Robert “Sully” Sullivan may not be the oldest singer to ever release a debut album, although — at 61 — he ranks in the upper echelon of late musical bloomers.
But he is likely the first who balances leading a nine-piece vintage soul, blues, funk and R&B band by night with his day jobs as an investment banker and entrepreneur, who also hosts local and national business TV and radio shows.
And he is surely the first who says he has a “bifurcated personality” because his now-deceased father was a music-loving drug-runner and his business-minded mother worked in administration at General Dynamics and Hughes Aircraft.
“If Hillary Clinton married (Guns N’ Roses guitarist) Slash, I’d be what you get!” quipped Sully, as he is known professionally.
As the namesake of The Sully Band, he leads one of the most ethnically diverse ensembles in San Diego. It is also the only band here with a four-piece brass section that features two women (alto saxophonist/flutist Tomoka Nomura and baritone saxophonist and flutist April Leslie) and two men (trumpeter/flugelhornist Steve Dillard and tenor saxophonist, flutist and harmonica player Tripp Sprague).
“My stepbrother, Tirell Willis, is Black and my dad brought me up listening to Otis Redding,” said Sully, who previously was the leader of Sully & The Blue-Eyed Soul Band and the reggae-inspired Sully & The Souljahs.
“One could say it was a contrived goal of mine to have such a diverse lineup when I created The Sully Band, but it wasn’t. I think this band is a representation of what Southern California, and much of this country, looks like and should look like.”
Nearly all the members of The Sully Band have impressive credits, most notably bassist and music director James East. The brother of San Diego-bred bass great Nathan East, he has worked with everyone from Patti LaBelle and Lionel Richie to Elton John and Eric Clapton.
The talents of The Sully Band are nicely showcased on “Let’s Straighten It Out,” the group’s 10-song debut album. Released today, it was produced by seven-time Grammy Award winner Chris Goldsmith, who is the president of Belly Up Entertainment and has helmed albums by Ben Harper and The Blind Boys of Alabama, among others.
Labor-of-love debut album
“I think a big piece of this is that I’m the worst musician in my band, by far,” said Sully, whose album is being released by Belly Up Records and nationally distributed by Blue Élan.
“When people find out I’m in a band, I’m reluctant to talk about it because they usually think that guys who are in their 60s who are in bands wear cargo shorts and sing Jimmy Buffett songs. And I definitely don’t do that.”
What Sully does do on his fervent, labor-of-love debut album is dive deep into vintage soul, funk, blues and R&B songs from the 1960s that were carefully selected by Goldsmith.
Some of them, such as The Temptations’ “I Wish It Would Rain” and Jackie Wilson’s “Higher and Higher,” are classics. The majority are more obscure, including Shuggie Otis’ “Ice Cold Daydream,” Albert Collins’ “If You Love Me Like You Say” and Dr. John and Jessie Hill’s “When the Battle is Over,” a gospel-tinged rave-up that features a bravura vocal performance by Rebecca Jade.
“Chris took me on a really deep dive,” said Sully, who admits he was unfamiliar with most of the songs on his album before Goldsmith played them for him.
“In his live sets, Sully does a lot of blue-eyed soul songs by Joe Cocker and Michael McDonald, and he’s influenced by the same people that influenced them,” Goldsmith noted.
“He has a lot of affinity for that music, but it didn’t make any sense for him to record it. The challenge was to find material that hasn’t been covered by so many people — and that worked well in Sully’s wheelhouse, vocally.
“He did a great job and I’d like to think this record can be super successful. Even if it’s not, it’s a very credible record. And it’s starting to get a little radio airplay on stations in Santa Cruz, Tampa, Santa Fe and Charlottesville.”
A Chula Vista native, Sully grew up in South Bay, University City and the Mount Helix area. When he was in junior high, he and his stepbrother began playing guitars and harmonizing on songs by James Taylor, Seals & Crofts, and other favorites of the day.
“We realized we could be very popular with the girls that way,” said Sully, who credits his step-brother with fueling his interest in Broadway musicals.
“I was involved in San Diego Junior Theater and Starlight Bowl productions. I played Curly in ‘Oklahoma’ about seven times and was in ‘Brigadoon,’ ‘Guys and Dolls,’ “South Pacific,’ ‘A Chorus Line’ and ‘Bye Bye Birdie.’
“I earned a scholarship to USD in musical theater. Then, I transferred to SDSU and majored in journalism and minored in music. But I left about 12 units short of getting my degree, after I signed a development deal with Island Records and moved to Los Angeles.”
When his dream of becoming the next James Taylor failed to materialize, Sully discovered he had a knack for entrepreneurship. After dabbling in publishing in Los Angeles, he moved back to San Diego, blossomed as a financial investment adviser and became a fixture on local radio and TV.
In the 1990s, Sully founded Compass Pointe Group, a financial services company. Proudly Libertarian — “I’m fiscally conservative but socially liberal” — he now heads Saltus Capital Consultants and the Sully Entertainment Group, LLC, which specializes in TV and radio broadcast and production.
A divorced father of two adult daughters who is engaged to be married, Sully is now in the process of relocating his Loft 100 Studios in Carlsbad. It will expand from its current 3,000 square-foot space to an 11,000 square-foot space in two nearby new buildings that he is purchasing.
Sully currently hosts the KOGO radio show “San Diego Business Saturday” and co-hosts KUSI TV’s weekly Saturday “On the Air” and the daily “The Big Biz Show,” which airs nationally on over 150 Clear Channel radio stations and is televised on the YTA Network, Biz Television Network (via Time Warner Cable), AT&T U-verse, Cox Communications, and other outlets.
“Sully is quite an entrepreneur who has built quite a media business for himself,” Goldsmith said. “His musical endeavors are a natural part of what he does as an entertainer and TV personality, and it all seems to be working fairly well so far.”
During the COVID-19 shutdown, Sully financed a series of videos and streamed performances by his band and paid each member himself. He donates a portion of the proceeds from every concert he performs to the Challenged Athletes Foundation and other charities.
“My goal,” Sully said, “is for my band to fill Belly Up-sized clubs in every city we play in. I’ve got 20 good summers left, maybe 25, and I’m not close to being done yet. I am a perfect example of someone who is starting to chase their (musical) dream at 61.”
Sad farewell to Russ T. Nailz
Sully’s longtime “On the Air” co-host, San Diego comedian and media personality Russ T. Nailz (real name: Russ Stolnack), died Wednesday afternoon while filming this Saturday’s episode of “On the Air” with Sully.
“Russ’ passing was so sad and intense,” Goldsmith said Friday via email. “I was there when it happened… (Russ) was singing a song with the house band when he had a heart attack, and — just like that — he was gone.”
Sully, via text, wrote on Friday: “I am absolutely a zombie right now… just stunned… dealing with my broken heart, such a shock. My album being released today is bittersweet.”
The Sully Band Album Release Concert, featuring Rebecca Jade and Anthony Cullins
When: 8 p.m. Thursday
Where: Belly Up, 143 South Cedros Ave., Solana Beach
Tickets: $15 (advance), $18 (day of show), $27 (reserved loft seating), $100 (VIP package for two)
Phone: (858) 841-8140