- Written by Dave Laing - The Guardian
The sound of British pop music in the 1960s was largely the creation of unsung recording-session musicians who accompanied the solo singers of the era and were frequently enlisted to improve the efforts of well-known pop groups.
The principal guitarists of this elite team were Jimmy Page (later of Led Zeppelin) and Big Jim Sullivan, who has died aged 71 of complications from heart disease and diabetes. Sullivan played on more than 50 British No 1 hits and toured and appeared on television with Tom Jones in the early 1970s.
Sullivan was born Jim Tomkins in Uxbridge, west London, attending a local secondary modern school and taking up the guitar at 14. He gravitated towards the Soho haunts of skiffle and rock'n'roll, and in 1958 joined Marty Wilde's backing group, the Wildcats. Wilde presented him with a Gibson guitar he had bought from the American gospel star Sister Rosetta Tharpe. A year later, Sullivan replaced this with a £300 cherry-red Gibson 345 stereo model sold to him by the guitarist Ivor Mairants.
In 1960, Sullivan and fellow guitarist Joe Brown joined the British tour of the American rock stars Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent. Although the tour ended in tragedy when Cochran was killed in a car crash, the young British players had by then learned the secrets of the authentic rock'n'roll style from him, including how to restring their guitars to achieve the Cochran sound.
This was to stand Sullivan in good stead when he was introduced to the session world by Jack Good, producer of the Oh Boy! television show, on which Wilde and his group were frequent guests. Sullivan was a pioneer of guitar technologies such as the wah-wah pedal, the fuzzbox and the talkbox, and later recalled that the older generation of musicians, schooled in the style of the dance bands, called him the Electric Monster, "because I made the guitar scream and groan when I bent and pulled the strings". An example was the sound he created for Dave Berry's 1964 No 1 hit The Crying Game.
The other chart-topping records with which Sullivan was associated ranged from Frankie Vaughan's Tower of Strength in 1961 to January by Pilot in 1975. In between came hits by Dusty Springfield (You Don't Have to Say You Love Me), Tom Jones (Green, Green Grass of Home), Engelbert Humperdinck (The Last Waltz), Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg (Je T'aime … Moi Non Plus) and even Benny Hill (Ernie). For more than a decade, Sullivan played three three-hour sessions a day at studios in London. He claimed he didn't have a Christmas at home for 10 years and calculated that about 1,000 tracks on which he played had entered the British charts.
Between 1969 and 1974, Sullivan combined session work with membership of Tom Jones's band, playing in Las Vegas and featuring in Jones's popular ITV series. When he left Jones, session work was less plentiful and Sullivan formed a record company, Retreat, with the producer Derek Lawrence. He recorded some solo albums, including two on which he played the sitar, and a vocal effort that was, he said, "the greatest embarrassment of my life". More enjoyable were three albums with the group Tiger and a brief spell as producer of the American rock band Angel.
After this, Sullivan took a well-paid job with the James Last Orchestra, which lasted from 1978 to 1987. He subsequently retired from touring, instead playing local gigs in small venues near his home in Billingshurst, West Sussex. A few years ago his state of health forced him to give up performing live.
He is survived by his wife, Norma, children and grandchildren.
Big Jim Sullivan (James George Tomkins), guitarist, born 11 February 1941; died 2 October 2012
The Guardian, Wednesday 3 October