Jim Sullivan: Music from the desert highway

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Frank Bianco, Copy Editor

On March 4, 1976, a musician seeking somewhere new to find success got into his car and began to drive from Los Angeles to Nashville.  The next day he checked into a motel in Santa Rosa, New Mexico, but did not rest there.  He was then spotted the following day walking away from a remote ranch about 26 miles up the road.  He was never seen again.  Authorities searching his abandoned car found his guitar, money, papers, clothes and a box of his unsold records.

That man was Jim Sullivan, a man who had the right connections and enough of a reputation to have been moderately successful in the music business, but sadly never caught the break he longed for.

Sullivan grew up in San Diego, California, and was inspired to be a musician after listening to local blues groups.  Taking up the guitar, he began playing in clubs all around Los Angeles, with one in particular being The Raft in Malibu where he became friends with the Hollywood figures that would frequent said club.  Through his connections, Sullivan appeared as an extra in the influential counterculture film “Easy Rider.”

Before he disappeared, Sullivan recorded and released two albums to his name.  The first was “U.F.O.” which, with the aid of friends and family, was released in 1969 on an independent label that another friend of Sullivan’s setup specifically for the record.  With Sullivan accompanied by the legendary Wrecking Crew session musicians and bolstered by lush string arrangements, “U.F.O.” is a folk record with a rock undertone that almost borders on psychedelia at certain points.  Sullivan’s lyrics can be described as delightfully melancholic, with themes of love, sadness, time, travel and the mysteries of the world.

Century City Records remixed and reissued “U.F.O.” in 1970 with a different track order and retitled as simply “Jim Sullivan.”  This alternate mix brings Sullivan’s crooning yet mellow voice more to the forefront, and cuts out some of the string arrangements.  Some of the best cuts from both versions of this record are the atmospheric “Jerome,” the haunting “Plain As Your Eyes Can See,” the mournful “So Natural,” and the immortal “U.F.O.” itself.

A few years later Sullivan signed to the short-lived Playboy Records label and released his final album, the properly self-titled “Jim Sullivan,” in 1972.  Whereas the first record contained succinct songs of folk bordering on rock, Sullivan’s second record contains folk songs that dive deeper into a country aesthetic with a New Orleans brass flavoring and are given more room to stretch out.

Songs like “Sonny Jim” and “Tom Cat” showcase a lighter side of Sullivan’s songwriting, while songs like “Tea Leaves” and “Amos” retain the melancholic atmosphere that has come to characterize most of Sullivan’s work.  Two songs from “U.F.O.”—“Sandman” and “Plain As Your Eyes Can See” (renamed “Plain To See”) — are given new arrangements, with the latter closing the record in a grand crescendo.

The track that perhaps stands-out the most is “Lonesome Picker,” originally written and performed by John Stewart.  It sums up all the underlying anguish and sorrow within Sullivan as man who was driven to find the success that never came, while leaving open a window of hope in the lyric: “Maybe some lonesome picker will/Find some healing in this song.”

Light in the Attic Records, who reissued “U.F.O.” in 2010, are reissuing 1972’s “Jim Sullivan” for the world to hear again.  In addition, they have also unearthed a never-before heard solo acoustic session that Sullivan cut back in 1969 and are releasing the session in its entirety under the title “If The Evening Were Dawn.”  The acoustic album contains songs from “U.F.O.” stripped down, as well as songs unique to the session that weren’t recorded anywhere else.

Physical copies of both “If The Evening Were Dawn” and “Jim Sullivan” will be made available Friday, Oct. 25.


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