Backstage with Ron Onesti: Peterik is the “Vehicle” of a generation
If you want to “fly under the radar” at an airport, I wouldn’t suggest you walk with rocker Jim Peterik.
Peterik’s signature look of bright purple hair, buckle-studded vinyl jacket and purple-jeweled cowboy boots makes it impossible for hordes of people not to approach. More often than not, he gets the “You look like somebody … who are you?” question, but there are many more who know him from 50 years of performing, writing and recording in the business of rock ‘n’ roll.
We are sitting on a plane together as he and I were asked to co-host another PBS television special, this time on station TPT in Minneapolis. We are promoting the “Cornerstones of Rock: American Garage” tour that is at the Pantages Theatre in Minneapolis featuring Jim and his Ides of March, as well as the Buckinghams, the New Colony Six, the Shadows of Knight and the Cryan’ Shames.
I have had the pleasure of working with Jim countless times on numerous projects. This is one of the most talented guys to ever wield a pen, writing some pretty big songs for many artists while at the same time recording some of the biggest hits in radio-rock himself.
In 1964, a group of guys from Berwyn got together and formed a band called the Shon-Dels, recording their first radio releases, eventually broadcast on Chicago’s WLS-AM radio. With the impending success of Tommy James and the Shondells gaining momentum, the band decided to change its name to the Ides of March as these guys had just read about Julius Caesar in their high school class (that’s how young they were!).
In 1970, Peterik wrote a gold record, “Vehicle,” which became one of the most recognizable power-horn hits in musical history.
The band went on hiatus for a few years in 1973, then reunited with a vengeance in 1990, consistently touring ever since with Peterik at the forefront. During the split, Peterik co-founded another popular rock band in the Eighties, Survivor. He was a hit-making machine as he cowrote all of its platinum singles including “Eye of the Tiger,” Peterik’s personal favorite “The Search Is Over,” “High on You” and “I Can’t Hold Back.”
If that weren’t enough, his musical pencil remained on fire as he wrote more monster platinum hits for the band .38 Special, including radio faves “Hold on Loosely,” “Rockin’ Into The Night,” “Fantasy Girl” and “Wild-Eyed Southern Boys.”
As we were sitting on the plane, I started thinking about the biggest song of his career. Being a huge fan of the 1982 classic film “Rocky,” I just had to ask him about the movie’s theme song, “Eye Of The Tiger.” “How did it all come to be,” I asked.
“The Scotti Brothers, who were producing the (“Rocky”) film, were big fans of Survivor, (and) suggested that Sylvester Stallone contact us about the theme song,” Peterik said. “So one day, I got a message on my machine that simply said it was Sylvester Stallone and he wanted to send a piece of the movie to me to see what we could do about a theme song.”
Frankie Sullivan, who co-founded Survivor, and Peterik got together to watch what Sly Stallone sent to them. “It was only the first three minutes of the movie … that’s all he sent,” Peterik said.
“We called him up and asked him for the whole movie, which he didn’t want to send at first. We told him we really needed to feel it. So he ultimately agreed to send it to us. When Mick, Rocky’s trainer, said the line in the movie, ‘You are losing the eye of the tiger,’ we knew that had to be the basis of the song,” Peterik said. Together, the guys wrote what came to be a song they called “lightening in a bottle.” Thank goodness Sly agreed to send them more of the movie!
They recorded the song in practically one take in Chicago for Sly to hear. He absolutely flipped over the tune because he wanted “something with a pulse; something for the kids!” Peterik said.
“We wrote the song to coincide with the pulse of the film, even syncing up those powerful beats with actual punches from Rocky. That is why it is typically a tough song for drummers to play because structurally, it is a complex song that breaks a few rules,” he said. “But that became the biggest part of the song.
“All Sly wanted was to enhance the drum parts a bit and add a third verse. He called us lazy! But he absolutely went crazy for the song, and the rest is movie history,” he said. “A little known fact is that the version of ‘Eye Of The Tiger’ you hear in the movie is not the same you hear on the radio. Sly liked the demo we sent to him so much, he actually used that original one in the film. But we spent about a month on the radio release and made it that much more powerful!”
I asked him if he was in attendance when the film came out. “Heck, yeah. We all went to the premiere in Hollywood. Sly gave us a huge hug right on the red carpet! It was surreal. But I have to tell ya, an even bigger thrill came three weeks later at the LaGrange Theatre near my house. I quietly sat in back of the theater during the movie. At the end, when the song played, people jumped up and cheered and clapped to the music — MY music! My own neighbors were jammin’ to MY music! That was so cool for me. That is when I really knew we had a hit.”
Peterik parted with Survivor in 1996 and he continues to tour with his several musical projects, including Pride of the Lions, Jim Peterik’s World Stage and, of course, the Ides of March.
“Any regrets?” I asked. “Unfortunately, I do. I was in Los Angeles recording when I was talking to my dad, wanting to play these two songs I just wrote. One was a ballad called ‘Ever Since The World Began.’ I got busy and planned on playing ‘Eye Of The Tiger’ for him later. By the time I got home, he was gone. He smoked Camels his whole life and was gone at 70, and never got to hear ‘Eye Of The Tiger.’ I think about him almost every day. I’m sure my dad heard the song many times on the celestial iPod.”
Knowing Jim Peterik has been one of the highlights of my 25-plus years in the music biz. He does not look like a veteran with more than 50 years in the business, nor does he act like one. He continues to write, produce and perform with as much energy and passion as he did back in the days of soda fountains and high school dances.
“Eye Of The Tiger” is powerful because we all have rivals; sometimes they are personal ones in our inner soul, sometimes they are opponents we come face-to-face with. Life is about rising up and facing your rivals, giving it your best. Rocky didn’t win the fight, remember? But he gave it his all and went the distance. That is what made him a champion. That is why that song has risen above most. It has touched the lives of so many, providing motivation, inspiration and perspiration. It does not so much define any one genre of music or generation of people, as it is an all-encompassing song for all ages.
Peterik continues to see and write music like a champion with “The Eye Of The Tiger,” bettering his world one note at a time. He is a great guy with much more music in him. So don’t let the purple hair and the feathered jackets fool ya. This guy is a gift to the world of music, and the more eccentric he may appear, the more our world of music becomes richer. He is the “Vehicle” of a generation, and a true champion in his own right.
Jim truly is a great singer/songwriter. I love to go see his World Stage concerts, because of the band members who come out from group he wrote songs with. Truly is an amazing time. Thanks Jim and you too Ron. Been to many shows at the Arcada, best venue in the suburbs with the best acts!
Nicely done Ron.