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Tuesday 24 April 2018

Jim Sullivan

Guitarist who influenced rising rock stars of the Sixties and popularised effects that changed the sound of pop

'Big Jim' Sullivan, who died last Monday aged 71, was arguably the most prolific British session guitarist of the Sixties and Seventies, playing on more than 1,000 Top 20 hits, including 55 chart toppers, and popularising guitar effects that changed rock 'n' roll's sound.

Born James Tomkins, the nickname suited him better. A benevolent, bear-like figure, whose white beard of later years gave him an avuncular air, Sullivan was anotable personality on the anonymous session scene of the Sixties.

While most hired hands were known only to producers and forensic fans who pored over album credits, his face was familiar and his name dropped by the rising stars of London's rock scene. "Big Jim was a big influence," noted Deep Purple's Ritchie Blackmore, who had been taught guitar by Sullivan. "He'd only been playing about two years, but he was just about the best guitarist in England."

His talents were in demand by Lulu, Tom Jones and The Small Faces, and led to a huge catalogue of hits. Averaging three sessions a day at his most prolific, he brought his light touch and adaptable technique to cuts as disparate as Frankie Vaughan's Tower Of Strength (1960), Marty Wilde's Rubber Ball (1961), The Small Faces' Itchycoo Park (1967) and, not least, Shout (1964), the breakout hit of a 14-year-old Lulu ("This little girl was screaming and shouting with incredible dexterity," he recalls of that recording. "She made my hair curl!") Only a pre-Zeppelin Jimmy Page had such a lofty reputation on the session circuit (and, indeed, sometimes the songs were credited to the wrong Jim).

Just as significant was the nudge that Sullivan gave to the sound -- and so the direction -- of rock 'n' roll. He used a volume pedal on Dave Berry's 1964 hit The Crying Game, popularised the vocal-apeing talkbox guitar effect, and was among the first exponents of the wah-wah pedal.

Critically, he was the first to use the battery-powered distortion device known as a fuzzbox on a British record (PJ Proby's 1964 hit Hold Me), showcasing the frayed sneer that would soon usurp the crystalline jangle of early pop. "The older session men used to call me the Electric Monster," Sullivan once noted.

James George Tomkins was born on February 14, 1941, at Uxbridge, Middlesex. He began learning guitar at 14 and within two years had mastered the instrument enough to survive the trial-by-fire of shows at army bases.

In 1959 he joined Marty Wilde's backing band, The Wildcatsand played a 1960 tour backing Eddie Cochran that opened the ears of Britain's musical youth. Soon enough, the pop Svengali Jack Good had lured him into regular session work.

In 1969, as the industry's first-call player, he joined the Tom Jones band for five years that he remembered as among his happiest professional periods. It was with Jones that Sullivan met Elvis, with whom he "sat up for a couple of days chatting and drinking".

After leaving Jones's line-up in 1974, Sullivan formed the Retreat record label with the producer Derek Lawrence and relocated to America. He took work where he found it, whether with a post-Grease Olivia Newton-John or the James Last Orchestra ("He paid lots of dosh").

In the Eighties Sullivan wrote film scores, struck up a pub-touring partnership with Willie Austen and, more recently, toured with the guitarist Doug Pruden.

Heart troubles and diabetes curtailed Sullivan's performing career. From his home in Surrey he enjoyed swimming and collecting guitars, and always appreciated that he had spent his life "with my hobby as my profession".

He is survived by his wife Norma.

Sunday Independent

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