Interview with Jimi Jamison, Lead Singer of Survivor

(This interview was originally published February 18, 2011 on the now-retired Kickin' it Old School blog. It is one installment in an incredible series of interviews we are republishing on Rediscover the '80s for posterity and your enjoyment. These are more than just interviews in a way; they are more like '80s timelines or oral histories on their respective subject matters. Please keep in mind the original date because some content could be specific to the time of the interview, though the majority should be timeless and totally rad.)

Mr. Jamison passed away from a stroke in September of 2014 at the age of 63, so this opportunity to interview him before that is even more special to me.

When the opportunity presents itself to ask a few questions to someone who contributed to the awesomeness of the '80s, I will continue to share those answers with you right here. Again, lucky for me (and hopefully you), I do get to share a little more awesomeness with you.

This time that awesomeness is Jimi Jamison. He is best known as the lead singer of the band Survivor, taking over that role in 1984. In my opinion, he has one of the most iconic voices of my lifetime. Jamison took over as lead singer for Survivor after Dave Bickler, who originally sang lead on the band's smash hit “Eye of the Tiger,” suffered voice problems and was forced to leave. Survivor's first album with Jamison, Vital Signs, was a huge success including 3 hit singles returning the band to prominence.

They followed that up with an even bigger hit with “Burning Heart” from the Rocky IV soundtrack. Many people do not know that Jamison would later co-write and perform the theme song for the popular television series Baywatch. You will find out more about his time with Survivor and since then as we get on to some selections from my interview with Jimi Jamison…

Q: When did you first realize you wanted to be a professional musician? How did that end up becoming a reality for you? I read that you actually spent 4 years working for a jingle company in Memphis. Is that true and, if so, how did that prepare you to be the frontman of a rock band?

Jimi: Actually I had already sung in many bands before I worked at the jingle company. I was supposed to sub for a singer for 4 days and ended up staying for 4 years, after which Cobra was formed and signed to Epic Records. But working there really taught me how to sing in a studio in any situation with any type of music. I learned how to really work a mic in many different ways. Nowadays, there is software that gives you these different sounds automatically.

It's strange how things worked out. Before I was ever in a band, I remember lying in bed at night at my Mom's and secretly listening to the top ten songs of the week and imagining it was me on stage singing all those great songs, with all my classmates standing around cheering. I never really thought it would happen and never planned music as a career. I would be riding in the car with my Mom and step-dad and concentrating on the jingle singers singing the radio station ID's and thinking, “Wow, how do people get to do that and even get paid for it?” Pretty wild when you think that it all happened just as I imagined it.

Q: You moved to Memphis at a very young age and I read that you had an encounter with Elvis as a young boy? Do you remember that encounter? Memphis in general is such a great music city, how did growing up in Memphis foster and inspire your musical style and passion?

Jimi: I first met Elvis at a place called Katz Drug Store. He was on his motorcycle with a chick on the back…of course.

Growing up in Memphis was a musical lesson for life. There was so much talent at that time, as there always has been. Even some of the music business shakers were based there. Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Otis Redding, Stax Records and many other music icons were there and really inspired many young bands including myself.

Q: Things really went to the next level for you when you joined Survivor in 1984. How did that opportunity come your way? Did you have any doubts when you accepted the invitation to join the band? Other than your amazing voice, what did you feel like you were bringing to the band?

Jimi: Around the time they lost their singer [Dave Bickler], my band Cobra on Epic Records broke up. One of the record execs who was Survivor's ex-manager suggested they try me out. I went to Chicago, met Rick [Weigand] and Marc [Droubay] and proceeded to get totally blitzed the night before I rehearsed with the band. Not being much of a drinker, I pretty much just wanted to get it over with and get home and nurse a hangover.

They continued to try other singers but about a month later their tour manager, Rick Weigand (responsible for getting the founding members together in the first place), called me and asked me to come join the band. I did have doubts about joining at first but it just took a little getting used to. The band had a great name but no recognizable face, except for Dave's beret and his great vocals. We did so many videos, I think I helped in that area and coming from a wild band [Cobra] helped create an exciting live show and added a little Memphis soul to the band and their music.

Q: Survivor had one huge hit before you joined the band, “Eye of the Tiger” from the Rocky III soundtrack. Did you ever feel strange (especially at first) singing this song since it was not originally recorded with your vocals?

