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In Memoriam: John Sullivan

In Memoriam: John Sullivan

April 5, 1964 – April 21, 2007

Originally published in American Lutherie #90, 2007

My good friend John Sullivan passed away early on the morning of April 21, 2007. He was diagnosed with esophageal cancer less than a year ago, and things progressed very quickly.

Where do I begin? John was just a sweet, sweet man who poured everything he had into his instruments, relationships, and golf game. He was extremely generous with his knowledge of lutherie, and many builders have come forward in the past weeks to tell stories about how they called John up to ask a question or two, and wound up with notepads of info or an invite over to the shop/kitchen for some hands-on demonstrations.

Although he was well known for his mandolins, John was also a go-to builder for harp guitars, archtop guitars, and fiddles. His last instrument was a wonderful 5-string fiddle that is now in the capable hands of Darol Anger. Had he lived, I have no doubt that he would have built many more 5-strings. He loved to make them, and the ones he made were very good.

Photo by David Riggs.
Photo by Bruce Harvie.

I remember one night we went down to see Foghorn String Band at the local Portland pub. Foghorn’s Caleb Klauder plays one of John’s F-5s, and Jon Neufeld from Jackstraw was there with his Sullivan archtop, another cannon of an instrument. I wound up sitting in too, so there were three Sullivans going off like a bomb. I don’t think I’ve ever seen John so happy, and it’s a memory I’ll always hold very dear indeed. I’m sure everyone who reads these pages can relate.

A benefit to help cover John’s medical expenses was scheduled for April 29th at the Wonder Ballroom in Portland — a benefit that became a memorial after the news of John’s death. Forty of his instruments, including his first mandolin, were on display, and bands featuring John’s instruments played onstage upstairs. It was a wonderful and touching tribute to a luthier and friend who left us much too early.

John leaves behind his wife and partner Patricia Lackaff, who has just lost her best friend. Our thoughts and prayers go out to her. He also leaves behind a very large band of happy musicians who I imagine at this moment playing “We Bid You Goodnight” at points all over the globe. And all with impeccable tone.

Long-time GAL member Bruce Harvey presented a moving musical memorial to John Sullivan at the recent Handmade Musical Instrument Exhibit in Portland, Oregon. Bruce played a Sullivan F-5, set a repeating loop, then soloed over that on a Sullivan electric mandolin. John Sullivan had exhibited at this show many times in the past, and he was deeply missed by the builders in his hometown.

All three photos courtesy of Bruce Harvie.