Sullivan first ran into Marty Wilde front man for the up-and-coming group, The Wildcats. Wilde was impressed with Sullivan’s playing and asked his drummer and bassist to inquire whether Sullivan might be interested in joining up with them. Sullivan was interested and played with the The Wildcats all across England, including opening up for rock legends Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent for a number of dates. “The Wildcats were at home with Eddie on and off the stage,” Sullivan once said. “Although he was only 21 himself, we looked up to him as a guide. He used to amaze us with his dexterity, both in country and blues.”It was around this time that Big Jim ran into future Deep Purple guitarist Ritchie Blackmore and decided to take him under his wing and teach him a thing or two about how to play guitar. 

“I first met Jim Sullivan in 1958,” Blackmore recalled in Classic Rock magazine after Sullivan’s untimely passing. Both guitarists lived in Middlesex, Cranford, and were introduced by the brother of Blackmore’s sister-in-law. “He showed me another level of playing,” Blackmore continued. “He was probably the most advanced guitarist in the London area.”When he was very young, Sullivan played in The Clay County Boys, The Soho Skiffle Group, Johnny Duncan’s Blue Grass Boys, Vince Taylor & The Playboys, Janice Peters & The Playboys, and The Vince Eager Band.In 1959, at The 2i’s Coffee Bar, he met Marty Wilde and was invited to become a member of his backing group, the Wildcats, who were the warm up act on the television series “Oh, Boy!” which was produced by Jack Good. The Wildcats backed Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent on their tour of Britain in 1960, during which Cochran died. Wilde bought Sullivan a Gibson Les Paul guitar, reputedly the first to be played in Britain. “It belonged to a gospel singer called Sister Rosetta Tharpe,” Sullivan recalled. “Marty bought it from her in the mid ’50s. I used this guitar until 1959 when American guitars were allowed to be imported into this country.” He was the lead guitarist of the Krew Kats, recording the 1961 tracks “Trambone,” “Samovar,” “Peak Hour,” “Jack’s Good” and “The Bat.”Sullivan, Ritchie Blackmore and Pete Townshend, persuaded Jim Marshall to make better and more affordable amplifiers. Good introduced Sullivan to studio work.

Sullivan became one of the most sought-after guitarists throughout the 1960s and the 1970s, in part because of his flexibility in playing different styles of music. He was often referred to as “Big Jim” both for his physical appearance and as he was usually first choice to play guitar on sessions for major musicians and bands. He played on around 800 UK chart entries, and averaged three recording sessions a day. He played on the first records in the UK to use a wah-wah effect – Michael Cox’s 1961 “Sweet Little Sixteen” and Dave Berry’s 1964 hit “The Crying Game”. He played on the first record in the UK to use a fuzzbox, which he had borrowed from session guitarist Eric Ford, on P.J. Proby’s 1964 hit “Hold Me.”In the early 1960s he also played on hits by Billy Fury, Frank Ifield, Adam Faith, Frankie Vaughan, Helen Shapiro, Johnny Hallyday, Freddie and the Dreamers, Cilla Black, Tom Jones, Shirley Bassey, Dusty Springfield and many more.He played guitar on the Alexis Korner’s and Blues Incorporated’s album R&B from the Marquee in 1962 and Georgie Fame’s first album Rhythm & Blues at the Flamingo in 1964.In addition to playing on many UK albums Sullivan played on the Everly Brothers’s 1963 live album at Olympia, Bobby Darin’s 1966 live album “Something Special”, Little Richard’s 1966 album “Get Down With It: The OKeh Sessions” and Del Shannon’s 1967 album “Home and Away”.He was also the resident guitarist on the music themed TV shows “Top of the Pops,” “Ready Steady Go!” and “Saturday Club.”Later in the 1960s and 1970s, Sullivan continued to play on a succession of hit records including those by The Walker Brothers, Donovan, David Bowie, Benny Hill, The New Seekers, Thunderclap Newman, Love Affair, Long John Baldry, Marmalade, Small Faces, The Tremeloes, and Rolf Harris. In 1968 he played on George Harrison’s “Wonderwall”. He directed and played on Amazing Blondel’s first album in 1969, and in the same year played on the album “Sound of Sunforest”, the overture from which was used in the film “A Clockwork Orange”. In 1971 he played in the Jean-Claude Vannier Orchestra for Serge Gainsbourg’s “Histoire de Melody Nelson,” and also played on Frank Zappa’s “200 Motels”. In 1972 he did arrangements for the orchestral version of The Who’s 1972 “Tommy”.

October 2, 2012 - British session guitarist Big Jim Sullivan  died at the age of 71

In 1969, Sullivan joined Tom Jones’ band, and it was during his time with Jones in Las Vegas that he met and formed a friendship with Elvis Presley. Sullivan was an innovator of the talk box, which he demonstrated on Jones’ TV show.In the 1960s, under the guidance of Vilayat Khan, Sullivan learned to play the sitar and released two albums of sitar music under his own name; “Sitar Beat” (1967) and “Lord Sitar” (1968)). He also played sitar on a musical interpretation of the Kama Sutra. Sullivan practiced the sitar with George Harrison at Harrison’s Esher bungalow.In 1970, Derek Lawrence, Deep Purple producer of their first three albums, put together a remarkable recording super-session where Big Jim recorded with both Deep Purple’s Ritchie Blackmore and Ian Paice along with Albert Lee, Tony Ashton, Chas Hodges and Rod Alexander for the album “Green Bullfrog.” No one was credited for contractual reasons except for nicknames which gave rise to wild speculation and claims over the years from who played on the album from the brilliant musicianship demonstrated.In the 1970s he composed the score for an episode of the science fiction series “Space: 1999” (“The Troubled Spirit”), in which he also appeared and performed part of the score on screen, as a crew member giving a Coral sitar concert. He released an instrumental album “Sullivan Plays O’Sullivan” (1971) and was also featured giving guitar lessons on the Bay City Rollers’ TV series “Shang A Lang.”In 1974, Sullivan teamed up with the record producer, Derek Lawrence, to form the record label, Retreat Records. One album release was “Big Jim’s Back” (1975). He fronted a band called Tiger, alongside vocalist Nicky Moore, releasing three albums under this name before the group split up in 1976. Retreat Records also produced various artists. Amongst them were Labi Siffre, Chas & Dave and McGuinness Flint.

Sullivan produced and arranged Siffre’s “I Got The …”, sampled by Eminem. Lawrence and Sullivan went to the United States during this period, to produce the glam metal band, Angel.In 1978, he became part of the James Last Orchestra for nine years, also touring with Olivia Newton-John after her success with “Grease.” In 1987, he began composing music for films and jingles. Later, Sullivan and guitarist Doug Pruden toured as the BJS Duo, and he also played in the Big Jim Sullivan Band with Duncan McKenzie, Malcolm Mortimore and Pete Shaw. In 2006 he was featured in the “Guitar Maestros” DVD series with Doug Pruden.


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