October 26, 2019

FTV: Survivor



     I noticed an advertisement in Classic Rock Magazine not too long ago for some concert dates in England by Dave Bickler’s band.  It was kind of nice to see that Bickler is still hanging around the music scene years after he became kind of a sad trivia answer when his promising career went bust due to extreme vocal cord fatigue.  If you don’t remember the name, hum along with me for a minute: Dum – Dum dum Dum . . . – Dum dum Dum . . . – Dum dum DAAAAA (sorry, I guess you can’t hear my brain – think of that tune from movie Rocky III).  Yep, Dave Bickler was the original voice heard on that mega movie spawned hit Eye of the Tiger written by Jim Peterik and performed by the band Survivor.  When Survivor became a hot concert draw in the wake of their surprising radio hit, the increase in bookings literally wore Bickler’s voice out.  Survivor’s star was on the rise, but even though Bickler’s fell like a spent bottle rocket, don’t feel sorry for him. After a lengthy period of recovery, he has had his own rewarding career beyond (and at times back with) Survivor.  The story of Survivor continues today, but to understand their whole career, we need to go back to the Ides of March.

     In the early 1970s, there was an explosion of rock bands with hit records that incorporated horns.  The phenomenon goes back farther than that if one considers 60s hits by the band that pioneered the melding of horns with jazz/rock;  Blood, Sweat and Tears. Other 60s hit singles featuring horn sections (like Woman, Woman and Young Girl by Gary Pucket and the Union Gap and Bend Me, Shape Me by the Rare Breed) dotted the record charts, but the number and popularity of horn bands surged in the 1970s.  In the era of bands like Chicago Transit Authority (later shortened to Chicago), Chase, and the Sons of Champlin, the Band Ides of March rode the horn band sound to the top of the charts with their hit song Vehicle (I will refrain from trying to type-hum the catchy opening horn riff here, but suffice to say, one can identify the song in the first five notes that open the song).  My old bass player Mike saw the Ides in concert at Michigan Tech and came away impressed. He especially liked one solo vocalist/guitarist Jim Peterik performed with just his left hand on the neck of the guitar while his picking hand pointed at the ceiling (yes, a one handed guitar solo).  

     After riding their Number 2 single (May 23, 1970) through the early 1970s, the Ides of March saw their career peter out, but Jim Peterik survived writing songs for artists like .38 Special and Sammy Hagar.  When his next namesake band broke up in 1978, his road manager/sound man convinced him to meet with guitarist Frankie Sullivan. It was a fortuitous meeting from which the band Survivor was formed. Singer Dave Bickler had worked with Peterik on jingle sessions in the Chicago area and he was invited to join the band.  Sullivan eventually brought in drummer Marc Droubay and bassist Stephan Ellis whom he had seen performing in a band at Flipper’s Roller Boogie Palace in Los Angeles. This lineup is considered the classic Survivor group that was in place when they got their big break going into the group’s third album together. Peterik had worked with another big horn band in 1974 and his new band’s name was inspired by him not making it to a Chase concert in Jackson, Minnesota scheduled August 9, 1974.  Trumpeter Bill Chase and most of his band were killed in a plane crash on route to the gig. In the liner notes for The Jim Peterik Band’s 1976 album Don’t Fight This Feeling on Epic Records, the record label referred to him as ‘a survivor’ which inspired the name for his next band.

     Of course, their big break came courtesy of Sylvester Stallon who had heard their song Poor Man’s Son and he commissioned the band to write something similar to that song for his third outing as Rocky Balboa.  Using an uptempo version of the chord sequence from Poor Man’s Son, Peterik and Sullivan finally connected all the right dots when they incorporated a phrase that Rocky’s trainer (played by Burgess Meredith) used in the earlier films:  “Eye of the tiger, Rock, eye of the tiger.” The song broke big as it went to Number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 where it stayed for six weeks (it was in the Top 40 for eighteen weeks).  It also topped the English and Australian charts, won a Grammy Award, a People’s Choice award, and received an Academy Award nomination.

     For the band, the second half of 1982 was like surfing a giant wave so they were naturally disappointed when their next release, Caught in the Game (September 1983) stalled at #82 on the Billboard top 200 and the title track struggled to #77.  Feeling that the Scotti Brothers label had let them down by not promoting an album they thought was superior to Eye of the Tiger, the band was given another jolt of disappointment when Bickler’s vocal fold nodules forced him from the band.

     By early 1984, Bickler had been replaced by Jimi Jamison.  DJ Casey Kasem simply called Jamison ‘The Voice’ and Jimi fronted the band through a very successful four year run.  They played sold out concerts, released several more high charting albums and had another #2 hit with Burning Heart from the 1986 movie Rocky IV.  Cracks in the band line up began to appear and the bassist and drummer positions began to be filled by a revolving cast of players.  When 1988’s Too Hot to Sleep album could only crawl up the charts to #187, the band called it a day.  Jamison went off to do a solo album and the band wrapped up this incarnation by releasing a Greatest Hits album in 1989.