Jimi: The only thing that I ever felt weird about was knowing I had to hit that high note every night. It never bothered me that I didn't sing that one originally.

Q: Your first album with the band was 1984's Vital Signs. Did you know you had something special when recording this album? Could you have ever anticipated the success it would have with 3 hit singles? How did things change for you personally and for Survivor after this album's success? Did the band attribute this success to your addition to the group and recognize your contributions?

Jimi: I really never thought it would do as well as it did. Personally, it changed the way people viewed my vocals. I was a Rock singer and became a Pop singer. As far as the band recognizing my contributions, I'm sure they realized what was going on especially after our first video (which hit #1 on MTV), but they were very full of themselves as songwriters so they would never admit it. Can't really blame them since they already had a #1 hit worldwide [before me] I guess. At least not back then.

The first hit single from the album was “I Can't Hold Back” which would peak at #13 on the Billboard Hot 100 in December of 1984. It would also hold the top spot on the Billboard Mainstream Rock chart for three straight weeks. Here is the video for “I Can't Hold Back” by Survivor…

Q: All those hit singles from Vital Signs were written by Jim Peterik and Frankie Sullivan. How much of the songs' success do you attribute to the songwriting? What are your feelings about Peterik and Sullivan as songwriters and performers?

Jimi: Oh yes, they were great songs and songwriters. A lot of people, including myself, previously thought it was just a studio band before I joined. But everyone, including myself, found out that they were seasoned live performers and could hold their own with just about anyone.

The second single from Vital Signs was “High On You” which would make it into the top 10 peaking at #8 on the Billboard Hot 100 in April of 1985. According to Peterik, the song was created during a rehearsal jam. Here is what Peterik had to say about what inspired the title, “Lyrically, I've had that title ever since the CBS convention in 1977 when Sly Stone of Sly and the Family Stone – there were rumors about him being strung out on drugs – he bolts on stage all cleaned up and says, I want you to know, people, I am high on you. Everybody applauded. There's a title if I ever heard one, so I guess indirectly he inspired that song.” Here is the video for “High On You” by Survivor…

Q: “The Search Is Over” is often referred to as a power ballad. What are your feelings about using the song description/term “power ballad”?

Jimi: I don't know if I would really label it a “power ballad.” I think it's a little lighter than that which I believe actually gives it more legs and longevity. But as long as everyone likes it, they can call it whatever they would like. Ha!!

“The Search Is Over” was the third single from the album and second top 10 hit in a row when it peaked at #4 on the Billboard Hot 100 in July of 1985. The song remained in the top 40 for fourteen weeks and actually topped the Billboard Adult Contemporary chart for four straight weeks as well. According to Peterik, he did not write the song about personal experience, but about a friend of his who realized after searching all over that his dream girl was actually a friend of his from childhood. Jamison's vocals really convey all of that emotion. Here is the video for “The Search Is Over” by Survivor…

Q: When you have mega hit songs like those, do you (or did you) ever get sick of playing them?

Jimi: Ask anyone that question while it's happening and they will probably say yes. If they do, they are totally lying. When you look out at a huge crowd and they are singing along with you and appreciating your work… there is no way you can ever get sick of that.

Q: Who did Survivor tour with back in the '80s? Any good stories from being out on tour back then? How does it feel having thousands and thousands of adoring fans (women) screaming as you perform on stage?

Jimi: We toured with Bryan Adams, REO Speedwagon and a host of other big bands. We also did a headline tour with Jason and the Scorchers opening. It was a great feeling getting such a reaction every night and, with the release of all the videos we did, the band was finally getting recognized on the street.

Off the top of my head… the only funny thing I can remember is the night some girl threw her panties on stage when we picked them up they stretched almost all the way across the stage.

I also remember during one concert we were doing “I Can't Hold Back” and I just totally did not recognize the song at all. We had played it a hundred times and I just stood there looking at the crowd with the band playing the whole song, even singing the background vocals. I just did not remember a thing about the song. I looked over at the side of the stage and Kevin Cronin [from REO] was laying on his back kicking his feet in the air and laughing his butt off.

