Bursting with charisma, he has the easy cool of Sinatra and Martin, the gut of latter-day Elvis, and a pretty good voice, too. But his real talent is for working a crowd.
When he enters a downtown restaurant, Thomas "Silky" Sullivan, Memphis' most famous Irishman, slides his larger-than-life frame from table to table on the way to his own. Even from across the room, you can see the glimmer in his eyes and the grin on his face as he makes the rounds. Part court jester, part crown prince, he flirts with the other diners (if they're ladies) or jokes with them (if they're men), and if he asks for an impromptu favor -- to use their cell phone, for instance -- they more than happily oblige. He has that effect on people.
Sullivan, a man with a silver tongue and a voice that sounds like it's being filtered through crushed gravel, is the legend behind Silky O'Sullivan's on Beale and one of Memphis' biggest international cheerleaders. He's taken barbecue and the blues to Russia and Ireland and Cuba, helped start the annual Memphis St. Patrick's Day Pub Crawl, is an official ambassador for Amtrak, and will "rule" New Orleans' oldest ladies' krewe, Iris, for a year. Not to mention the fact he's about to be named king of the Sullivan clan.
"B.B. King is the king of Beale," he says. "I'm just the king of the Irish. This summer I have to go to Ireland for my coronation. I'll be the head chieftain of the Sullivan clan worldwide; it's millions of people."
Sometimes when Sullivan says something, you're not sure whether to believe him. He sounds serious but ... king of the Irish?
"I know I'm farfetched," he says, "but 98 percent of the things I tell you are true. The other 2 percent are only because I forget some of the details."
If you don't believe him, he's got plenty of friends to back him up. Patrick O'Sullivan (no relation) has known Silky for about 20 years, ever since he brought barbecue to Ireland.
"Sullivan is the largest clan after Murphy and O'Neal," explains O'Sullivan. "Being king, he won't have any official duties, but it's still very prestigious. How long will he be king? There's no set period of time, so ... until the clan decides to get rid of him."
Silky's got a story for every place he's ever visited and he'll tell you all of them, given time. Some people golf; he travels. Ask him about the time he met Fidel Castro's son or about the tour he took of East Texas with two of his elderly cousins, only to get trapped on a bus in a muddy bog of the Big Thicket with a bunch of Bible-thumpers for 14 hours.
Or he might tell you about getting crowned the Iris Krewe king in January. He wore tights, a platinum-blond page boy wig, and a jewel-encrusted crown with a sparkling SILKY spelled out on the back. Friends might say it's fitting that Silky is the king of Iris, one of the largest ladies' krewes around. Silky, who's been married for about 10 years (first time), has a bit of an eye for the ladies.
Asked why they chose him, he says they heard he was a "fun party person."
"Southern fun, that's my motto," he explains. "Southern fun is a special brand of fun. It means hospitality, friendship, and loving what you're doing."
Richard "Tippy" Tipton, the manager of radio station WKSY in New Orleans and Silky's college roommate at LSU, calls Silky "Huey Long reincarnated."
"As often as not, he'd be wearing a white suit and a white Panama hat with a jug of whiskey slung over his shoulder," says Tipton.
Surprisingly, Silky might sneak a bottle of whiskey into the restaurant and spike your drink with it, but he's not much of a drinker himself. Patrick O'Sullivan says that he's only seen Silky tipsy once or twice.
"He's not a big drinker. He's usually in bars, but he's quite sober actually," he says.
When asked about it, Silky deadpans: "I don't need liquor. I'm high on life."
So what's he doing owning a bar?
It all started during his eight years or so attending LSU. Sullivan actually began his college education at UT, where he didn't do so well. Then he went to a small community college where, he says, "they were all alcoholics and I got them drunk, so they gave me better grades. My mother thought I got smarter and let me go to the Sorbonne." From there he continued on to Harvard, the University of Georgia, and LSU. He says he's still 35 credits away from a degree.
While still in school at LSU, he ran a bar for a friend.
