To music fans in Chicago, Jim Peterik’s been a local legend since debuting with The Ides Of March in the mid-1960s, but after reading his inaugural autobiography Through The Eye Of The Tiger: The Rock ‘N’ Roll Life Of Survivor’s Founding Member (BenBella), it’s apparent the singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and producer is amongst melodic rock royalty all the world over. Sure, there’s his initial and reunited rounds with that “Vehicle”-touting troupe, followed by a multi-million selling streak in the immensely successful Survivor, though he’s also co-written a stable of hits for the likes of Sammy Hagar, .38 Special, The Beach Boys, The Doobie Brothers, Cheap Trick and REO Speedwagon (to name a mere sliver).
Then of course there are his annual World Stage all-star concerts (accompanied by periodic recording projects), more than a decade of co-leading rock revivalists Pride Of Lions, the ever-evolving jazz act Jim Peterik’s Lifeforce and occasional solo dabblings. Throw in the current reality TV stint “Steal The Show” (about Peterik producing new sibling act Ariel, Zoey and Eli), an international touring agenda and several forthcoming releases (including The Ides Of March’s 50 Year Anniversary Collection: Last Band Standing box set, plus an inaugural Jim Peterik/ Marc Scherer collaborative album), and the 63-year-old rocker has more endurance than many a quarter of his age, while also refusing to rest in the comfortable niche of nostalgia.
Though the Grammy Award winner and Oscar nominee could easily cop an ego with that star-studded resume, he just so happens to be one of the most cordial, welcoming and down to earth rock stars ever, who didn’t just open up his Jam Lab rehearsal studios for some extensive chatting, but even kept true to his appointment a mere week after the incredibly sudden and personally excruciating loss of longtime Survivor singer Jimi Jamison to a heart attack. Though the enlightening book covers much of the above and then some, Peterik took IE beyond its pages for some extra perspective on an extraordinary career that’s landed Top 10 hits in four decades from a catalogue ripe with over 1,000 songs.
Illinois Entertainer: Is writing a book something you’ve been thinking about for many years or did it just get to a point where you got so many requests?
Jim Peterik: I think it was the latter. There were a lot of people saying “you should write a book of your life story,” but I kept thinking, “nobody wants to hear about me.” I didn’t have the train wreck life that the other rock stars have and it seemed like every autobiography I read- and I read them voraciously- had drama. I wrestled with it for a long time thinking “you know, there’s not that much drama in my life.” Well guess what, as I started writing it, I realized there was a whole lot more drama in my life than I really thought! It’s just that I go into a cocoon called music and I bury any kind of tension or any kind of conflict. I go off into a room and I put it all into songs and it’s kind of like a sheath that shielded me from pain and conflict, but it was still there…I would write from six in the morning until nine or ten every morning for two years. I started over a bunch of times and I finally hit my stride. I decided I’m going to start with maybe the biggest moment of my life, the call from Sylvester Stallone [asking me to write for Rocky], then I go right back down to my roots in Berwyn and then build it back up again. Once I got the format, it kind of wrote itself.
IE: Why was it so important for you to highlight your Chicago roots, perhaps even more so than many other biographies?
JP: Well, I’m a Berwyn boy and when you’re from Berwyn, you have a certain pride for some reason. Berwyn was a very tight knit Czechoslovakian community. All The Ides of March came from Berwyn. I’ve known Larry [Millas] and Bob [Bergland] since second grade and when I was a freshman we started out by creating The Shondels. We went to Morton West High School, and in 2012, we got a street in front of the school named after us, Ides Of March Way. So I never lost those Berwyn roots and I think that’s part of the reason I’m still here. Those working class roots make me thankful for everyday, as opposed to getting caught up in any kind of star trip.
IE: The Ides Of March always seemed to get along and that definitely isn’t all that common in a rock band. What do you attribute that to?
