Big Jim Sullivan: Legendary session guitarist who played on more than 900 hit records

‘I wish I could play like that,’ he said of one record. ‘It’s you, you pillock,’ Chas Hodges told him

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The Independent Online

Every day for several years in the 1960s, the guitarist Big Jim Sullivan would play in recording studios around London. Because he was so adept, every record producer wanted to use him.

He would play a three-hour session in the morning, another in the afternoon and yet another in the evening. If all went well, 12 tracks would have been recorded, and he might play on 3,000 records in a single year. Not all the session details have been kept, but by his own reckoning, Big Jim Sullivan played on over 900 hit records.

Sullivan was born James George Thompkins in London in 1941 and attended Woodfield Secondary School in Cranford. Borrowing a guitar from his sister, he started playing at 14 and when he went into factory work, he had a group which played skiffle songs for fun. He was surprised when he and his friends were asked to play at a wedding. As a result, he tried to learn the guitar solo on every current hit record. His group, the Clay County Boys, became proficient and even backed the jazz musician, Cy Laurie.

In 1959, Sullivan was in the 2I's coffee bar in Soho, a springboard for many budding rock'*'roll musicians. He met Marty Wilde, who invited him to join his band, the Wildcats, at £17 a week. Wilde handed him a Gibson guitar he had bought from a visiting gospel singer, Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Soon, Sullivan acquired his own Gibson, a cherry-red 345. Wilde was insistent that his own band played on his records instead of the usual session men, who had little feeling for rock'*'roll; Sullivan was on Wilde's Top 10 singles, "A Teenager In Love" and "Bad Boy".

Early in 1960, when Wilde was involved in other projects, the Wildcats toured the UK with Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent. Cochran shared his guitar techniques with Sullivan – who was amazed by their ability to appear on stage almost drunk. As Wilde needed his Wildcats for the ITV variety show Sunday Night At The London Palladium, other musicians were recruited for the final night of the tour. After the concert, there was a road accident in which Cochran was killed.

When Wilde went into a West End musical, the group became the Krew-Kats and had a chart entry with "Trambone". Sullivan was to take part in a Cliff Richard recording for Stanley Black, but Black decided he was not up to the job. Sullivan learnt to read music and within a year was back working with Black.

The TV and record producer Jack Good used Sullivan on records by Billy Fury and Little Tony, and made a single with him, "You Don't Know What You've Got (Until You Lose It)" (1961), with Good singing. Sullivan was soon in demand, playing for Adam Faith, Eden Kane, Frank Ifield and the maverick producer Joe Meek. When Jet Harris left the Shadows he lent Harris his Fender six-string bass and helped him develop his sound. Sullivan formed a session band, the Nashville Five, with Reg Guest (piano), Eric Ford (rhythm guitar), Alan Weighell (bass) and Andy White (drums).

Although the British beat group boom started in 1963, many of the groups didn't play on their records, or were augmented by session men. Sullivan played on hits by Brian Poole and the Tremeloes ("Twist And Shout"), Peter and Gordon ("A World Without Love"), Lulu and the Luvvers ("Shout"), Freddie and the Dreamers ("I Love You Baby") and Gerry and the Pacemakers ("Ferry Cross The Mersey"). He played on orchestral hits by Ken Dodd, the Walker Brothers and Sandie Shaw, while his 12-string guitar was featured on the Small Faces' "Itchycoo Park" (1967. When he played an instrumental track for Los Bravos' "Black Is Black" (1966), he had no idea what the finished record would sound like until he heard it on the radio.

"It is only now that I am beginning to that I realise I had made a fortune for other people," Sullivan told me in 1988. "I had a house in the country, a couple of cars, a nanny and a gardener, so I was doing very well, but I never made the millionaire bracket."

When Sullivan recorded a cover version of PJ Proby's "Hold Me" (1964) for the Woolworth's label, Embassy, the producer asked him to play specific notes. Sullivan pointed out that they had been transcribed wrongly and was told not to argue. "I should know," said Sullivan, "I played on the original." Sullivan was featured on the Love Affair's "Everlasting Love" (1968), which was exposed to the detriment of the group on a TV show by Jonathan King. When he gave guitar lessons to the Bay City Rollers on their TV show Shang A Lang, fans didn't know he had actually played on the records.

Many French stars recorded in London and he worked with Richard Anthony and Françoise Hardy, as well as playing on the controversial chart topper, "Je T'Aime – Moi No Plus" (1969) by Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg. He was also on the sessions for Gainsbourg's concept album, Histoire De Melody Nelson (1971).

With the popularity of Indian sounds in the mid-'60s, Sullivan learnt the sitar under the guidance of Vilayat Khan and played on Chris Farlowe's "Moanin'" (1967). He found he could get triple rates for playing sitar as there were few adept players around, and made his own album as Lord Sitar in 1969. He also wrote jingles and film music, including some for the TV series Space: 1999 and Joe 90.

Sullivan's solo albums included Folklore With A Beat (1965) and The Perfumed Garden with Barry Morgan (1968). He played on Gilbert O'Sullivan's records, which led to his album, Sullivan Plays O'Sullivan (1973). He sang (badly) as well as played on Big Jim's Back (1974), which featured Chas and Dave, who wrote several of the songs. He was with the duo when he commented on a record he heard, "If I could only play like that." "That's you, you pillock," said Chas and immediately wrote the song "If I Could Only Play Like That".

There had been talk of Sullivan joining a new band, Led Zeppelin, and then Blue Mink, but he didn't want to tour. In 1969, however, he joined Tom Jones' band and spent time in Las Vegas, getting to know Elvis Presley and enjoying the pleasures of life on the road. In his spare time he learnt classical guitar. He left Jones in 1974 and worked for the Retreat label with the producer Derek Sullivan and became part of Tiger, playing on and producing their records. He also worked with Labi Siffre and McGuinness Flint and was featured on hits by Alvin Stardust and Dennis Waterman. When he joined the James Last Orchestra in 1977, he found Last a kind and generous employer. It was the reverse with Van Morrison; he was appalled at how Morrison spoke to his musicians.

Sullivan also took part in various instructional DVDs such as Guitar Maestros (2006), and played in many pub bands around London.

James George Thompkins (Big Jim Sullivan), guitarist: born London 14 February 1941; married Norma; died 2 October 2012.