Even Big Jim Sullivan, who died on October 2 at the age of 71, was taken aback by the sheer size of his back catalogue when this writer interviewed him in 2011.
Over 1,000 Top 10 entries. Fifty-five of those No.1 hits. Jim was a first-call musician on the London session scene by his early 20s. The first British guitarist to own a Gibson Les Paul [previously owned by blues icon Sister Rosetta Tharpe] and record with a fuzz box and a wah pedal, he backed rocker Eddie Cochran on the tour that changed British guitar playing overnight. He gave a leg-up in the session business to a young pre-Zep Jimmy Page and while touring with Tom Jones in the 60s and 70s became a close friend of Elvis. It all began when he was a teenager…
While other kids were trying to make sense of Bert Weedon’s infamous Play In A Day tuition book in the 50s, Jim was out learning his craft playing country and rock’n'roll for homesick G.I.s at American army bases in the UK. For a lad growing up in austere post-war Britain, life inside the bases was an eye-opener.
“It was the first time I had a T-bone steak,” he laughed. “It was the size of a family Sunday lunch and I had it all to myself. Jesus!”
A couple of years down the line, Sullivan’s future as a professional musician was secured when pop impresario Larry Parnes picked him to join his protege Marty Wilde’s backing band The Wildcats. This was 1959 and Jim was 18 years old.
“I was just a kid and all of a sudden I’d gone from earning £4 a week to earning £30 a week,” he said. “I remember my uncle saying, ‘Son. When are you gonna get a proper job?’ I eventually bought him a car…”
When Larry Parnes [aka 'Parnes, shilling and pence'] booked American rockers Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran for a British tour in 1960, Jim found himself backing up a future rock’n'roll legend. Cochran took three steps to heaven and died later that year in a car crash but he left a lasting influence on Jim and a generation of guitar-obsessed kids.
Above: unphased by screaming fans, Big Jim teaches the Rollers a few tricks on their TV show
“Eddie enhanced British guitar playing,” said Jim. “He didn’t just affect me, Joe Brown, Colin Green and Joe Moretti, who were the other guitarists on the tour. It wasn’t til later that I realised the historical value of us playing with Eddie. It really opened up a whole new field of playing. We’d no longer sit down copying records. People were copying what we were doing.”
Jim began exerting his own influence on British rock when he fell into session work in the early 60s. This young rock-obsessed guitarist entered a session scene in London where engineers still wore white lab coats and musicians came suited and booted. Almost immediately he began making his mark. “Every player had their own particular sound. That’s what you sold yourself on.”
His use of a DeArmond volume pedal on Dave Berry’s 1964 hit The Crying Game “made quite an impact all over,” and a classic ‘give it here’ moment saw him introduce fuzz to British pop pickers: “I remember [session guitarist] Eric Ford coming into the IBC Studio opposite the BBC with this little Gibson fuzz box. He plugged it in and tried to play ordinary guitar stuff through it. It sounded awful. I said, ‘That’s not how it’s supposed to be used, Eric. Let me have a go.’ I’d heard Chet Atkins use a fuzz box on a track. Anyway, out of that came the solos on P.J. Proby’s Together and Hold Me which were kind of a landmark of British rock guitar.”
The other guitarist on The Crying Game was a young Jimmy Page. Little Jim to Sullivan’s Big Jim, Page had first crossed paths with the session ace in early ’64 when they were booked to play on Dave Berry’s My Baby Left Me. “I had the lead part and solo in it,” said Jim. “But I said to Jimmy, ‘You do the solo and I’ll do the riff.’ He did and that’s where Jimmy made his mark.”
Giving young musicians like Page a leg-up was just part of the London studio scene [“There wasn’t any nasty competitiveness..."] but Big Jim wasn’t quite so charitable when it came to his apprentice’s later work: “Jimmy was a good player,” he said. “But I never really liked the stuff he did with Zeppelin. We’d done all that riff stuff in the late 50s and early 60s. And here they were, nicking our riffs, and earning millions of pounds! But that’s the way of the wily world isn’t it?”
Above: “The five years on the road with Tom Jones were the best 40-odd years of my life!”
Jim would later bump into Page and the rest of Led Zeppelin in LA while touring the world with Tom Jones. Beginning in 1969, he backed the Welsh wonder for five years, a period he cited as one of the happiest of his career.
“One night Tom says, ‘Guess who’s coming tonight?’” he remembered. “‘Go on,’ I said. ‘Elvis,’ he replied. At last I was gonna meet the guy who started it all. We sat up for a couple of days chatting and drinking. He looked fantastic.”
One little-heralded phase of Jim’s career is worth mentioning, as it’s sure to strike a chord with a hard-core section Classic Rock‘s readership. Along with Derek Lawrence, Jim co-produced the first two albums by cult American glam metal band Angel: their self-titled debut (1975) and Helluva Band (1976). Recalling that adventure, Jim once said: “Yes, That was a great experience for Derek and me. We had to get the bass player Mickie [Jones] out of jail a couple of times, for wandering around hotels out of his brains. I remember [guitarist] Punky Meadows always carrying a pack of beers around with him. They were a great bunch of guys and we got on quite well considering the different planets we came from.”
Big Jim Sullivan spent the final years of his life researching music in the study of his Surrey home [he was a keen subscriber to Spotify] surrounded by his favourite guitars, or bobbing around in the above ground pool in his back garden. After the incredible amount of records he’d played on he was obviously well aware of his importance in the history of British rock, without ever feeling the need to shout about it. The man was grateful for an interesting life spent in the company of good people. The one notable exception being Van Morrison, whom Sullivan famously detested [“He’s all the nasty things that a human being can be," pretty much sums his feelings up].
Jim remained a highly skilled guitarist up to the end of his life but a combination of heart failure and diabetes had made playing live just about impossible. “The two working together totally knacker me,” he sighed. “So, it’s kind of come to a sad end I suppose but I’ve had a good life. Christ, I’ve been round the world a dozen times. I’ve met everybody from presidents to Mafia dons. In fact, the five years on the road with Tom Jones were the best 40-odd years of my life!”
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