JP: The Ides are a family and I think what defines the reason that we stayed together so long and didn’t fight is because we were friends before we were a band. We didn’t necessarily choose each other because Larry was the best guitar player or Bob was the best bass player or even that Mike [Borch] was the best drummer. We knew each other in grade school as pals, so we already knew we got along. The fact that we all played instruments was a bonus and we grew into a great band by nature of practice and work and the love of the music. We didn’t start out to be a great band, but we became that. And 50 years later, we’re still a family, the original four that practiced in Larry’s basement that first day- the first gig was Oct. 16, 1964…Tragically John Larson, who was the screeching high trumpet, passed away four years ago and no one will ever equal his tone, then Chuck Soumar, the other trumpet player, left the band two years ago. Now we not only have Dave Stahlberg on trombone- we’ve had him since ‘91- but also Tim Bales on trumpet and [multi-instrumentalist] Steve Eisen, who really is an icon in Chicago.
IE: Do you think fans are going to be surprised by some of the turmoil you share in the book about your Survivor days?
JP: Obviously the people in my circle won’t be surprised because they knew what I went through. You know, I made sure I gave [guitarist] Frankie [Sullivan] the credit he deserves. There wouldn’t be a Survivor without Frankie and that’s a truism. I think every band needs that dichotomy- the Lennon/McCartney or Jagger/Richards thing. The tension helped create what we were, but it didn’t mean it was pleasant for me or probably for him. I guess it was a bit of a rivalry. I think he really, really respected me and I respected him, but we didn’t always see eye to eye, and of course, the biggest stumbling block for me was I was used to being the front man, lead singer and lead guitarist for The Ides Of March, and suddenly through Frankie’s passive/aggressive type of actions, I realized that this wasn’t going to work and that I was going to be the keyboard guy, the background vocalist and I was not going to talk to the crowd. He was going to talk to the crowd or the lead singer was going to talk to the crowd, which was a huge adjustment for me because I was nurtured as the front man. Frankie would speak louder without saying a word than most people speak with raising their saber and shouting. He would just give me a glance or a disapproving look or walk out of a room and that spoke louder than anything. I realized if I was going to make this band work, I would have to take on a different role and that was really the heart of our conflict.
IE: You write a lot about “Eye Of The Tiger” and the Rocky soundtrack, but Survivor’s Vital Signs record also matched if not surpassed its success with so many hits [“I Can’t Hold Back,” “The Search Is Over,” “High On You”]. What was the feeling like amongst the band during the second wave of success?
JP: It was really sweet. To be honest, I knew it was a hit record as we were making it. I would call our manager every other day and go “order the Porsche, this is gonna be huge!” We knew and when we heard those vocals come back from Jimi [Jamison, who replaced vocally ailing original singer Dave Bickler], everything was clicking. I always feel there’s one moment in time in a band where everything comes together. Some might say it was the “Eye Of The Tiger,” but I call it *Vital Sings* even more so. We had to re-prove ourselves that we weren’t just the Rocky band, but we were our own band that wasn’t riding on anyone’s coattails.
Has any of your perspective changed regarding what you detailed about Jimi in wake of his unexpected passing?
JP: Aside from the extreme sorrow and shock, nothing has changed. I’m very, very fortunate to have been his friend and mended all the fences of the days with two Survivors going out on the road and I forgave him for that. He did what he had to do at the time and I understand his motivations. We mended that fence years ago, and when I left Survivor in 1996, it was my other dream to one day work with Jimi again, as a person and as a talent. We always got along. We would do radio shows together and just tear it up when we were on the road with Survivor laughing our assess off. So finally I got that chance in 2009 when he started coming to Chicago and we wrote, laughed and cut an album called Crossroads Moments. It only ended up with 13 cuts, which is still a lot of songs, but we cut 30 songs, some of which came out on an issue called Extra Moments, and some of them are still to be released, if ever. It was a dream come true to work with Jimi again and to hear that voice come across so well.
IE: How did World Stage and Pride Of Lions pop up after Survivor?
