Jim Sullivan was Britain's first guitar superstar. After the Bert Weedon period, Jim was the man whom everybody regarded as the guitarist to use and his final six year gig with Tom Jones gave him the exposure he deserved.
But the Tom Jones gig nearly destroyed his playing. Now... 18 months after leaving the Jones show, he's playing well again and planning on forming a band with Albert Lee. Surely one of the most interesting combinations in years...
Can you tell me exactly what you're doing at the moment?
I'm just starting to write for an album, possibly my next album, we'll have to see how it turns out, but playing-wise, I'm doing nothing — just practising.
Aren't you doing the Bay City Rollers TV Show?
Yeah, that's right (laughs), I forgot about that.
You've been a very respected guitarist for quite a while and the idea of Retreat was great. I reckoned that you were going to get some really great musicians together, and that we would be seeing Jim Sullivan back.
The Tom Jones thing was alright, it was fine during that period that you worked with him, Tom Jones was fantastic.
Yeah, Tom Jones was the top of his kind of artist at the time.
Everybody accepted it but now everyone would like to see Jim Sullivan's Led Zeppelin.
Well, this is the idea now. The first LP I did when I got together with Derek Lawrence. He said "well, look, you've been associated with middle of the road, lets do an M.O.R. LP."
I said "Well, I don't really want to, Derek, I want to form a heavy band, to get out and blow". And he said "Well, I really think we should go M.O.R., you've got such a big audience," which I had through the TV shows. So we did that album and it was a complete and utter failure. I'm glad it was, because, for a start, I'm not a singer, I don't really want to sing, there are so many other guys around who are better.
We have at long last established that so I shall now be forming this band from all sorts of guys. We were thinking of having three lead guitars.
Playing harmony as well?
There are so many things that three instruments can do like that. Albert Lee wants to be in the band. I don't know whether to have another young guy in the band.
Albert, Ritchie (Blackmore) and I did an album a few years ago, that Green Bullfrog — it was great, we really had good fun.
For the other guitarist as well, I've kind of approached Alan Parker of Blue Mink, he's a great player as well, but I was thinking seriously, we've got a bit of maturity in the band with Albert and me, I think we might try and get a young cat in.
Why were you thinking of the three guitar thing?
Musically there's so much you can do with three guitars in a "band", you get a guy who plays solo in a thing that he is not at home in and it doesn't sound right, no matter what. With three guitars we can cover anything we get into. There won't be a weak spot in anything we play.
All you have to do is find a real powerhouse drummer and the right bass player.
Well, we're thinking of Ian Wallace on drums, and the bass player - I'm not too sure yet - I like the young kid in Dragonfly.
I can't help but wonder why this hasn't happened before.
Well, what you've got to understand is that I've been associated all my life in recording for other people and once you've had ten years of that, it's very difficult to be accepted outside of that.
I wanted to mention that — Jimmy Page did that, didn't he?
Yeah, well, I was going to try and be with Zeppelin at one time. Anyway it's coming on now it's going to be there.
How do you play together, do you know each other well enough?
Yeah, there's been a mutual respect between Ritchie, Albert and myself for a long time now. You see, I let my chops go playing sessions, but I still had the musical ability. I had more musical ability really than Ritchie and Albert. In that maturity, I really could guide them into things where they normally wouldn't go.
Do you think you're endangering them by doing something like The Bay City Rollers Show?
I've got a record label to think about and at the moment we're on our arse. We've got to get off our arse, we've got to hit somewhere, we're getting plays and getting into the charts. We've got two groups, and about five or six artists, and the reason I'm doing the Rollers thing is to get Retreat Records about. It gets my face around with the teenie-boppers, but it gets me working with people like Mu Young, in fact she's already said that she'd have one of our groups on the programme. That's why I'm doing it. No way am I a teenie-bopper and no way am I middle of the road.
I suppose it's really like going back ten years, but this time you're more experienced, you know all the people, so when you get a blazing band together instead of having to wait for them to come to you, you're there.
Well, yeah. E.M.I. have already given a good response to the idea of the L.P.
If it all comes together, when do you think you'll start rehearsals?
At the moment, I'm trying to write something for the album, and whether it will be right for this album, for the group, I don't know. It's pretty deep really, and I'm not sure whether it will be suitable, but I've got to write it, I've got to get it out of my system. So, for actual rehearsals with the band — I really couldn't say. It's a case of getting together, which is a hard thing to do first of all.
If you see that chance, of playing good music with good people, you can see the gap - don't you think it's something you should be ruthless about, and claw your way into it and say, 'Fuck that, nothing's going to get in the way?'
Yeah, I do, and why I seem reserved about it is because I want to do it as quickly as I can, and if I say 'Next Week' and it doesn't happen next week, everyone will be disappointed. So it's as soon as I can physically and mentally get all the guys together.
Are there any business problems involved, record labels and managers, that sort of thing, to sort out?
I've got one problem with Albert — he's with Atlantic so we'll have to do a deal with them I suppose. Ultimately, I want this to be on the road, that's really where it's all at, and what it's all about.
You're obviously deeply involved in writing, but what about playing for it's own sake — do you play just for pleasure?
