Big Jim Sullivan was not a household name, but his impact on the world of popular music cannot be overstated. As a session player in London in the 1960s, it is estimated that Sullivan played on over 1,000 top-ten records with such noted acts as Tom Jones, P.J. Proby, Marianne Faithful, Cilla Black, Shirley Bassey, Dusty Springfield, David Bowie, The Small Faces, Donovan, and George Harrison to name but a few. He was also a major influence on many of the iconic British guitarists of the era, including Ritchie Blackmore and Jimmy Page.
Born on Valentine’s Day in 1941 in Middlesex, England as James George Tomkins, he began learning to play the guitar at the age of 14. A mere two years after picking up the instrument, he was approached by a young Ritchie Blackmore to teach him how to play. “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,” Blackmore told Classic Rock Magazine.
Sullivan began his professional music career at the age of eighteen as the guitarist in a group called The Wildcats fronted by a fellow named Marty Wilde. From there he was booked by English music impresario Larry Parnes to back up rock and roll legend Eddie Cochran on his first tour of the U.K. It was from this tour that large numbers of people would first be exposed to Big Jim, including a number of aspiring guitarists who would take notice of his playing ability, as Jim himself would later describe, “It wasn’t ‘til later that I realized 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,” he told Classic Rock Magazine in 2011.
Noted producer Jack Good introduced Sullivan to studio work in 1960. In the 1960s in London there were two guitarists who dominated the session scene one was “Little” Jim Page of latter day Led Zeppelin fame, and the other was Big Jim. If a producer needed someone to come in and fill in on guitar duties for a given track, it was one of these two men that they called. “Big Jim Sullivan—who was really brilliant—and I were the only guitarists doing those sessions.” Page recounted in a 1977 interview. Of Jimmy Page, Sullivan would speak glowingly of their in-studio relationship, “We got on well on sessions, sometimes I would play lead and some times Jimmy. I used to do most of the country solos and he the rock ones. We would change over sometimes and I would be the rocker. We also did a lot of folk sessions together.”
In addition to his prolific resume, Sullivan was also a pioneer in the use of guitar gear. He was alleged to be the owner of the first Gibson Les Paul purchased in England: a 1955 Goldtop. He was also said to be the first to use a wah pedal, as well as the first to utilize a fuzz effect on the P.J. Proby track “Hold Me” in 1964. Proby told me in a recent interview, “Big Jim Sullivan was the most sought after lead guitar player in England so he was on everybody but everybody’s sessions.”
By the end of his career in the studio, Sullivan would play on over 1,000 records that would enter the top ten in the U.K. charts. Fifty-five of those top ten hits would reach number one. Sullivan would later remark about the voluminous output, “We were doing three sessions a day, day in and day out. I never had a Christmas at home for about 10 years. I also never had a holiday for years. Everyday was like a holiday, always something new always something different.”
In addition to all of his session work, Sullivan would also release three albums under his own name between 1967 and 1974. In 1969, Sullivan took a leave of absence from the studio and joined crooner Tom Jones for his long-term stint in Las Vegas. It was here that Sullivan would also develop a relationship with the “King of Rock and Roll”, Elvis Presley. In his later years Jim formed a number of bands and continued to play music for audiences across the world. He even ran his own record label for a time known as Retreat Records.
Big Jim Sullivan was truly a unique figure. So many musicians and artists get into the industry for the fame and the adoration. Sullivan did what he did for the pure love of playing music. From the time he was sixteen until his passing, he continued to play and push the limits of what he played and what he could play. As he noted on his website, “I like to work with artists who are as wide in their musical taste as I am. It gives the listener a good workout, to listen to the music, the same as it does us to play it. 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."