JP: The first thing I wanted to do after Survivor was put together a thing called World Stage, which was calling to arms all my buddies that I toured with and wrote with, and our first show was actually in 1999 for the Rainbow Foundation, but it wasn’t as developed as the first big one in 2000, which had Kevin Cronin of REO Speedwagon, Don Barnes of .38 Special, Kelly Keagy of Night Ranger, Kevin Chalfant of The Storm and many others. People couldn’t get tickets and I knew this was something that was really worthy [It’s now annual and coming to Wentz Hall in Naperville on Saturday, January 24, 2015].
Then around that time, my niece Kelly, that’s Karen’s niece actually, said “Uncle Jim, I ran into this singer auditioning for this Dick Clark show named Toby Hitchcock. You’ve got to hear him.” When Kelly says something I tend to believe her because she’s a really good singer herself. Long story short, I tracked him down, he came to the studio, I heard his voice over the speakers and thought “this is the next singer I want to work with.” I was in communication with Serafino Perugino of Frontiers Records, who wanted to put a super group together with maybe an established singer. It could’ve even been Kevin Chalfant or Derek St. Holmes or one of the tried and trues, but then I came across Toby, did a demo, sent it to Serafino, he actually flew out to meet Toby and I in a Nashville studio and signed us. I had the name Pride Of Lions in my back pocket for many years, which is such a Peterik name, and our first album was simply called Pride Of Lions. With the record industry now, if you sell 15,000 copies, that’s like platinum back in the ‘80s and the record sold 25,000 copies! We went overseas and we played as Pride Of Lions in France, Germany, England, Italy and Barcelona and made a major impact. Well now it’s five albums later and we’ve become a trademark to be reckoned with. We still haven’t really broken in the States and yet people know about us. We did a show in Rosemont this summer only doing Pride Of Lions songs and vintage Survivor and I saw people singing along with the Pride Of Lions songs, so I’m thinking maybe we did make an impact with that band here and it made me feel so good.
IE: What do you treasure as your favorite writing session, or are they impossible to choose because you’ve done so many?
JP: From a fan point of view, I think Brian Wilson is my greatest achievement because I cut my teeth listening to “Surfin’ Safari,” “I Get Around” and “God Only Knows.” That was the [best], but to be sitting next to him, it’s intimidating, and yet really a great thrill. Larry Millas of The Ides, myself, Joe Thomas and Brian wrote two tracks- the title track and “Isn’t It Time”- for the 2012 comeback album by The Beach Boys That’s Why God Made The Radio. And then just a week ago, Joe Thomas came over to the house to play the new Brian Wilson solo album, which is coming out in January on Capitol and the same team has a song called “Sail Away.” He played me the master and it’s fantastic! I’m a huge Beach Boys fan. I mean it’s like writing with Paul McCartney or writing with John Lennon. That’s how big Brian Wilson loomed in my past and present and it’s just a dream come true!
IE: How do you feel like this book is going to relate to readers, whether they be fans or just general biography enthusiasts?
JP: I knew from the time I was four years old and picked up a ukulele that not everybody could do what I’m doing and I felt a little special because I had that musical gene. My dad was a fabulous musician and we both learned by ear. It was always amazing to me when I would see artists that were more gifted than me squandering their gifts with drugs, alcohol, this and that, so if anything comes out of this, I realize that my gift was more important than all those other niceties or so called niceties of the business, and whatever dalliances I had with them, it didn’t work. I realized real quick that those were gonna effect what I do and how much I can give to the world. I hope [readers] see the image of a person who never gave up and also a person that valued his gift.
– Photo and Q&A by Andy Argyrakis
Jim Peterik appears Sun. Oct 4, at Melodic Rock Fest VIP book signing, Holiday Inn Express – Arlington Heights
Jim Peterik also appear the Arcada Theatre (www.oshows.com) in St. Charles on Saturday, December 13 for a Christmas show. Book tour details are available at www.facebook.com/officialjimpeterik.