Jim Sullivan, folk singer forever lost in the desert

Jim Sullivan, folk singer forever lost in the desert

No camera image. No payment receipt. No police report. No evidence comes to give any answer concerning the disappearance of Jim Sullivan. On March 5, 1975, this 34-year-old American singer set off on foot through the New Mexico desert, leaving family, car and personal belongings behind, never to return. As if swallowed, carried away by the dust, resurfacing only as a sort of urban legend.

He who never managed to find success thanks to his music found notoriety in death and mystery. We will probably never know what exactly happened that day on the outskirts of the city of Santa Rosa. But here is what we can already say.

Close to the dream

Jim Sullivan was born on August 13, 1940 in Linda Vista, a northern suburb of San Diego, California. At the time, this neighborhood was partly populated by Okies and Arkies, these inhabitants of Oklahoma and Arkansas exiled further west in the nation to find a new and better life. His parents, farmers, are part of this diaspora.

He grew up in the poverty of the barracks built by the government, in these neighborhoods where the blues and the folk still resonate. Melted into this environment, he is passionate about music, which quickly becomes more important than his qualities as a quarterback. Sully, as all his friends call him, will be a musician, it’s decided.

In San Diego, Jim meets his future wife Barbara and starts his first group, The Survivors. Nothing to do with the formation that will commit the planetary hit “Eye Of The Tiger” in 1982, let us specify. Desires for success push the couple to move to Los Angeles in the mid-1960s.

There, they have a son, and Jim quickly connects with the local music scene and Hollywood. He is a good guy, kind, sociable, well liked, avoiding conflict. Qualities that allow him to befriend show business stars such as Lee Marvin or Farrah Fawcett. In addition, Barbara miraculously finds a job with a juggernaut in the musical world: the record company Capitol Records. The lovebirds’ artistic dream is within reach.

In 1969, Jim released a first album entitled UFO (“UFO” in French). On the back cover, we see him walking in the sand, in an unidentified desert. It looks like it walks on water. His folk songs inspired by New Age, country and sometimes blues sounds, the mobilization of around twenty different musicians, some of whom came from the essential collective Wrecking Crew, and his wife’s connections at Capitol, however, failed to convince the major west coast producers. UFO released on Monnie Records, a small label founded by actor Al Dobbs. Despite some enthusiastic reviews and a beautiful eponymous song, the disc was a bitter commercial failure.

Hit the road, Jim

But Jim is not discouraged. He recorded a second album, soberly titled Jim Sullivan, which he released in 1972 on Playboy Records – a more experimental album and, let’s be honest, much less interesting than the first. This is another disappointment for Jim. The singer accuses the blow. From that moment, and for two years, he began to drink. His romance with Barbara is in danger, he is struggling financially, he is on the verge of breaking up. So he has an idea.

At the beginning of 1975, Jim decided to take control. His career in Los Angeles is frankly compromised. If he wants to become a singer, he must try his luck elsewhere. He makes a deal with Barbara: he will leave for Nashville (Tennessee), 2,000 kilometers to the east, to resume his career from scratch, when his wife and their child will remain in Los Angeles. If he succeeds there, they will join him. Otherwise… Well, come what may.

On March 4, around noon, he said goodbye to his family, got into his gray Volkswagen Beetle, took the famous Route 66 and drove for hours, leaving one dream for another. It crosses California, then Arizona, and arrives in the state of New Mexico. After passing the local capital, Albuquerque, it is about to reach the city of Santa Rosa. But fatigue grows and Jim almost falls asleep at the wheel.

He swerves without consequence, but which nevertheless attracts the attention of a police car. Two agents control him and take him to the nearest police station. Jim takes a blood alcohol test, which turns out to be negative, but the police urge him to rest before hitting the road again. Jim listens to them and goes to the La Mesa Motel in Santa Rosa. He doesn’t unload his car, just calls his wife from the establishment’s phone. He sleeps for a few hours. There, the mystery begins.

Night falls on the desert

The next day, at an unknown time, Jim leaves the hotel, leaving the keys inside the room. He stops in a store, a liquor store, and notably buys a bottle of vodka. Witnesses claim to have seen him hit the road again in his Beetle, but there is no evidence, no register, no recording, either at the motel or in this shop, which confirms their statements. All this is ordinary people who will later report it to the authorities. What is certain is that Jim drives south-east of the city and reaches a ranch where a family of Italian origin lives: the Gennettis.

