Jim Peterik Interview: Survivor Founder and 'Eye of the Tiger' Composer Authors 'Songwriting for Dummies'
In Jim Peterik’s 45 year (and counting) career he has enjoyed 15 top ten hits, sold over 20 million records, received an Academy Award nomination for best song (“Eye of the Tiger," 1982) and won the coveted Grammy that same year.
The veteran musician is the founding member of The Ides of March and Survivor (“Eye of the Tiger,” “The Search is Over,” “High on You”) and hit songwriter for 38 Special (“Hold on Loosely,” “Caught Up in You”) and Sammy Hagar (“Heavy Metal”).
"This sounds like a story one would make up but I pressed the button and heard, 'Hey, yo Jim, give me a call. It’s Sylvester Stallone.' I’m thinking, 'Yeah, whatever.'"
Peterik has toured the world with acts such as Led Zeppelin, Janis Joplin, and the Allman Brothers Band. Today Jim divides his time touring with The Ides of March, hosting World Stage concerts, writing and producing up and coming artists, and doing book tours to support his book, Songwriting for Dummies.
Songwriting for Dummies (2nd Edition), released in August of 2010 can help a songwriter turn that tune into a reality. From finding your initial inspiration to fine-tuning your lyrics to getting your songs in front of recording industry decision makers, this hands-on guide has it all.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Jim, what are the differences between Songwriting for Dummies (2nd edition) and the first edition of the book that was released in 2002?
Jim Peterik: We really built on the first edition, but it was time for an update. I think the main things are the technology changes. So much has happened since 2002 when the original book came out in terms of how you can record demos economically. It’s so easy now to have a studio in your bedroom, whereas before it really took a lot of money to go to a studio and hire the musicians. Now your average songwriter with a very small budget can do a great demo for pennies once you get the equipment and the equipment is going down in terms of price.
There are also expansive changes in Internet sites for songwriters to network with each other, unbelievable rhyming dictionaries and source material for songwriters, and different sites that talk about songwriting much as our book does. We list all those kinds of sources and update the songs that we analyze in the book.
You always want to hear about the standards, classics from the 40s, 50s, and 60s, but we wanted to update some of the examples so that all people can relate even more to the current songs by people like Alicia Keys, Lady Gaga, or any of the heavy bands.
We pooled the Top 40 list and picked out some names that hopefully aren’t flash in the pans, but have some staying power in terms of songwriting and eliminated some things that just seemed a little out of date like the whole boy band era that seems to have passed its prime. There are also some extra contents about rhyme schemes and we made some corrections. I think overall it’s a better book.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): It’s much easier for songwriters today to get marketed and much of that is due to the Internet.
Jim Peterik: Well, that’s the other thing about this book. There’s a lot of information about how to market your song, lists of publishers, and source material. You could have a digital release as a singer/songwriter now and get some fairly good exposure without spending much money due to the Internet.
It was so difficult to get your CD in the store in the past. You always had to be connected to a big company or big distributor and now just about anyone can get a song out on the Internet and possibly get it downloadable on iTunes.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I thought it was great how you discuss the entire process of songwriting to include marketing, managers, and contracts. If two people co-write a song, what’s the best way to protect their financial interests?
Jim Peterik: The first issue would be writer’s credits and percentages. Once the song is finished and before you walk out the door, you should decide on the percentages. I call the 50-50 method the Nashville method. No matter what part you had in the song, you get 50%. That eliminates many arguments and that’s just the way it is in Nashville.
The rock ‘n roll way is a lot of arguing and splitting percentage points and breaking up the band. Personally, if there are three people, I like to generally give thirds because at the end of the day if the song’s a hit you all make money. If it isn’t a hit, it doesn’t matter anyway. If the person was contributing and being a good catalyst, that’s worth something. Now if that person isn’t towing his weight, he won’t be called next time.
In terms of protecting the song, first you should copyright it (there’s info in the book about that), and it’s also good to register it with one of the performing arts organizations; ASCAP, BMI, etc. By doing that it really memorializes the song. If there’s ever any dispute about who did what, the records will be there. The other thing, of course, is to form a publishing company that anyone can do with a lawyer or without a lawyer. You have all the records then so if someone says, “Hey, I wrote the whole song,” you can say, “No, you didn’t. It says that right here in our publishing agreement.”
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I interviewed Lou Gramm (formerly lead vocalist of Foreigner) a few months ago and he told me that he co-wrote “I Want to Know What Love Is” with Mick Jones, but Mick only offered him 5% of the royalties.
Jim Peterik: Oh my God, you’re kidding!
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Lou told me that he figured Mick should get 60% and he should get 40%. When Mick offered him just 5%, Lou basically just told him he could have it all.
