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Big Jim’ Sullivan, guitarist and friend to Tom Jones, Elvis, dead at age 71

Updated Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012 | 5:24 p.m.

“Big Jim” Sullivan, who played guitar for Tom Jones during Las Vegas performances in the 1970s and was a regular drinking buddy of Elvis Presley after The King’s shows at the Las Vegas Hilton, died Tuesday in England. He was 71.

Sullivan was one of the most in-demand recording session guitarists of the 1960s and ’70s, featured on more than 1,000 British Top-20 singles and on 55 No. 1 hits.

Sullivan’s guitar can be heard on such songs as “Itchycoo Park” by Small Faces in 1967, “Tower of Strength” by Frankie Vaughan in 1960, “Rubber Ball” by Marty Wilde in 1961 and “Shout” by then-teenage sensation Lulu in 1964.

Sullivan’s guitar also can be heard on numerous albums including “200 Motels” by Frank Zappa in 1971, “Wonderwall” by George Harrison in 1968, “Something Special” by Bobby Darin in 1966 and “Rhythm & Blues at the Flamingo” by Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames in 1964.

A musical innovator – he was one of the first British musicians to use the Wah Wah volume pedal and one of the first Brits to use the warm-tone distortion device known as the fuzzbox – Sullivan got his nickname because he was a hulking figure with a beard that turned from dark brown to snow white as he aged.

Sullivan, who also worked with Olivia Newton-John during her post “Grease” career, said in interviews that his Las Vegas years were among the happiest of his show-business life.

From 1969 to 1974, he performed with Jones at Caesars Palace. In TV footage of that era, Jones often is seen standing near a seated Sullivan and bantering with Sullivan before singing songs like “Patches” and, appropriately, “Guitar Man.”

One memorable instance was on a 1970s’ Christmas show, where Jones handed Sullivan a wrapped gift. Sullivan stopped strumming his guitar, took the box, shook it and at the same time asked Jones what was in it.

As the distinct sound of glass shattering could be heard by the amused studio audience, a seemingly dejected Jones replied, “six brandy glasses.” Sullivan then put down the package, smiled and said, “Then it’s a good thing I don’t drink.”

But Sullivan did drink. Often, after their Vegas shows, Jones and Sullivan would drive to the Hilton and spend hours with Elvis in Presley’s suite. Their friendship continued until Presley’s death in 1977.

Sullivan was born James George Tomkins in Uxbridge, England, on Feb. 14, 1941, and learned to play guitar at age 14. In 1959, he met Marty Wilde, who asked him to join his band, the Wildcats. When Sullivan accepted, Wilde purchased a Gibson Les Paul guitar and gave it to the young performer as a gift.

At his peak, Sullivan participated in an average of three recording sessions per day.

In the late 1970s and through the mid-1980s, Sullivan was a member of the James Last Orchestra and was leader of his own group, the Big Jim Sullivan Band.

Sullivan co-founded Retreat Records in the mid-1970s and co-produced albums for the heavy metal glam-rock group Angel, featuring Las Vegan Frank DiMino.

Complications from diabetes and heart disease ended Sullivan’s performing career in 1987 and contributed to his death.

His wife, Norma, survives. A complete list of survivors was not immediately available, but one British newspaper said Sullivan had an undisclosed number of children and grandchildren.

Ed Koch is a retired Sun reporter.

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