Tips From The Top: One On One With Jim Peterik

I spoke to Grammy-winning rock star Jim Peterik, the frontman of The Ides Of March and formerly of Survivor, about his journey and best advice

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Adam: Thanks again for taking the time to share your story and what you have learned from your journey to date. First things first, though, what is something about you that your fans don’t know? 

Jim: I am really a fan of music – a music nerd if you will – I started out as a five-year-old lad toting my ukulele around the house. It was Elvis, The Everly Brothers, Johnny Cash – all the 45s my older sisters brought home. And I’m still that music nerd despite having a degree of success that I never dreamed of. What inspires me most is reading the life stories of my biggest rock heroes – it’s my inspiration and sustenance. 

Adam: What failures, setbacks or challenges have been most instrumental to your development and success? 

Jim: With the Ides of March- leading up to our first hit- Vehicle in 1970- it was trying to gain respect as basically schoolmates in our mid-teens. We toured the south in 1966 behind our minor hit, You Wouldn’t Listen and were regaled with cat calls of “Are You a boy or a girl?” and “You’re a disgrace to manhood!” just because we had hair over our collars. This steeled us to a sometimes hostile world and made us tougher and more determined than ever to gain respect.

Adam: What are the key elements to a successful song? Can you talk about the creative process, from how you find inspiration to how you develop the song to how you ultimately decide it is ready to go? 

Jim: Inspiration is everywhere, you just have to have your antenna up for it at all times. It’s there as I walk in the forest, in the eyes of my grandchildren, and in the news every day. After that seed of divine intervention, the real work begins, shaping it into a song that will touch people and perhaps let them see a little of themselves in it. “I’ve been there” moments are the most valuable asset a songwriter can offer the listener. To me, raising a goosebump of connection is my gold standard.

Adam: How did Eye of the Tiger come together? At what point did you realize that it would be the phenomenon that is has become? 

Jim: It all started with a message left on my answering machine from Sylvester (“just call me Sly”) Stallone. I was sure someone was putting me on. But, just on the off chance, I called the 818 area code number back. He answered “YO”. He told me how much he liked my band Survivor and wanted us to write the title song for his soon to be released movie Rocky III. He said he needed an anthem that would “outlive you and me. Something with a pulse, something “for the kids”. I said “No problem, Sly!”  The Beta Max Pro cassette of the rough cut came in the mail two days later. Frankie Sullivan, guitarist with Survivor, came over and we basically caught lightening in a bottle. It wasn’t really until I snuck into my local theater the week of the release and saw the crowd go nuts when our song hit that I really knew we had connected. But to be honest, if someone told me it would still be making a difference in peoples’ lives in the year 2019, I may not have believed it. The stories I hear from people this song has inspired to go the distance is my greatest gift.

Adam: Can you talk about your band dynamics, and in turn, what elements you believe are imperative to a great team? 

Jim: The Ides Of March are celebrating our 55th anniversary as a band. The key is the bond of friendship and respect. In our band, every member has his specialty, and that talent is totally revered by the other members. Egos are checked at the door and petty squabbles that are inevitable are usually resolved in short order. Good music follows magically.

Adam: In your experience, beyond natural talent, what are the common qualities among those who have been able to enjoy success as performing artists? 

Jim: There are different qualities that define the success of bands. Some thrive on musical difference and the friction that seems to harden the steel. Others, like The Ides, thrive on good vibrations the lack of discord. There really is no right or wrong way. Great music defines whether your way is working.

Adam: What advice do you have for those who perform on stage professionally – whether they are musicians, comedians, keynote speakers or members of the clergy? 

Jim: Be comfortable in your own skin. If you are at ease, your audience will be better able to relax and enjoy the experience. Confidence is a hard-won commodity and is usually learned over time, deepening as the years go by. Self-belief is central to putting across your message.

Adam: Who are some of the best leaders you have been around and what have you learned from them? What do you believe makes a great leader and why? 

Jim: Sammy Hagar, my dear friend and collaborator is a great band leader. He may be the boss, but he’s everyone in the band’s equal. They give him 100 percent because he doesn’t ask anyone to do anything he wouldn’t do. Same deli tray, same dressing room and I guarantee you, they would follow him up the mountain at all costs. I aspire to that ethic.