Jim Peterik: In other words, don’t insult me with 5%. Oh my Lord! Lou and I did a show together in New Orleans. It was The Ides of March and Lou in a show about five years ago. I ended up in the dressing room just asking him so many questions about how different songs came about.
To me, one of the best power ballads of all time was “Waiting for a Girl Like You.” I love “I Want to Know What Love Is,” but to me, “Waiting for a Girl Like You” was the best thing they ever did. He was just talking to me about the writing process. It sounded like me with one of my co-writers, Don Barnes of 38 Special or Frankie Sullivan of Survivor or Sammy Hagar. We all go through the same procedures many times.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): In the beginning of your songwriting career, did you have many turndowns?
Jim Peterik: Well, Melissa, I’ve been really fortunate because I’ve always been in bands. My first band was The Ides of March so we had a built-in basis to operate from. It wasn’t like I was pitching songs. We had the band.
When Warner Bros. signed us we did a demo tape and we sent them four songs. The fourth song on the reel was a thing called “Vehicle.” We didn’t even really value that song. I wrote it and the song did great at all the dances. We said, “Oh, that’s not a record, that’s just a dance song.” The record company heard it and said, “That’s a number one record!” They put it out and it went to #1 in 1970. From then on I had the feeling that I could write a hit song. It was very good for my ego.
It wasn’t until 1978 when I put together Survivor that I really started having more success. I did sign with Warner/Chappell in the interim and I was writing the songs for hire. I found it a very hard road. I got a few covers, I got Tony Orlando, Johnny Rivers, and a few other artists to do songs, but overall I realized that being in a band or being a solo artist was really the easiest way to get your songs cut because you’re in control. I’ve always been lucky to be part of an organization that has some notoriety to it.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You haven’t had much formal musical training, have you Jim?
Jim Peterik: I never did. I recommend people don’t do as I do but as I say. But, I was totally an ear player. I read notes for the saxophone and can read chord charts for guitar, but don’t give me a set of those little ants on the paper because I don’t know what to do with them. It’s all in the ear for me.
I think most of the really good writers and musicians I know may have some musical knowledge, but they really rely on their ear to help them more than anything else. It’s something you’re born with. But I’m not saying you can’t be successful without that particular gift because there’s certainly something to be said about doing it the right way.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are you still touring with The Ides of March?
Jim Peterik: I am. We just celebrated 47 years together. We had an article in the Chicago Tribune. They said, “Prove us wrong but we think this is the oldest living rock ‘n roll band with all original members.” So far no one has proved us wrong so this may be a thing that goes into some kind of record book.
The four of us went to grade school and high school together – Larry, Bob, Mike, and me are still together. Actually we still have the same band we recorded “Vehicle” with in 1970 so it is an incredible story. Just as an aside, I’m pretty high right now because recently we got a street named for us in our hometown of Berwyn, Illinois. There was a big ceremony, the mayor was there, and we played. It was really cool.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You have a new album out also.
Jim Peterik: Yes, Still 19. It just hit Best Buy and of course, it’s available on iTunes. It’s our first all original album since 1973. They’re brand new songs written by me, co-written by Scott May and a couple of other band members. It really emphasizes the brass, the harmonies, and the melodies. It’s just a good feeling album.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I’ll bet you have some interesting stories to tell about the old days when the band opened for such acts as Janis Joplin and Led Zeppelin. Did you know Janis?
Jim Peterik: I didn’t get to know her very well. This one night we had played with her in Calgary, Canada. She was not in Big Brother and the Holding Company at the time. This was probably about eight months before she died. Janis was swigging the bottle pretty good on stage. The Ides of March had already played because we were opening for her. She just tore it up, tore it up.
After the show I saw her wandering around the area and she said, “I don’t know where my hotel room is.” She was really out of it. I said, “Well, you’re in my hotel, Janis. I’m Jim Peterik of The Ides of March. Follow me.” So, arm in arm, I walked Janis Joplin to our hotel. She thanked me, we chatted, and I told her how much I looked up to her. It was just a great sweet moment and she was a great spirit.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): When you were in Survivor, you also continued to write for other artists.
Jim Peterik: Yeah, two that are notable are 38 Special and Sammy Hagar. The fellow that signed Survivor to a record deal, a very famous A&R person who became a celebrity in his own right, was John Koladner. He’s the bearded guy that appears in a wedding dress in one of Aerosmith’s videos, “Dude Looks Like a Lady.”
He’s a character, but I owe him many thanks because he believed in me as a writer, put me together with 38 Special, and their very first hit record “Rockin’ Into the Night.” From then on we sat down in Chicago and wrote a whole string of 38 hits; “Hold on Loosely,” which was their biggest song, “Caught Up in You,” “Fantasy Girl,” and “Wild-Eyed Southern Boys.” It was just a great marriage.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How did you get involved in writing “Eye of the Tiger” for Rocky III?
