Who is Jim Sullivan and why do I want to know so much about him?

There isn’t much information out there about psych-folk musician Jim Sullivan. In 1975, he vanished in Santa Rosa, New Mexico at just 34 years of age – but I didn’t know this before I first started listening to his music. The first album I listened to of his was U.F.O., his debut album which was released in 1969 on Monnie records, a hauntingly beautiful album that effortlessly demonstrates orchestral funk-folk. It beholds a weathered American sound, deep and broody but with a slither of pop crawling through; it is bittersweet in all its glory. And yet, while I adore his music and this album would be one of my desert island discs, I’m unable to sit comfortably knowing that he just vanished.

Born in Nebraska in 1939, Jim Sullivan was the seventh son of a family that moved to San Diego during World War II. While he followed the typical lifestyle of a high school student – quarterback for football team, married the homecoming queen – it was once he picked up the guitar that changed everything, as it often does for destined musicians. His son, Chris Sullivan, is recorded saying that “the idea that he might have to be a square and go work for someone else was probably as repulsive to him as cutting off his hand.” His wife, Barbara, was the secretary at Capitol Records. Her boss, John Rankin, tried to get Sullivan’s music out there and get someone on the label to notice it, but it wasn’t really their thing.

Sullivan, centre, in the early 1970s with his wife, Barbara, and son, Chris via Jim Sullivan Estate

Actor Al Dobbs heard Sullivan at a nightclub in Malibu and was determined to help him make a record. Dobbs ended up raising money from friends, which resulted in him creating a tiny record label called Monnie, which is what U.F.O. was released on in 1969. However, this year also saw the moon landing, Woodstock and the release of Abbey Road, so it’s no wonder that this small release slipped under the radar. In later years, the album has been rediscovered and loved by musicians, with the likes of Damien Jurado likening the album to his own Maraquopa (2012) about a man who, like Sullivan, drifts away from society.

His second, self-titled album Jim Sullivan (1972) came via a slightly more unconventional label as Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Records took a shine to him. The album was of similar ilk to the last, but with a bigger rock ‘n’ roll sound, with help from bassist Jim Hughart. The album’s attachment to Playboy Records however didn’t help the selling of the album, both stores and homes weren’t as welcoming to a record from such a name.

The struggle of this album and the last took a toll on Sullivan’s personal life, resulting in the separation from his wife. This sparked the desire to escape, and so Jim Sullivan planned to go to Nashville to find songwriting work, but he never made it.

Via Jim Sullivan Estate

His grey VW bug was found in Santa Rosa, some 23 miles from the main road, housing his ID, his beloved 12-string guitar and a box of his two albums, U.F.O. and Jim Sullivan. Santa Rosa was a town that depended on tourists, and so strangers were not an unusual thing for people who lived there. It was seemingly a town where you couldn’t do something without others knowing, but surprisingly, no one knew what happened to Jim Sullivan.

Whether investigations were thorough enough is debated; locals have thought that it was “strange about how [it] went down, why they didn’t investigate it more.” People saw him and thought, understandably, that he was a cowboy, what with his handlebar moustache – he could have been anyone going anywhere.

Typewritten notes from Barbara Sullivan were shared with the New York Times to attempt to piece together her findings on her husband’s disappearance. On the 5th March, 1975, Barbara got a call from Jim, saying that he was okay, but why would she have any reason to believe otherwise? He had hardly been gone for long. She recalls how the conversation was cryptic, and as she pressed for details his response was mysterious, “you couldn’t believe if I told you”. Upon further interrogation, he retracted, “Forget it. Just forget I said anything. I’ll call you from Nashville.”

Days after with no such check-in, the family began calling hospitals and the police. He was nowhere, and his car had been towed away. His family, unfortunately, knew that because his guitar was in the car and not with him, he wasn’t coming back. Theories were spread after searches came back unsuccessful. Some people believed that it was something to do with the Mafia, the police or extraterrestrials, and it is said that Barbara actually took solace in the idea that her husband was one of the many few (if any) who had been abducted by aliens.

It is this that fascinate me most out of everything that happened, or did not happen, to Jim Sullivan. His album U.F.O. was oddly predictive of the turn of events. The lyrics “shaking like a leaf on the desert heat” and “did he come by UFO?” eerily correspond to the disappearance of him. And whether this be true or not is a completely different matter, but for a listener of Jim Sullivan’s music, it seems to add another element to it and I must admit it is hard for me to listen to it without feeling a little bit weird, but not once did it stop me from listening.

Time has passed since then, searches has been attempted over the years with leads coming from different directions, but to no avail. But, his music has lived on and will continue to. Light In The Attic Records’ Matt Sullivan (of no relation) became somewhat obsessed with the mystery of Jim Sullivan, and took on a cross country pilgrimage in search of the truth and master tapes, but came back with neither. However, the label digitally remastered the old album and presented a clean, near perfect copy. Even though he is not with us anymore, or so we know, we still have his music and I urge you to listen to it!

My song recommendations: Jerome, Sandman, U.F.O.