Yeah, I've got a little band called Pacific Ear Drum with Dave McRae, a pianist Tony Hicks, who used to play drums with Back Door, and Bruce Lynch, a bass player, and Bob Bertles who plays sax with Nucleus, and we've got a little band, kind of a jazz-rock thing, and we play down at jazz clubs. We play down at the Bull's Head and the Phoenix, and we have a ball.
It's kind of an electric band and I've got all the Echoplex and the phase shifters and all sorts of things set up. We've got a Moog, and there's a girl singer named Joy Yates, who's David's wife — she sings a couple of songs, but in most of the numbers she uses her voice like an instrument, and it's very interesting.
We've had about five gigs in the last three months, and next week-end we've got two gigs, two rehearsals and we're recording the band on Monday.
It's not a serious band then?
Oh yeah, it's fun but serious as well, in the sense that we all dig what we do. If you dig something, it's got to be serious.
But no real career pattern about it?
There is a potential there, but I can't really see it being a career band as such, just at the moment, because the music is too kind of above the average kind of thing.
Do you need to be stretched as a guitarist? When you're in this band for instance, and you have intricate chord progressions and licks which force your fingers into real activity, do you enjoy that more than laying down a really heavy riff and making sure that it's totally rhythmic?
No, each one's as exciting as the other. Really and truthfully one is an extension of the other — the complicated one is just an extension of the simple.
For example, you have King Crimson at one time, who are very intricate, and at the other end of the Spectrum you have the Stones, who keep it to the most simple form. I believe that simplicity is very hard to achieve, and that a guitarist has to be very disciplined to keep that. How do you feel about that.
Well, one doesn't tax me and one does tax me. It's not hard for me to sit down and play a funky rhythm track. Technically, it's very simple, and ideas-wise keeping something simple I don't think is too hard, especially if you have a riff that's really working. That's fine with them, I enjoy it. The other way is a taxation of you technically as well, and to keep that grooving is something else.
After playing for so long do you find any limitations in your technique?
Oh yes, I found this very early on. I let my chops go. I went on classical guitar for about five years, and I got my chops together on that, and my playing on electric guitar suffered, which it must do, and it's just now that I'm starting to work on it and get my chops back.
I found that in my right hand the technique had completely disappeared, it was my pick technique that I lost, and my wrist. At one time, when I was a kid, I used to play Django Reinhardt stuff and I had a really good pick technique and then I went on to classical guitar. Well five years away from it ruined that.
Did you play any electric at all during that period?
I was playing with Tom Jones, but I was like the best paid rhythm guitarist in the world, you know, and when it came to playing a lick, right in the middle of a two hour show, I'd get an eight bar guitar solo, and (laughs) just nothing.
Did you find it was so difficult to nip into a short lick after playing chords for so long?
Yeah, because not only is your hand set, your mind gets set as well, and lazy. We were out on the road eight months every year, we were in the sun, luxury hotels — everything was luxury. We never had to carry our bags or set up our gear or anything like that.
You tend to get blase about that. As I said I kept in my chops with the classical guitar, and I learned a lot that way. In fact, some of the time I was on tour, I studied about six or seven hours a day. Getting on stage at night, playing the same numbers every night — it was like the same show every year for six years, and after a while I couldn't take it — in fact I used to get through a bottle and a half of Vodka every day to go on stage. Artistically, it completely and utterly destroyed me, I didn't even want to know about guitars.
How have you found it again, actually reaching the point where you want to play again?
Quite simple, it was the fact that I thought it had gone, and it wasn't, you know, just getting out and playing gigs like the Pacific Ear Drum, even doing the stupid little things that I do on The Bay City Rollers Show, realising that I actually can play the instrument. After all that time on the road, I just started thinking, well, I just can't play anymore.
To come back to you for a moment as a player, how many guitars do you have?
How many do you play regularly?
I've got a Gibson and a Telecaster and a 12-string Martin. I've got a Ramirez Classical, which I use all the time. I've got an Ovation six string with a fibreglass back that has a nice sound, and a Martin D-35 12-string. Those are the ones that I use all the time, other than that I've got 14 or 15 I suppose.
When you're writing is it always the guitar you write on?
No, sometimes I write without an instrument at all, when I'm doing arrangements like when I did Tommy I didn't use an instrument at all, I just put it on to paper.
Have you got perfect pitch?
No, well, I have relative pitch, but that's just experience it's something you acquire in time.
When you were very depressed did you still play every day?
Yeah, my classical guitar. One thing I've always had is the ability to sit down and play something to somebody. I started off playing country. I used to play Chet Atkins, Roy Travis — all that kind of thing, so I used to be able to entertain people doing that. Then there was a period when I was doing sessions, when people said "play us something" I'd sit down and play. I went on to classical and taught myself, and now I can play classical.
You say that quite blithely, but in fact it's very hard to teach yourself classical. Did you find it hard?
Well, I obviously have some bad habits on classical guitar, but I seemed to pick it up reasonably quickly.
How quickly did the independence of your fingers come?
