It was an answering machine message that would not only change Jim Peterik’s life forever, but lead to the creation of one of the ‘80s biggest anthems that can still be heard all over the place some three decades later.
“When I played the message, I thought someone was pranking me, because our road manager, Sal, did a pretty good impression of Sylvester Stallone,” Peterik says today.
But no, it was legit: the actor/director was putting together Rocky III and needed a blood-pumping song to start the movie off after his original choice (Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust”) proved unattainable.
“The message was like ‘Yo, Jim, that’s a nice answering machine message you got there!” Peterik says with his own impression. “I really like that song you have called ‘Poor Man’s Son.’ It’s got a street sound, and I want that for my movie!”
When Peterik returned the message (“Call me Sly”), Stallone sent him a rough cut of the opening sequence as Peterik and Survivor guitarist Frankie Sullivan started writing. “The ‘rising up,’ that was Mr. T. and I just started with the ‘diga-dig-diga-diga’ guitar opening, and then the ‘Bom! Bom! Bom! Bom! to coincide with the punches,’ he recalls.
The song’s title came from a line that Rocky’s trainer Mickey (Burgess Meredith) says in the movie about the boxer losing his hunger and getting too soft for his pugilistic profession.
The tune went on to be nominated for an Oscar, and win a Grammy in 1983 for “Best Rock Performance.” Though, due to inner-band conflict, with Sullivan, instead of taking the stage to accept the statue, Peterik watched the ceremony on a tiny TV in his kitchen while eating frozen pizza.
In fact, Peterik’s relationship with Sullivan reads like something of a dysfunctional marriage, with the two battling constantly over the sound and direction of the band. Even as they wrote together tracks like “I Can’t Hold Back,” “The Search is Over,” “High on You,” and “Burning Heart” (the last for Rocky IV). Since the entire band was not invited to the Grammys, it was Sullivan’s thought to boycott the whole thing.
“It was devastating to not be there, but if I had gone, I would have been frozen out of every dressing room and kicked off the bus and ostracized,” Peterik says, saying he “felt like a kept man” in his usual subservience to Sullivan.
Sullivan was also pissed that Peterik was co-writing songs with .38 Special’s Don Barnes and Jeff Carlisi, resulting in some of that band’s biggest hits like “Hold On Loosely,” “Caught Up in You,” and “Rockin’ Into the Night.”
“Frankie thought I was giving away hits to the enemy, but those songs would not have happened without Don and Jeff’s participation,” Peterik says.
“Eye of the Tiger” has only gotten bigger as time has gone on, appearing in countless TV spots and movies, and is the go-to inspirational song for athletic training and exercise.
“If you had told me that in 2014 it was still be such a big song and motivating people, I wouldn’t have believed you!” Peterik says. “It just shows that iconic [songs] aren’t born, they become that.” He would leave the band he co-founded, return, and leave again for good in 1996.
The break from Survivor allowed Peterik time to pursue a bevy of projects including solo records, collaborations, and a reunion with his first band, the Ides of March. The Chicago-based group had a #1 hit in 1970 with “Vehicle,” a tune that Peterik wrote and sang lead on.
Along with Chicago and Blood, Sweat and Tears, the Ides of March helped introduced horns to rock bands, though the trend was short lived.
“Musical tastes just shifted. Clive Davis came in and told us ‘horns are out.’ And then our managers said ‘horns were passe,’ and this was around 1972,” Peterik says. “So, being young and stupid, we listened, and our next records had more of a harmony, Crosby, Stills and Nash vibe.”
Last year, the Ides of March headlined a 50th anniversary concert for the group that also included performers and various lineups from a number of Chicago-area rock acts like the Buckinghams, The Cryan’ Shames, and the New Colony Six.
But a few days earlier, Peterik attended a much more solemn occasion – a church memorial service for the second Survivor vocalist, Jimi Jamison, who died suddenly from a heart attack on August 31, 2014.
Jamison and Peterik were particularly close, and collaborated outside of the band. Peterik recalls getting the news while at home celebrating his 42nd wedding anniversary.
“That was a tough day, really tough,” he says. “I get this call from a sobbing young lady who turned out to be Amy Jamison, one of Jimi’s daughters. And when she stopped crying enough to talk, she told me he’d died. I said that was impossible. I had just talked to him!
“But he was my beloved friend one of the greatest talents I ever worked with, and he was gone,” he continues. “He was such a soulful cat. I felt like I was punched in the heart.”
At the service, which was “more rock concert than church event,” Loverboy’s Mike Reno sang “Almost Paradise” with his wife, while Peterik offered “Streets of Heaven” from a Jamison solo record. He also wrote a new song for the occasion, “Heaven Passes the Torch,” which was sung by protégé Marc Sherer to accompany a slideshow of Jamison’s life.
Through the Eye of the Tiger also has plenty of humorous stories from Peterik’s musical journey’s outside of Survivor and the Ides of March, like some of his commercial work. That’s him singing on the Sunkist soda “Good Vibrations”-takeoff commercial from 1984 (he would eventually collaborate with a real Beach Boy, Brian Wilson, on “That’s Why God Made the Radio” for the band’s recent reunion record).
And when he was offered the chance to pen a song for Johnny Rivers that needed some Spanish-sounding words, the non-bilingual Peterik cobbled some phrases together he thought sounded ok. That is, until a bilingual studio engineer pointed out that “Viva Diablo” translated to “Long Live the Devil.”
“Johnny’s face was so red and his veins were popping out and he’s screaming at my publisher and my publisher is screaming at me. I mean, I thought ‘viva diablo’ sounded Spanish. What did I know?” Peterik laughs.
After a call to the local Spanish consulate for translation (“This was in the pre-internet, covered wagon days”), he found some new words, substituting “angel” for “devil.”
Peterik says he doesn’t know if Rivers ever actually released the song, but knows that David Hasselhoff recorded a version a decade later.”
A version of this interview originally appeared in The Houston Press.