Few people spotted the difference when Survivor switched singers in the mid-‘80s. We certainly didn’t.
Then again, we were all of twelve or thirteen at the time, and Jimi Jamison (“Burning Heart”) sure did sound a lot like Dave Bickler (“Eye of the Tiger”) to our then-untrained ears. It took us a while to figure out that the voices heard on the anthemic Rocky III and Rocky IV theme songs belonged to different dudes.
We’re guessing Survivor history played out that way for a lot of listeners.
Formed in the late ‘70s by guitarists Frankie Sullivan (ex-Mariah) and Jim Peterik (ex-Ides of March), the hard-rocking Chicago outfit built a core following with its lively club shows before signing to Atlantic Records with A& R impresario John Kalodner. The band’s first two albums—Survivor (1979) and Premonition (1980)—on the subsidiary Scotti Bros. label set the tone for what was to come, but neither received prolonged attention outside the windy city.
But a few important people did notice, including a certain Hollywood icon: Sylvester Stallone tapped the boys to record a high-energy theme song his next boxing movie. The resulting track—“Eye of the Tiger”—sent both the like-named Survivor album and Rocky III soundtrack to the top of the charts. The song claimed the #1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 chart for six consecutive weeks and would’ve been named song of the year for 1982, were it not for Olivia Newton-John’s own invigorating workout hit, “Physical.” The accompanying music video went into heavy rotation on then-fledgling MTV, earning beret-wearing street-walker Bickler instant Badass status in younger sets.
When follow-up album Vital Signs arrived in late 1984—yielding the hits “High On You” and “The Search Is Over,” only select Survivor diehards noticed the front man had changed: Sidely by vocal surgery, Bickler had been replaced by ex-Cobra singer Jamison. So uncanny was the resemblance between Survivor voices new and old that few asked any questions when the band scored another Rocky-related hit with “Burning Heart” in 1985.
Sure, if you scanned the liner notes in the cassette tape J-cards (as we did) then sure, the swap was manifest—not Machiavellian. But it almost didn’t matter. All that registered through our boom-box speakers was that Survivor—that band of melodic toughs from Rocky—was back with some awesome new songs.
The five-piece still had the guts (and got the glory) through the late ‘80s before succumbing to the same tidal shifts in music marketing, promotion, and distribution that swallowed other notable power-rockers like Journey, Foreigner, and REO Speedwagon. The LPs When Seconds Count and Too Hot To Sleep saw diminishing returns for Survivor in an age dominated by hair metal and hip-hop.
So Jamison and Peterik flew the coup.
Sullivan kept touring the band in the ‘90s, sometimes contentiously crossing paths with Jamison’s own “Survivor.” Bickler eventually returned. Peterik stayed gone. The drummers, bassists, and keyboardists changed too often to keep track. Then Bickler absconded again, finding solo success as the voice behind Budweiser’s “Real Men of Genius” ad campaign. Jamison reentered the ring, staying on long enough to record the band’s most recent studio effort, Reach (2006).
Two worlds collide? Rival nations?
Not really. It’s all water under the bridge now. Sullivan—the group’s steadfast anchorman—has made his peace with Bickler and Jamison.
What’s more, the Survivor he brought to the Hard Rock Rocksino in Northfield on Friday night featured both celebrated Rocky singers. And rather than occasion some “primitive clash venting years of frustration” between the guitarist and singers, the band’s 90-minute concert took ticketholders on an adrenaline-fueled, big-ring nostalgia trip that showcased everyone’s talents equally.
The set drew mostly from the two key Survivor albums (Eye of the Tiger and Vital Signs), which meant the bulk of the evening’s material originated some thirty years ago. But the brisk performances by Sullivan and company kept the three-quarters full Hard Rock focused on the quality of the songs, not their age. Tonight, what was old was new again.
Shuffling radio staples with lesser-know deep tracks (and a surprise or two), the band took the stage to the sound of Bill Conti’s “Overture / Conquest” (from the Rocky films) and surrendered the goods, with gum-chomping Sullivan heading the charge. “Feels Like Love,” “Broken Promises,” and “Take You On a Saturday” effectively rolled back the clock and—with Bickler and Jamison backing each other’s famous vocals—evinced the group’s camaraderie.
Sullivan and his tag-team vocalists were joined by Survivor vet Billy Ozzello on bass, Walter Tolentino on keys, and Ryan Sullivan (Frankie’s son) on drums (replacing Marc Droubay). A pair of big screens flanking the stage provided simultaneous video coverage of the action, giving folks in back something to see.
Clad in a plum-colored dress shirt and black vest, Jamison handled the lead on the night’s first bona fide hit, “High On You,” with Bickler providing harmonies. Jimi returned the favor when Dave belted the 1980 non-album track “Rebel Girl.”
Sullivan prefaced the number by explaining it was about women who didn’t like being told what to do, or when to do it. The females in attendance roared in approval, not that some weren’t already swooning over the front men.
Dapper-dressed Ozzello grooved on Fender bass, prowling stage right beneath Tolentino’s keyboard riser. The prodigiously-tattooed Ryan—the younger Sullivan—pummeled on drums in a cut-off T-shirt. Tolentino offered a flashy piano intro to power ballad “The Search Is Over” on a Yamaha sgo ES—but the utility man also played rhythm guitar, backing Sullivan on a Gibson Les Paul. Sullivan himself traded between Les Pauls and SGs as needed, but fleet-fingered gunslinger favored a neat-looking Dan Armstrong Ampeg guitar with a translucent acrylic polymer body.
“Rockin’ Into the Night” was a treat, particularly for those unawares that Sullivan and Peterik wrote the song (between ping pong games) during Survivor’s nascent years and gifted it to .38 Special. Sullivan said the tune wouldn’t fit on their own already-finished album, back in the days when vinyl sides were limited to around twenty minutes.
Jamison wailed on Vital Signs gems “I Can’t Hold Back” and “It’s The Singer, Not the Song.” Bickler prevailed on Premonition cut “Poor Man’s Son.” Both men had robust voices and assisted—rather than competed—with one another, flushing the mixes so that each sounded even more like the slick, multi-tracked recorded versions. Sullivan and Ozzello sang backup, too.
Sullivan confessed he had a hard time topping his Rocky III success when Stallone rang for a sequel song. The guitarist said the actor told him not to worry so much and just write from the gut.
“It’s about that special thing called faith,” Sullivan said, introducing “Burning Heart.”
“I’m not a preacher, but I believe. It’s all about having that magical connection, just like we have here tonight.”
The band sustained the electrostatic biofeedback to the last, at which time they their unveiled their signature song: The stuttering guitar intro to “Eye of the Tiger” brought everyone to their feet, and the one-two punch chord progression prompted mass un-pocketings of iPods and camera phones.