"I just did it as a hobby; it was something to do. Yeah, it's the number one bar down there, too. I never intended to own bars; I just sort of fell into it. A friend of mine was off to the service or something and he needed someone to take it over. I said, Give it to me, I'll take it.
Silky Sullivan's, which opened in 1972 in Overton Square, sounds as if it, too, was something Silky just sort of fell into. He had been working for his family's chemical company when he ran up a $40 tab at the T.G.I. Friday's in Overton Square one day. He asked if he could pay it later and they said no.
"I said, I spend over $10,000 a year here and you won't let me float a $40 tab? Well, shit, I'll start up my own place."
Silky Sullivan's eventually closed, but Silky had already opened a new bar on Beale Street.
"I added the O when I had two bars. If you needed the place in Overton Square, it was Silky Sullivan's. The place on Beale was Silky O'Sullivan's. You see, the O in Irish means 'son of,' like O'Leary is son of Leary. So it's son of."
"I've got drinks that can make you cry," he says. "I've got a drink for everything that ails you. If your boyfriend dumps you -- not that I wish that on you, but if it happens -- I'll make you a drink and 30 minutes later you won't even remember his name."
The most famous aspect of Silky O'Sullivan's is probably the goats. Lady Guinness and Sir Killian are long dead, but they've been replaced.
"Some people have aquariums; I have my goats," says Silky.
The whole thing started when he went to a Puck festival on one of his 50 or so trips to Ireland.
"Puck is their word for goat. The festival goes back 600 years. It's the oldest festival in Europe. So they come to me and say that someone has stolen the crown from the goat. See, back in the Viking days, everybody would invade Ireland and sack the towns. The mountain goats would see the ships approaching and it would startle them and they'd come down the mountain. That would alert the townspeople that invaders were on the way. It gave them time to defend themselves. So every August 10th, 11th, and 12th, they honor the goat. They put 'em up on towers and put crowns on them.
"So this woman comes up to me and says that someone has stolen the crown and says, Silky, what are we going to do? I say, I'll send you a crown from Memphis. A couple months later I get an official letter thanking me, so I know I've got to get them a crown.
"I go to the National Ornamental Metal Museum and they made me a crown, but they didn't know what size the goat's head was, so we had them fax us the goat's head size. Then I went over to the zoo and tried the crown on a couple of goats over there."
Silky then took the crown to Ireland and delivered it personally. A delegation of townspeople, goat and all, met him at the airport.
"I had also gone down to Graceland and I got Jack Soden [president of Elvis Presley Enterprises] to give me some grass from the estate. Well, the goat wouldn't eat that grass, so I dressed up as the king and threw the grass out to the townspeople. You should've seen those little old ladies; they were diving like Willie Mays to get some of that grass. Why? Because they wanted something of Elvis'."
Silky pauses as a pretty young blond walks toward the table. As she's about to pass, Silky reaches out his hand and says, "Hi, I'm King Silky" in a voice that would make Harry Connick Jr. jealous. The blond says hello, obviously charmed, and tells him how she works nearby and that her boyfriend is a waiter at the restaurant. Silky holds her hand the entire time she's talking.
When she leaves, Silky says, "I told you I'm a bad boy."
But back to the goats.
"I had that big patio and I said, If the Peabody can have ducks, I need to have some goats."
Sullivan calls himself a "dealmaker." He spends his days talking to people, having lunches, and putting deals together. It's not necessarily a formal process. You might be talking and suddenly he'll say, "Idea: what if we ... " and launch into something that sounds a little far-fetched. But pretty soon you'll be agreeing it's a fine idea. Of course, if you ask Silky what he spends his days doing, he won't mention any of this. He'll say something like "Thinking about pretty girls."
Tipton calls Silky a cross between P.T. Barnum, Rhett Butler, and Muhammad Ali.
"He's one of the greatest spirit builders in the world. He tries to make everyone feel like a king. He does the most incredible feats, but it's not to show off; he does it to entertain and make people happy," says Tipton.
