Big Jim Sullivan

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Big Jim Sullivan
Birth name James George Tomkins
Born (1941-02-14)14 February 1941
Uxbridge, Middlesex, England
Died 2 October 2012(2012-10-02) (aged 71)
Billingshurst, West Sussex, England
Occupation(s) Guitarist, arranger
Instruments Guitar, sitar
Years active 1958–2012

Big Jim Sullivan (14 February 1941 – 2 October 2012)[1] was an English musician, whose career started in 1958.

He was best known as a session guitarist. In the 1960s and 1970s he was one of the most in-demand studio musicians in the UK, and performed on around 750 charting singles over his career, including 54 UK Number One hits.[1][2]

Early life and career

He was born James George Tomkins, in Uxbridge Hospital, Middlesex, England, and went to Woodfield Secondary School in Cranford, Middlesex. At the age of 14, he began learning the guitar, and within two years had turned professional.[3]

He called himself Jimmy Sullivan because it was lyrically similar to Lonnie Donegan.

When he was young he played with Sid Gilbert and the Clay County Boys a Western swing group Johnny Duncan's Blue Grass Boys, Vince Taylor & the Playboys, Janice Peters & the Playboys, and the Vince Eager Band.

Sullivan gave guitar lessons to near neighbour Ritchie Blackmore.[3]

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!, produced by Jack Good. The Wildcats backed Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent on their tour of Britain in 1960, during which Cochran died.[3] Wilde bought Sullivan a Gibson Les Paul guitar, reputedly the first to be played in Britain, which he had bought from Sister Rosetta Tharpe. He later played a cherry-red Gibson 345 guitar.[4]

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.[5]

Session musician

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. Another session musician at the time, and at some of the same sessions, Jimmy Page, was referred to as "Little Jim." Sullivan played on around 750 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" used a DeArmond Tone and Volume pedal. 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.[3]

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 at Top of the Pops, Ready Steady Go! and Saturday Club.[citation needed]

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, and Rolf Harris.[6] 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 Tommy.

Moving from being a session musician

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.[citation needed]

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 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 practised the sitar with George Harrison at Harrison's Esher bungalow.[citation needed]

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.

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.[4]

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.

Sullivan died on 2 October 2012, aged 71 due to complications from heart disease and diabetes.

Notable recordings

Sullivan's guitar work appears on the following songs:-

Number one singles


  • 1964 – Big Jim Sullivan (Charles Blackwell and Jimmy Sullivan) – Classics with a Beat
  • 1965 – Big Jim Sullivan (Charles Blackwell and Jimmy Sullivan) – Folklore with a Beat
  • 1967 – M Kansara (aka Big Jim Sullivan) De Wolfe Records DWLP3060 – - Sounds of India
  • 1968 – Big Jim Sullivan & Barry MorganThe Perfumed Garden
  • 1968 – Big Jim Sullivan – Sitar Beat – Album was released in UK by Mercury in 1967 as Sitar A Go Go and reissued by Mercury in January 1968 as Sitar Beat for wider distribution.
  • 1969 – Big Jim Sullivan – Lord Sitar
  • 1970 – Green Bullfrog – Green Bullfrog (Ritchie Blackmore, Ian Paice, Albert Lee, Tony Ashton, Chas Hodges and Rod Alexander)
  • 1973 – Big Jim Sullivan – Sullivan Plays O'Sullivan
  • 1974 – Big Jim Sullivan – Big Jim's Back
  • 1975 – Tiger – Tiger
  • 1976 – Tiger – Goin' Down Laughing
  • 1977/1983 – Tiger – Test of Time
  • 1992 – Jim Sullivan – Forbidden Zones – Guitar Tutoring
  • 1994 – Tiger – Test of Time
  • 1998 – Big Jim Sullivan – Big Jim's Back/Tiger
  • 2001 – Big Jim Sullivan – Mr Rock Guitar (aka Ultimate Rock Guitar and other titles)
  • 2003 – BJS Duo – Hayley's Eyes
  • 2003 – Big Jim Sullivan – Rockin' Rebels
  • 2004 – The Big Jim Sullivan Trio – Jazz Cafe
  • 2005 – The Big Jim Sullivan Band – Live at Coolham
  • 2006 – Big Jim Sullivan – Guitar Maestros
  • 2014 - Space: 1999 40th Anniversary Edition Year One Soundtrack (features Sullivan's complete episode score for "The Troubled Spirit")


  1. 1.0 1.1 "Prolific Session Guitarist Big Jim Sullivan Dies". Retrieved 3 October 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. "'Big Jim' Sullivan". Telegraph. Retrieved 2015-10-27.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 "Guitarist Big Jim Sullivan dies - BBC News". Retrieved 2015-10-27.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. 4.0 4.1 Dave Laing (3 October 2012). "Big Jim Sullivan obituary | Music". London: The Guardian. Retrieved 3 October 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. "Jim Marshall Passes |". 2012-04-05. Retrieved 2015-10-27.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. "Session Guru Big Jim Sullivan Dead At 71 | Music News @". Retrieved 2015-10-27.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. Engelbert Humperdinck; Katie Wright. "Engelbert: What's in a Name?: My Autobiography". p. 108. Retrieved 2015-10-27.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links