Big Jim Sullivan

1941 – 2012

Guitarist Big Jim SullivanSaddened to learn of the death (on October 2nd) of guitarist Big Jim Sullivan. A major if largely unsung British talent, Jim impacted on the Deep Purple story when at the age of 16 he began giving guitar lessons from the front room of his London home. Blackmore was an early visitor (as indeed apparently was Steve Howe). “Richie was a precocious talent even then, he learned to be an individual very quickly. To be truthful I think that telling him to be an individual and making him use his little finger is all I needed to tell him. The rest was natural to him,” is how Jim recalled this time on his website. Jim joined Marty Wilde’s Wildcats when he was only 17, who went on to back Eddie Cochran during his last UK tour.

Ritchie Blackmore has paid tribute to Big Jim:

“I first met Jim Sullivan in 1958. He was introduced to me by my sister in law’s brother. We both lived in the same area: in Middlesex, Cranford. He was playing with Marty Wilde and the Wildcats. He showed me another level of playing. He was probably the most advanced guitarist in the London area. I would listen to the radio every week, there was a Marty Wilde show. Jim was often featured on the show so I was glued to the radio. He also made some great instrumentals. One being Trambone and one being Peak Hour. He was the first guitarist to play through a wah wah pedal. It was a Deamond foot volume and tone control. I remember an instrumental called The Bat, where he used the pedal. That would’ve been around 1959. Last time I saw Jim was in LA where he was playing with Tom Jones. He was one of England’s finest players, a mentor and a good friend for me. His playing will always be in my heart and live on. God bless you Jim.”

Jim later teamed up with Deep Purple producer Derek Lawrence to begin their own record label, Retreat, and wrote and produced a load of records, including amazingly enough the US glam metal outfit Angel. Some may also remember the interesting Tiger albums which the pair were behind. Of even more interest to many Deep Purple fans was the excellent 1971 session album the pair developed, Green Bullfrog, on which they managed to persuade many of their mates to appear – including Tony Ashton, Ritche Blackmore and Ian Paice.
Guitarist Big Jim Sullivan Green Bullfrog album cover

Guitarist Big Jim Sullivan Green Bullfrog session

Jim also had connections with Led Zeppelin, reportedly lending Jimmy Page the acoustic used on their third album. He recalled leaving one eventful meeting with the band. “As I walked out, on the carpet there was foam about this deep and a naked girl goes sliding past. And then another one. Followed by John Paul Jones and John Bonham.”
He did make some very non rock and roll career choices at times. Years spent working in Tom Jones’s backing band for one, but it was a living and as Jim said “the best 45 years of my life were the 5 years I spent with Tom Jones”. From there he took a job with James Last to help pay the bills. In recent years Jim was happy to stick with session work and other projects which interested him, and gave him pleasure to do. “I worked with Van Morrison and I came to realize that money can’t make a decent human being out of you. Here is a man worth 50 million pounds and is as unhappy a person as I have ever seen…”
Jim made sure he never fell into the same trap. “My whole life is geared to play guitar. I play what I want when I want and I hope the listener gets as much pleasure listening to the music as I get playing it.”
The list of sessions he did in the sixties literally runs into the thousands, so many that even he forgot some of them. Including playing on Bowie’s Space Oddity, which only came to light when another session player on the album reminded him in recent years that he’d played on it! Glenn Hughes has also revealed that Jim played guitar on the Finders Keepers (pre-Trapeze) single as well. Certainly I for one will treasure my small collection of vintage early 60s guitar instros (searched out from grotty old second hand record shops in the seventies) by the like’s of The Krewkats and others that Jim fronted and which will never be bettered.

9 Responses to “Big Jim Sullivan”

  1. Sportinglesbian Says:

    I was lucky enough to see the great man play his stupendous guitar in Sussex pubs in the 90s. He really was jaw-dropping. Many commiserations Stephanie, I hope you had many memorable years together and let him know how much he was loved and admired by his wide-eyed fans.

  2. Brian King Ramsey-Goudie Says:

    My best mate from the age of 3. We started music together with skiffle and r&r. We were with the Parnes organisation, Jim with Marty, me with Billy. We went our seperate ways, Jim with Tom, me to jazz. I then went on to play pedal steel. We kept in touch and met up when we could. I will never get over his passing. Lovely Norma looked after him through his later days. A super wife to a super guy. God bless you Jim, see you up there one day.

  3. Mohan Thampi Says:

    Big Jim Sullivan guitar playing has probably been heard by more people around the world than any other guitarists when you look at the astounding list of artists and songs he played guitar on. I always used to wonder who were the uncredited musicians who played brilliantly for many solo artists or even advertisement jingles. You can go round the world and find brilliant session musicians who outplay many highly touted musicians but most remain anonymous. But Big Jim was well known in anonymous world of session musicians.