On this property, the singer meets an old Italian woman who speaks very rudimentary English. She asks him if he has a problem, to which Jim replies: “No and you?” A priori, he wanders in the car on the large Gennetti property, without anyone really knowing if he is alcoholic or not. And then, for some unknown reason, he leaves his vehicle on a dirt road and continues on foot. The last to have seen him alive is probably Sammy Chavez. He is working on a road repair site and sees the Beetle a few meters from him. Funny place to stop, he thought. Either way, he gets back to work. Night falls on March 5, 1975.

There is no trace of blood, no goodbye letter, no footprints. Nothing.


Two days later, the Beetle has not moved a wheel. Jim has disappeared. Alerted, the local police went there and found that all the singer’s belongings were still in the locked vehicle. His guitar, his papers, demos, clothes… On March 8, the car was moved by the authorities without anyone knowing what happened to it today. A mystery in the emerging mystery.

For two weeks, the police conduct the search, mobilize volunteers, organize beats in the desert to find Jim’s trace. But no sign of life comes to give birth to hope, no lead can be exploited. There is no trace of blood, no goodbye letter, no footprints. Nothing. Jim’s family, who came to the scene in disaster, is powerless. To make matters worse, the sheriff of Santa Rosa, in charge of the case, retires. The Genetti are moving to Hawaii.

The complicit police?

In Santa Rosa, the investigation stagnates. It was not until the end of March that an element came to kill the torpor of the search: a body was found in the desert. The problem is that it is located 400 kilometers south of Santa Rosa, around Las Cruces, 20 kilometers from El Paso and the Mexican border. That’s a trot for a stiff.

All the same: the body has multiple similarities with Jim. Age, weight, height, a tattoo on his right forearm, a mustache, a short beard… The authorities are convinced they have found Jim Sullivan; even the local media seem to be convinced. But the first examinations are formal: the corpse is not that of the singer. So who is it? No answer. From that moment, the craziest theories are born and disperse at full speed.

Because this case, over the months, then years, contains many unanswered questions. Did Jim’s family identify the body found in late March? We do not know. What are the elements allowing to affirm that it is not about that of Jim? We don’t know either. And if it was his, how could he have ended up 400 kilometers from the Beetle? So, a few budding detectives and journalists start asking funny questions, developing often hazy scenarios, motivated by the lack of available official reports.

The police are most often implicated. Jim was checked by a car on patrol, then taken to the station for a blood alcohol test the day before he disappeared. But is it possible that this arrest degenerated? Did the Gennettis call law enforcement when they saw a man who was probably drunk on their property? And why did they move to Hawaii days after Jim disappeared? Neither that family nor the retired sheriff were ever questioned a second time.

Object of fantasies

So, one of the most popular hypotheses among people eager for answers is this: the police were called by the Gennettis to force Jim off the ranch. The arrest would have degenerated, the agents would therefore have made up a mistake by taking his body far, very far from the place of the probable murder.

Or would it be the Gennettis themselves who shot him? Because in the region, rumors are spinning at full speed. The Gennettis, of Italian origin, have, according to some locals, close ties with the Chicago mafia. In Santa Rosa, they would act as an outpost of the criminal organization near the Mexican border. But nothing, absolutely nothing comes to support this supposition.

Also runs another rumor, the most fanciful and the most mystical: the thesis of an alien abduction. Under the influence of alcohol, Jim Sullivan would have liked to get lost in the desert to experience, life-size, what he says in the song “UFO”. “Shaking like a leaf on the desert heat / His daddy’s got a bang that’s hard to beat / I bought me a ticket got a front row seat”, he sang there. The coincidence between the lyrics written six years earlier and this strange disappearance continues to feed the legend of Jim Sullivan.

Finally, considering the singer’s financial situation, the vagaries of his family life, his alcoholism and his potential state of inebriation, it is not impossible that Jim killed himself somewhere in the New Mexico desert. No one today is in a position to affirm anything, to establish a hypothesis with certainty, so many gray areas are there.

In 2010, a certain Matt Sullivan, not related to Jim, founder of the label Light In The Attic, took it into his head to elucidate this mystery. Pulling a blank, he abandons the idea, but has another one: to reissue Jim’s two albums, frankly fallen into oblivion. If the second disc meets with very little interest because of its musical weakness, the first, UFO, is enjoying new life and cult album status. It took Jim to disappear and become one of modern music’s greatest mysteries for justice to be done to his music. It’s expensive to pay, but the story would become almost beautiful.