     The 1990s were a strange time in the life of Survivor.  Jimi Jamison began touring his solo act billed as ‘Jimi Jamison’s Survivor’.  During this period, both Jamison and Bickler would join Peterik and Sullivan to record new music for newer versions of their Greatest Hits.  While Bickler was back touring with the original Survivor, Peterik and Sullivan filed a lawsuit against Jamison for also using the name.  As the lawsuit dragged on, it prevented the release of new music by the founding member’s version of the band. When Peterik and Sullivan’s musical and personal relationship declined, it was Peterik who decided to leave the band (his final show with Survivor July 3, 1996).  Peterik returned to recording with the Ides of March and also a new group called Pride of Lions. Original members Sullivan and Bickler were rejoined with the classic line up back line of Ellis and Droubay. The year 1999 saw Ellis depart again and Sullivan filing another lawsuit against Jamison for his continued use of the Survivor name, a suit that was finally settled in Sullivan’s favor.

     At the turn of the millennium, Bickler was again fired from the band and the 2000-2006 period saw more band members coming in and going out the Survivor’s revolving door.  With Sullivan and Droubay now the remaining original members, it will surprise no one to find out that Jimi Jamison was back in the fold for a second stint. Their recorded output was not spectacular during this juncture but they continued to tour.  A 2004 Starbuck’s commercial that saw the band performing a modified version of Eye of the Tiger while following around a character named Glen was their most high profile appearance in quite a while.  Just like clockwork, Jamison again left the band in July of 2006 and was replaced with Robin McAuley, formerly of the McAuley-Schenker Group.

     As for Bickler, he continued his career in music and found a high profile advertising gig of his own outside of Survivor, not with coffee, but with beer.  If one checks out the ads from the 2006 Super Bowl, the ‘Real Men of Genius’ ad for Bud Light was the culmination of a long running series of TV spots that Bickler had recorded for Anhieser-Busch during the 1990s into the 2000s.

     Apparently there weren’t a lot of bridges burned between Survivor and their come-and-go vocalists.  Jamison replaced McAuley in November of 2011. A new album release was announced for 2012, but nothing was ever released.  To give the story one more strange twist, Bickler again rejoined the band in 2013. Sullivan explained the co-vocalist plan:  “Our fans are the best and I can’t think of a better way to give them our best. With this line up – with both Jimi and Dave in the band, we can perform ALL of our hits.”  There were hints of new material being written and yet another new album, but again, nothing was released. The band toured with this configuration into 2014. Droubay’s health problems forced him to retire and he was replaced on drums by Sullivan’s son Ryan.  Tragically, Jamison’s run with the band ended on September 1, 2014 when he died at home of a hemorrhagic stroke at age 63 (initially it had been reported as a heart attack).

     In September of 2015, a 21 year old vocalist named Cameron Barton joined to perform as Bickler’s co-vocalist.  Bickler left the band, this time of his own accord, in March of 2016 and returned to his solo career. The Sullivans, Barton, bassist Billy Ozzello, and multi-instrumentalist Jeffrey Bryan are the current version of Survivor.  When viewing the two page chart of members who have performed in Survivor, I think that perhaps only Uriah Heep or Savoy Brown as the only other bands who have had a higher body count (of band members) over their extended run.

     Jim Peterik hasn’t been standing still these days, either.  Besides the afore-mentioned Ides of March and Pride of Lions groups, he also has a jazz group called Lifeforce and he performs a regular yearly series of concerts with an all-star band under the moniker World Stage.  Tack on his roles as a record producer and mentor to many younger acts and one can see that Jim Peterik is not going to slip into retirement quietly even as he closes in on the 70 year mark.

     Twelve out of the forty record albums on Peteriks CV were with his two most well known bands, Ides of March and Survivor.  His most recent output as a solo artist (The Songs – 2016), with Pride of Lions (Fearless – 2017), and World Stage (Winds of Change – 2019) are a pretty good indication that Peterik has no intention of retiring to his back porch swing.  Could he at some point perform with Survivor again in some capacity? One never knows. He had his first hit record with Vehicle in 1970 when he was still in college.  The last time I watched a video of him performing the song with the current edition of the Ides of March, he looked to be having a lot of fun on stage.  If one can have a fifty five year career playing music and still enjoy playing a song that was #2 on the Billboard Charts forty nine years ago, then I guess the retirement home can wait.  Jim Peterik is still a survivor with or without actually playing in Survivor. Top Piece Video – Dave Bickler performing Eye of the Tiger, the song that made Survivor so popular he blew out his voice and had to leave the band!