Q: “Burning Heart” was featured in 1985's Rocky IV. Did this opportunity come your way because of “Eye of the Tiger” in Rocky III? Have you ever met Sylvester Stallone and if so, how was that experience?

Jimi: Yes, I met him [Stallone] at the 'Rocky IV' premiere and yes, the opportunity was directly related to EOTT. Sly was really a nice and cool guy. His brother Frank and I still perform together to this day. Both songs will always be remembered because of the movies.

After the success of “Eye of the Tiger” in Rocky III, Sylvester Stallone came calling to Survivor again when he needed a special song for his 1985 sequel Rocky IV. He got exactly what he needed with “Burning Heart” which would make it all the way to #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 in February of 1986. Stallone had sent them the film's script for inspiration when writing the song. With the Cold War theme looming greatly within the film, Peterik has said that while reading the script he realized that this battle was about more than just two fighters in a ring, but about the whole struggle between the ideologies of two rival nations and that became his focus as the lyrics took shape. Again, Jamison's vocals really make this song special. Here is the video for “Burning Heart” by Survivor…

Q: Your 1986 follow-up album When Seconds Count had the hit single “Is This Love,” but that was the only hit and it did not come close to the success of Vital Signs. Did this surprise you at the time? How do you explain the lesser reaction to this album?

Jimi: We were all surprised, but it still did fairly well, better than the Caught in the Game album (1983) did [the album previous to Vital Signs]. I wish I knew how to explain that one. Music started to change around that time.

The album did still get certified gold, but could not come close to the success of Vital Signs. “Is This Love” would reach #9 on the Billboard Hot 100 in early 1987 and this would be Survivor's fifth and final top 10 single. Here is the video for “Is This Love” by Survivor…

Q: I read that you said your 1988 album Too Hot to Sleep was “probably the best album that Survivor ever recorded and everyone in the band agrees.” This album again did not have much commercial success. Again, any explanation for how you guys could feel that strongly about the album, yet the lesser reaction by the public? What led to the band going on hiatus at that point in 1989?

Jimi: The lesser success of that one was totally due to the record companies, CBS and Scotti Bros., who were really not getting along well at the time. Most cities didn't even have the records in their stores. That was also the reason we went our separate ways at the end of the '80s.

Q: After the band went on hiatus, you continued to tour billing as “Jimi Jamison's Survivor” and performing those great hits. Was this a difficult decision for you to do at that time? Did you have the rest of the band's “blessing” to go out and do this?

Jimi: I had an agent who (behind my back) would bill it that way while the contract would say Jimi Jamison with no mention of Survivor. There was no Survivor at that time so after a while I got used to it and just went with it. Jim and Frank and Mark would play with me once in a while until they decided to get back together. Things got a little strange for a while, but soon we all were back together…broke up again…got back together…broke up…got back together and broke up again.

Q: How is your relationship with Jim Peterik, Frank Sullivan and the other Survivor members now? Has there ever been any animosity or bitterness between you and Dave Bickler (who you replaced and took the band to new levels, but then who they asked back when the band came off hiatus in 1993)? They now have Robin McAuley on lead vocals since 2006. Any specific reasons why you are not with Survivor at this time? Does it ever bother you to hear another frontman singing lead vocals on your songs?

Jimi: No, Dave and I are good friends to this day. Jim and Frank and I still phone occasionally also. I don't feel I was treated fairly when it came to reaping the rewards, so I remain a solo artist. It doesn't bother me in the least that someone else is singing the songs I made popular. I wish them the best. The public knows what's going on.

Q: Do you ever anticipate rejoining Survivor again at some point down the road? Could you ever see Survivor making new music together again?

Jimi: I'm really not sure about what may or may not happen. I can't predict the future, sure wish I could. Music has changed so much, I'm not sure it would be accepted but then again it might be the spark that starts a flame.

Q: Some '80s pop superstars “run away” from the '80s and some embrace the success and fans from that decade. How do you personally deal with and keep the '80s alive and in perspective?

Jimi: I'm proud of my '80s fans and will continue to play whatever the music is that makes them happy. I also don't like to label good music. If you take a song from the '80s, remix, re-sing or use a different instrument mix, you can make it sound like a new current recording. I really just do what I do and try not to read into the why's and how's of every musical move I make. I have fun and the crowd seems to have just as much fun so that's how I embrace it. I could never run away from something that feels so good and, believe it or not, new fans are born everyday.