His newest scheme is another barbecue fest, only this time in Jamaica. He's already got a new nickname -- the Silk Mon -- and a team coming up from Jamaica for Memphis in May.
"You'll love this," Silky says, "we're calling it 'Who's Sauce Is Da Boss?'"
Silky's also behind the Memphis St. Patrick's Day Pub Crawl, a tradition he helped start when Silky Sullivan's was open in Overton Square.
"The pub crawls would go from Murphy's to Overton Square. It started as me and a few friends and, after a few years, it was 100,000 to 150,000 people. It would take 30 minutes to cross the street. Its real heyday was in the '80s. What we do now is fun, but ... one year someone broke a door handle off or something and, after that, we were required to get so much insurance we couldn't afford to do it anymore," he says.
Like Silky's, the celebration moved downtown. Its 28th year kicks off Thursday at Silky O'Sullivan's with the Royal Irish Armada, a motorcade to pick up the visiting Irish dignitaries at the airport and then take them to Huey's, Friday's, Murphy's, and Silky's.
"I came up with the idea," says Silky. "When you welcome people to Memphis, do it in big, spectacular splendor. I decided we had to do it big. We had proclamations; we gave them keys to the city and made them honorary citizens. One time, one of my Irish dignitaries didn't show up, so, you know Lansky? Bernard Lansky down there at the Peabody? I saw him at the airport, put a green derby on him, and told him to pretend he was from Ireland. Yeah, he loved it."
Friday night on Beale, both of Memphis' mayors will be on hand for the Raising of the Goat, the Blessing of the Kegs, and the kick-off of the Beale Street pub crawl. Cabbage basketball, however, won't start until Saturday afternoon.
"Cabbage to Ireland is like garlic is to Italy. It's our staple crop, cabbage and potatoes, both of them, so we play cabbage basketball," says Silky. "It's just something we came up with for the fun of it." Silky does a lot of things for the fun of it.
At LSU, he couldn't get a live tiger to be the team's mascot, so he settled for an ocelot, a wild cat that has similar coloring but is native to America. Where'd he keep it? In his apartment, of course.
Tipton calls Silky a true legend.
"He changed things around here. He did for LSU and the state of Louisiana what Hugh Hefner did for the sexual revolution. He turned everything upside down," he says.
When you meet Silky for the first time, he'll peer at you from beneath his heavy tortoise-shell glasses, like a museum curator pondering a new fossil. You'd swear he's not even blinking. Then he'll compliment you on your eyes or your accent or tease you about something you've said. And the next thing you know, you might be on top of the piano in his bar or visiting "someone you've just gotta meet" in East Memphis or listening to someone sing you the blues over your cell phone.
John Nalewicki, manager of the Jamaica Sunset Beach Resort and Spa, recently met Sullivan when the Memphian was in Jamaica to arrange the barbecue festival.
"When Silky came down here, he took the place by storm," he says.
The two men went to lunch with the mayor of Montego Bay as well as the Chinese ambassador to Jamaica.
"When I showed up," says Nalewicki, "in my true business fashion, I gave my cards to the Chinese ambassador and his entourage. It's their custom to hand the card with two hands out of respect. Silky started pitching his out like a dealer in Vegas. You should've seen it ... the Chinese ambassador's eyes bulged for just a minute."
Silky laughs at the memory.
"The ambassador was eating with chopsticks," he says, "and I told him, Naw, that's not how you do it. I was teaching him how to use chopsticks and he was from Beijing. I was just having some fun with him. I told him, That's not how you hold those damn chopsticks. He thought it was hilarious."
When asked about the secret of his success, Silky says, "I don't have success. I just have fun.
"This girl, one time, she asks, Why are you leaving me? I said, Honey, we're earth signs. You're earth and I'm water, but together we make mud. When I broke up with her, I said, Look, I'm sure there are a lot better guys out there than me and I'm sure you'll have fun with whoever you're with, but I want you to remember one thing.
"She says, What's that?
"I said, I may not be the best in the world, but I'm a hard act to follow."