Adam: Who have been the biggest influences in your life and why? 

Jim: My dad was a brilliant sax player who grew up in the Depression, so he made a living adjusting relays at the local telephone company. On the weekends he would play with his polka band, The High Hatters. I would sit in on sax when I was old enough and seeped in his work ethic and the joy I saw in his eyes as he took a solo as the people danced. I never take for granted how lucky I am for being able to live out the career in music he only dreamed of. His memory is with me always. 

Adam: What is the single best piece of advice you have ever received? 

Jim: Neil Diamond gave it to me after the Ides opened for him at a local high school in 1968. We ended our set and I rushed over to Neil, “How did you like it?” He thought for a long three seconds and said, “Jim, next time only play your best material”. Sage wisdom indeed.

Adam: What are your thoughts on the state of music and rock and roll today? Who do you enjoy and admire? Which of your contemporaries did you enjoy and admire most? 

Jim: I like so many of the newer artists, Kacey Musgraves is knocking me out. I love Dawes, Hozier, Beck, Dermot Kennedy and Vampire Weekend come to mind. For me it’s still all about the song.

Adam: What is something you have witnessed up-close or experienced that would shock fans? 

Jim: Total rudeness from a big star you’d never expect. Stress?

Adam: What are your hobbies and how have they shaped you?   

Jim: I’m a vintage guitar junkie. I have a collection of nearly 200 guitars and basses – about half of which are true collectibles. I gravitate to brands and models that my biggest heroes played. I own a !958 Gibson Black Beauty Custom like the one Keith Richards plays, a 1954 Fender Stratocaster like Buddy Holly played on Ed Sullivan, a !963 Gretsch Country Gentleman like George Harrison’s, and a 1956 Fender Telecaster like Jeff Beck used to play. When I strap them on I channel just a little bit of their magic.

Adam: What is one thing everyone should be doing to pay it forward? 

Jim: Mentoring young musicians. I enjoy imparting what I can to ease their journey and hopefully inspire. I work with Little Kids Rock and recently the organization repaid the hours I’ve devoted to them by allowing me to be the guest encore act with the great Yo Yo Ma at the Pritzker Pavilion. The kids backed me up on Eye Of The Tiger with Yo Yo I and trading licks. At the end I played my guitar behind my head and low and behold he hoisted his cello behind his and went sawing away.

Adam: Tell us about the history of “Vehicle” and what it means to the band all these years later? 

Jim: I wrote Vehicle to try and win back my girlfriend. Soon after we broke up (I was 18 and she was 16) she started calling me for rides to modeling school in my 1964 Plymouth Valiant, but she cautioned me, “this isn’t a date!” After about the third week of limo service I started feeling resentful and said to myself, “All I am is her Vehicle!” Lightning struck and I wrote the horn riff and song of a lifetime. Soon after the song went number one across the country, guess who gave me a call- yup you guessed it. “You know maybe we should try dating again!” I let her hang on the phone for at least three seconds and I said, “Sounds good to me”. And, 47 years later, that girl Karen, is still my loving wife- and I am still her Vehicle.

Adam: You and The Ides are releasing a 55th anniversary album – Play On – on August 16th. Tell us about this project and what the 55th anniversary means for you and the band? 

Jim: Play On is the result of 55 years of playing on countless stages all over North America, from dive bars to sharing bills with some of the giants of rock: Led Zeppelin, The Grateful Dead, The Allman Brothers, Janis Joplin, The Byrds and so many more. This album reflects countless hours in the studio honing our chops. The sound embodies the elements that define our sound: positive lyrics, cutting brass, lush vocal harmonies and a vibe that is undefinable that makes each band what they are. Our guest artists on this record are Mark Farner former singer/ guitarist of Grand Funk Railroad, David Pack former frontman of Ambrosia, Cathy Richardson of Jefferson Starship, Joe Bonamassa, Paul Shaffer, American Idol finalist Bo Bice, and saxist Mindi Abair. 

Adam: Is there anything else you would like to share? 

Jim: Thank you, Adam, for the opportunity to answer these in depth questions. They made me think- hard. Rock steady!

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