Jim Peterik: That was just a miracle event as far as I’m concerned. Apparently Stallone had caught wind of Survivor and liked our sound. One day I got a message on my answering machine. This sounds like a story one would make up but I pressed the button and heard, “Hey, yo Jim, give me a call. It’s Sylvester Stallone.” I’m thinking, “Yeah, whatever.”
I called the number and sure enough it was Stallone. He tells me about this new movie and that he doesn’t want to use “Gonna Fly Now” anymore. He wanted something new, “something with a pulse and for the kids.” Stallone said, “I’m going to send you the movie.”
Frankie came over and we watched the film. Frankie said, “This is going to be enormous.” I had my electric guitar in my hand, the punches were being thrown in the movie, and I was feeling the pulse. I just started doing that bap bap bap bap on the guitar, not knowing that riff would become pretty much etched in American consciousness to this day.
I sent the demo of the song to Stallone and he goes, “Oh yeah, that’s it. You got it. Just write me a third verse. You got a little lazy there.” So we did and the rest is history. It’s an amazing story that really put us on the map. What amazes me is it’s still so popular. We’re still on the Billboard charts under downloads. We’re like #22 or something.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Colleges that have tiger mascots play the song during football games.
Jim Peterik: I’ve been asked to do halftime at LSU in November. I’ll be singing that song with the band. That’ll be a real thrill.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Jim, during the songwriting process, do you ever feel that that song is going to be a hit?
Jim Peterik: Hey man, if I had that formula I’d be rich! I did have a good feeling about “Eye of the Tiger.” Before my dad passed away I said, “Dad, I’ve got this new song I just wrote for Rocky III.” I played him the ballad that I wrote instead of that one (laughs). That’s how much I knew.
As I told you, Melissa, we put “Vehicle” fourth on the tape because we didn’t really value the song. It seems like the simpler the song the more you take it for granted. It’s always the real deep complex things you think are so great, but they don’t always catch on.
Melissa parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You mentioned in the book that you would tape sound checks in case anything interesting came out. Have their ever been any new songs to emerge from any of those jam sessions?
Jim Peterik: Oh yeah, but probably songs you’ve never heard of. The newest one is called “Looking for Your Life” that I just wrote. You haven’t heard of it because it’s not out yet but that one started as a sound check.
I have various projects besides The Ides of March. I’m producing a girl named Lisa McClowry right now. She has her first release out and she’s just amazing. Anyway, I wrote some songs with her, not during sound checks so much, but just jamming where we sat together. That’s another great way of writing songs.
In terms of Survivor there were many songs that started with sound checks. It’s easier to write a ballad alone at a piano, but the rockers need some space. They need a big band for inspiration.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You also have Extra Moments coming out with Jimi Jamison.
Jim Peterik: Yeah, that’s kind of a treat. I did Jimi’s album, Crossroad Moments, last year and we had many leftovers we couldn’t fit on the album or songs that Serafino Perugino (Frontier Records President) didn’t like. Of course, every time Serafino rejected a song it was like a stake in my heart. I’d question it each time, but he was paying the bills. Anyway, we had a surplus of songs.
McNeese of MelodicRock.com approached us and said, “Man, I’d really like to put this out.” So we donated the leftovers; some of them were just demos I had sung to try to get approval on them. The album is doing very well. I’m glad those songs are seeing the light of day because we’re really proud of them.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Your son is also in the music business.
Jim Peterik: Yes he is. In fact, his album is almost done. His name is Colin James Peterik and his stage name is Si Jay. It’s a very interesting album. Many 21 year olds are doing pop or heavy metal, but he’s doing a kind of Steely Dan meets Maxwell. It’s a very intelligent R&B jazz thing. It’s very unique. I’m very proud of him; it has great melodies, his voice and his keyboard work is amazing. We’re about two tracks away from having a completed album.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Jim, will you continue to tour or do you see yourself retiring one day?
Jim Peterik: There’s no such thing as retiring, man. I would die if I retired. I thrive on it. To me, music is oxygen. As long as I’m able to stand and run around the stage, I’ll be up there. Right now I’m lucky enough to stay in shape. I run and rollerblade just to be able to get on stage, sing, move around, and not get winded. I’ve always said that every time I play “Vehicle” I feel like I’m 19 years old again. It just revitalizes me. There are no plans to retire. I’m going to turn 60 in November and I’m excited about that.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you have any special plans?
Jim Peterik: Well, we’re planning the party now. There’s going to be a stage with instruments set up for anybody who wants to jam, there will be barbecue, and we’ll have a 50s theme because I was born in 1950. The party will be called “Jimbo’s Bop Till You Drop Sock Hop.” Everybody will get socks when they come in and it will be held in a big horse barn. It will just be a blast.
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