    Big Jim was unique among session guitarists as he was a pioneer in electric guitar playing from its fledgling days in the 50’s and 60’s as rock’n’roll guitar playing evolved along with advances in electronics technology. Also, as the late Jim Marshall specifically pointed out in his interviews, three guitarists were responsible for pushing him to design and build Marshall Amplifiers and telling him what they wanted the guitar amplifier to do and sound like – he names Big Jim Sullivan along with Ritchie Blackmore and Pete Townsend.

    Then most importantly for us DP fans, in the late 50’s he gave lessons to a very young Ritchie Blackmore who would always name Big Jim giving him lessons and his biggest influence in his interviews and bios. This and the superb Green Bullfrog album which much later identified Big Jim as one of the guitarists I believe kept the name of Big Jim a known figure to us DP fans.

    It is only when one looks at the list of what songs and albums he played on at his web site we realize he was everywhere and we have many albums where he was the guitarist and possibly heard his guitar playing in the late 50’s, 60’s and 70’s every day on radio. Just taking a look at his list one recognizes many names and that you have a number of these albums by artists where Big Jim is the guitarist. I got a kick out of finding out that he played on the hits for the group Middle of the Road and that notorious “Je t’aime … moi non plus” by Serge Gainsbourg with orgasmic breathing and moaning from Jane Birkin (their daughter Charlotte Gainsbourg does the best movie version of Jane Eyre in Zeffirelli’s 1996 version). I got the “Je taime..” song in a compilation CD call “Music To Shag To” which also has a Tom Jones song. I am sure Big Jim was on a number of other artists on this CD if I research it more. Also, the instantly recognizable James Bond Theme written by Monty Norman has Big Jim’s guitar playing making it iconic.

    Five years ago, I acquired an instrumental CD titled “Lord Sitar” but with no credits to the players. Only recently researching did I find out that it is Big Jim playing the sitar and it was his album. This fascinates me as I used to wonder where did Ritchie learn to bring in Eastern/Indian musical themes in some of his guitar runs and solos in DP and even more in early Rainbow. I believe Ritchie’s unique volume control playing had a sitar influence. I used to think it was the Rolling Stone’s “Paint It Black” which DP played live which was an influence after seeing a retrospective program of the Ed Sullivan Show where Brian Jones played the sitar as the Rolling Stones performed live “Paint It Black”. Now after finding out Big Jim was heavily into sitar playing for some years and had released sitar records, I believe Ritchie got these influences from Big Jim. The sitar probably is the first stringed acoustic instrument with a natural feedback design whereas the electric guitarist discovered how to use electronic feedback as the technology developed.

    The last few months I watched for the first time some YouTube videos of Big Jim performing and was amazed at his technique – Ritchie learned from the best. I have never been impressed by the live performances of that fashionable trio of guitarists who are always touted as the greatest guitar players ever from the UK, even though Big Jim and Ritchie would wipe the floor away of all pretenders. I used to wonder whether Big Jim was ever considered to replace Ritchie in 1975 when he left DP?

    It was interesting to see hardly any media reporting on Big Jim’s passing, then all of a sudden 2 to 4 days later, every major and minor media outlets are belatedly rushing to report his death (even the BBC website were two days late). Big Jim will not be forgotten, his guitar legacy lives on and DP fans should never forget his legacy.

  4. Drew Says:

    I sessioned with Big Jim at Abbey Road studios in 1964 with the Tony Osbourne orchestra doing an LP of Bob Dylan instrumentals. It was the first time I had met the man. He helped me so much at that session as I was a bit green in those days when a music score was put in front of me! I next met him in 1992 when he was playing lead guitar with Willie Austen. He actually remembered that session. The blues harmonica player that couldn’t quite adjust to Dylan’s blow suck style of harp playing! He was a lovely man.

    Drew McKechnie

  5. Drdp Says:

    Respectful regrets Stephanie. Your grandfathers legacy will live on due to people like Blackmore giving him his proper due.

  6. Stephanie Sullivan Says:

    Yes sadly it is true, he passed away in the early hours on the 2nd October, peacefully. He was my Grandad and he was definately the most under rated guitarist who ever lived. I’m glad he will always be remembered by fans like you and hopefully his memory will live on through the spirit of his music forever. Rest In Peace Grandad Jim x

    • simon robinson Says:

      Certainly a man to be proud of Stephanie, and it’s good to see him being acknowledged in all the papers as well. I think Jim was widely respected by people who knew their musical history, rather than the fleeting recognition afforded to lesser talents by people who don’t.

  7. clive robey Says:

    I was lucky enough to see Big Jim in my local with Willie Austen, several times, here in Littlehampton. “Big Jim and Little Willie”, who compared to Jim was ‘little’. When asked about Ritchie, the answer was very similar to the above comment. RIP.

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