Well, because I played country guitar, I had independence between the thumb and the first two fingers. It was just getting a third finger working. Getting strength into a third finger; getting it so you have power was hard. Every time I used to sit in the car, I used to drive with one hand, drum the seat with the other exercising my fingers. I eventually wore two lumps out of the seat!
What about the keyboards, how have you responded to them?
I love piano, I think it's tremendous. My wife used to be a concert pianist, with the power and delicacy combined. Oh shit! I'd like to play every instrument under the Sun.
How well do you play piano now?
Awful! I can do a few blues hits and a little Jerry Lee. I've never sat down with the same determination I did with the classical guitar.
That's surprising, because if you can master the classical guitar, with all the determination it takes...
Well, that's the thing — I don't feel I've mastered them yet. I've still got so much to learn — I've wasted ten years of my life. When I first started playing it was hot for me, because nobody else did what I did. Now everybody does what I can do, and most of them can do it better. I'm probably the best all round guitarist of all the guys, because I can cover so many fields, but there are some guys who play each of these things individually better than I do that I have to develop myself to the point where I bring all of these things together. Then I can put them into what I am instead of what other people have wanted. So 12 years of my life have been wasted doing what other people want me to do. Instead of doing what I should be doing.
Do you feel that now, and the next year or 18 months are going to be the best for you?
I definitely think that I'm on the brink as a musician of being discovered.
Discovered may not be the right word.
No, I think it's the perfect word. Listen, everyone knows Jim Sullivan — who really knows how Jim Sullivan can play? You come here because I'm a name, and someone else has said that I'm good, or you've heard me over a period of time. There has never been anything that really depicts what I'm about.
For me the proof is in the pudding and the pudding hasn't even been made yet, so now I'm going to get out there and make it, it's got to be done. Frustration has been such a part of my life for such a long time. I've seen all of the groups come up, I've played on most of the stuff when they started. I've seen them all have a lot of freedom of creativity and now, as a mature person, I feel I've got to get out there and do this. And I think that when I do there's going to be some excitement.
On the Les Paul what kind of strings do you use?
I've just run out of my batch of Ernie Balls, I had like a year and a half's supply of Ernie Balls when I came back from the States.
How often do you change them normally?
Oh, I've had these on here about six weeks, and they're ready to go. My hands sweat, and all the muck from the strings gets on the fingerboard and makes the fingerboard sluggish, so when I have to bend and pull strings it doesn't feel right.
I think I've got Martin's on the 12 string but they're heavy gauge and I'm going to take them off and change them. But that's one thing I haven't used for a while.
There was a period in my life when I used to play the 12 string all the time, but I haven't touched that for ages. But I want to get back into that, because I imagine that playing with Albert, me doing some finger picking and him doing some of his things, we could work incredible things on that.
Do you have any amps that you regularly use when playing on stage?
Over here I've got a little amp that Ritchie gave me that is a Mike Matthews Freedom. It's battery-operated — it's what he used on his recordings and it's incredible.
It sounds like a 600 watt stack and when you turn it down you can get a nice clean sound. Unfortunately at the moment it's printed circuit has come unstuck and I've got to find out where.
Have you ever got into doctoring guitars?
Yeah, now I'm beginning to feel the need for it. I don't really know enough about electronics to do it myself.
Of course, I'm always straightening the neck out and things like that, but I don't refret or file the frets — nothing like that.
I always feel you have to break an instrument in. It takes about a year.
Do you ever play when friends come around, that sort of thing?
Well, unfortunately there aren't too many guys around this area who can come around and have a blow. I went over to Steve Marriott's house a few months ago, we had an all night session from 8 o'clock at night until 9 in the morning. I really enjoyed that, and that was the first time I really played, like, for the seven years I was with Tom.
Do you need other people's interest? Do you play better if other people are with you?
It depends if you get someone you can bounce off of, yes. But then again I can sit down by myself and get off. If I can lose my self-consciousness, which is what I've been going through for a few years. Getting together with other people and playing something I've still got to come to terms with.
Being introverted for all these years; sitting in my room, playing the classical guitar to myself you become introverted, you cut yourself off. But that is all coming out now.
This is kind of an exciting period for me, getting rid of all the hangups that I've had and starting to realise that I can actually play.
What about the real commitments: making an album, touring - when is all this going to come together?
Everybody we've approached so far has said yes, and that to me is the sign that it's started.
You, like everybody in the business, have obviously been scarred.
I've been pretty lucky. I've managed to keep away from most of that. That's why I've kept away from LP's — I hate the business side of this business. It's the ultimate destroyer of creativity. When we get going... I was going to say, I'm going to get a manager we can trust, but whether or not that's possible, I just don't know. I mean, I trust Derek Lawrence, we've worked together and I know he's okay. Anybody else outside, I don't know. I'm a terrible business man, the worst in the world. I don't want to know about business — that's why I'm bad at it. But it's obviously got to come, Derek's teaching me a lot.
When this band that you're talking about gets together, couldn't you get a real heavyweight to sort out the right American tours, the right albums — that sort of thing?
The way I feel is that I don't mind anyone stealing off me when I've got it, but it's when I haven't got it, and people are stealing off me - that's the biggest downer in this business.
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