An answering-machine message not only changed Jim Peterik's life forever, but led 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 guitarist Frankie Sullivan started writing," he recalls. "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,'
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. It's one of many stories that Peterik tills in his new memoir, Through the Eye of the Tiger: The Rock and Roll Life of Survivor's Founding Member (480 pp., Benbella Books, $16.95).
The tune went on to be nominated for an Oscar, and win a Grammy in 1983 for Best Rock Performance. However, due to an intra-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 Survivor's sound and direction. Even as they wrote together tracks like "I Can't Hold Back," "The Search Is Over," "High On You," and "Burning Heart," which Stallone used in 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.
Story continues on the next page.
"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 him 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 No. 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," Peterik says. "Clive Davis came in and told us 'horns are out.' And then our managers said 'horns were passe,' and this was around 1972. So, being young and stupid, we listened, and our next records had more of a harmony/Crosby, Stills and Nash vibe."
In fact the day after Peterik spoke with Rocks Off, 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 before he spoke with us, 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. And though original vocalist Dave Bickler sang on "Eye of the Tiger," Jamison was on their subsequent hits; Survivor's most recent touring lineup included both singers.
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 journeys outside of Survivor and the Ides of March, for instance 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 2012's "That's Why God Made the Radio."
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 recall if Rivers ever actually released the song, but knows that David Hasselhoff recorded a version a decade later.
Finally, when asked if he has any specific memories of Houston, there is one that comes from the book. The married-young Peterik had a single encounter with a groupie that left him guilt-ridden for years. It was an incident that he would confess to his wife much later when they were going through their own issues.
"I was 23 and feeling my oats," he sums up. "But you know, that one incident defined for me what I could not be as a [rock star] on the road. I don't know what kind of accolade that is, but there are some pretty girls in Houston! And I was very flattered by her attention!"
ROCKS OFF'S GREATEST HITS
Keep the Houston Press Free... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Houston with no paywalls.