Q: Baywatch premiered in 1989, but your theme song “I'm Always Here” did not start being used until 1991 when syndication began. How did the opportunity come your way to write and perform the theme song for what became one of the most popular television shows worldwide in the '90s? You have to be proud of that. I am not sure most people realize that is you singing that song. What is the crowd reaction when you perform that song in concerts?

Jimi: I'm very proud of the song which I wrote with Cory Lyrios and of the TV show for making it in the Guinness Book as the most watched show in history. We always get a huge reaction whenever we perform the song live. It's really a good feeling. I was offered the opportunity to write it while recording my first solo album for Scotti Bros. They had faith in me and they let me run with the ball, so I owe them a debt of gratitude.

When Baywatch debuted in September of 1989, it used Peter Cetera's “Save Me” as its theme song. Then beginning in 1991 when the series was revived in syndication, it began to use Jamison's song until the series ended in 2001. Baywatch was hugely successful, especially internationally and, as he mentioned, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, it is the most watched TV show in the world of all time, with over 1.1 billion viewers a week. Here is a video for the theme song for Baywatch, “I'm Always Here” by Jimi Jamison…

Q: I read that you worked extensively with ZZ Top in the '80s and that Billy Gibbons even refers to you as the fourth member of the band. On what projects did you work with ZZ Top?

Jimi: I sang background vocals on some of ZZ's biggest hits… “Gimme All Your Lovin” and “Legs” both on their biggest album ever- 'Eliminator' [1983]. Also on 'Afterburner' [1985] and 'Recycler' [1990].

As a side note for all you old school wrestling fans, Jimi Jamison also performed "Hard Times" which was the theme song for WWE (WWF at the time) wrestler Big Boss Man (1988-1993). Here is a highlight video of Big Boss Man set to "Hard Times" by Jimi Jamison...

Q: After over three decades in the business, from your perspective, how has the music industry changed over that time? And how do you see the future?

Jimi: I think, if you want to make a living playing music you need to really learn to network. The internet changed the music industry forever. Self-promotion is more important now than ever before. It has changed the status quo which left so many unsigned musicians heartbroken and depressed knocking on the doors of record companies. In fact, the advent of MP3 music downloads, whether from iTunes or illegally from sharing sites, left the big record companies confused and panicked as they watched their sales from traditional CDs drop off the planet.

The music industry has changed and, although not perfect, a lot of people think it's an improvement and most musicians would never want to go back to the way things were before. I think the current situation still has its problems. The fact that it's so easy now for anyone to record and publish their music cheaply and from their bedrooms means that the web is flooded with a lot of mediocre crap. You kind of have to sift your way through it all in order to find good music. The mere fact that so many people are publishing their music has meant that although it may be easy getting your music out there, it's now difficult to get noticed above all the other noise. There will always be a role for traditional music companies but it has changed a lot. I think what we now find is that where before a large record company may have encouraged and developed start up talent they now sit back and wait for other, smaller independent record companies to do it for them.

I believe that if you want global success, a major label is still what's required to make it happen but musicians should see this in the same way as winning the lottery or getting struck by lightning. There's a chance it'll happen but it's really small. It's far better to concentrate on making the most sincere music you can, being intelligent enough to make a good living from it through intelligent marketing and self promotion.

Q: I see you released a solo album, Crossroads Moment, in 2008 (2009 in the U.S.). What else is Jimi Jamison up to now? Musically and otherwise?

Jimi: I am in the process of recording a duet CD with Bobby Kimball lead vocalist for the band Toto. I am also working on a new solo CD for Frontiers Records as well as planning a huge European and South American tour starting in February.

In addition, Jamison also continues to dedicate time to working with multiple charities including St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital, Make-a-Wish Foundation, Tony LaRussa's Animal Rescue Foundation (ARF) among others. He has been recognized by the Governors of Tennessee, Ohio and Arkansas for his work on and off the stage.

I am honored that Jimi took the time to answer my questions so I could share them with you here. I want to take this opportunity to again thank Jimi Jamison for his contribution to '80s pop culture through his incredible voice on those Survivor hit songs and, even more, for taking a walk down memory lane with us here as well.

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