You probably want Jim Peterik’s Christmas card list.
The man seems to know and work with everyone, and why not? He’s a proven hitmaker, has been for fifty years, starting with his band The Ides of March and their first breakout hit “Vehicle.” That first band is also his current band, and you may yet be able to hear the band play “Vehicle” live on The Ides of March’s current tour. (More information here.)
But you say you’re not familiar with Peterik, The Ides, or even “Vehicle.” Trust me, you’ve heard it. Once that big blast of Stax-infused, hip-shaking soul smacks you in the face, you’ll get it. When you learn Peterik co-wrote most of .38 Special’s biggest hits like “Hold On Loosely” and “Caught Up In You,” you’ll get a sense of his influence. There’s also his huge hits with the band Survivor like “High on You” and “The Search is Over,” and…that song, but we’ll get there.
Before we jump into that part of the conversation, let’s talk about the massive career Peterik has had and continues to enjoy. More than many we have spoken to, Jim Peterik comes off as someone who still appreciates the position the world has afforded him, even as it has changed so much in the past fifty years. His modesty and humbleness allows him to take in the recognition, even now, of his accomplishments with a sincerely stated “Wow.”
MusicTAP: I don’t want to call this 50th anniversary tour for the Ides of March behind “Vehicle” something like coming full circle. To me, that signifies an ending, which this clearly isn’t. So how about a homecoming, with the band revisiting this song that was so important for you back in 1970?
Peterik: Coming home is not a bad way to describe it. If we had known that after fifty year after recording that song it would still be around, nobody would have believed it. When you’re a teenager at age 19, you’re not looking that far into the future. You’re looking to today, trying to impress girls, and having a great time.
We recorded the song at the end of 1969 at CBS Studios in Chicago. We played it at dances, sock hops, teen clubs (we were too young to play the bars). Chicago had an amazing teen club scene back then and we played them all…the Green Gorilla, the Pink Fink, all these crazy names, and we’d pack the place.
We noticed when we played “Vehicle” that the dance floor would fill up and everyone would go crazy, so we recorded that. Still, we thought it was just a nice dance song and would never be a single. That’s how much we knew! We buried it on the demo reel at track #4 and sent it to Warner Bros. The label executive then Joe Smith said ‘the first three songs sucked but that fourth is a smash!’
Really? You mean “Vehicle”? He said yeah! He played it for some other people and it got a great reaction. His only real direction on it was he said to add the call-and-response answers. When I sang “love ya,” add in the response “love ya” and so on. He said if we did that, we’d have a number one record. So, of course, we did that.
Our managers, me, and the band took the tape to the local radio station WLS and the on-air personality played it immediately, and the song broke…the fastest-breaking record in WB’s history at that time. We were living the dream at 19!
This was also a great year to have a hit record in because it was during the boom in music festivals. We were onstage opening for Led Zeppelin, Janis Joplin…we must have done fifteen shows with the Grateful Dead.
It’s crazy that 50 years later, the nucleus of the band – myself, Larry Millas, Mike Borch on drums, and Bob Bergland on bass – are still together. Actually, we got together in 1964, well before “Vehicle,” but we’re still together, still touring, and having a ball.
Why did you have the impression that “Vehicle” wasn’t the one?
Sometimes you are your own worst judge of what’s going to hit. Looking back, the first three songs were “The Sky Is Falling,” which landed on the Vehicle album; “Lead Me Home Gently, Father,” which was the b-side for the single; and “Something Coming On,” which never made it to release. In hindsight, they all just sounded pretty weak when compared to “Vehicle.”
I always say everything is connected like a spider web, and also, a lot of things can start with just a single phone call. One was Larry Millas’ mom Ann, who early on called Mercury Records in Chicago and got us an appointment with their executive, if you can believe that. We went over with our self-pressed record “Like It Or Lump It” and played it for him. He liked it enough to want to hear more from us. The song would eventually go to #42 on Billboard and got played on American Bandstand. It got to #7 in Chicago, and all because of one phone call that Ann Millas made.
I remember asking her at the time, how did you get the phone number to the president of Mercury Records? She responded, ‘I found it in the phone book!’ That’s how easy it used to be to get an appointment!
You have another great story about fateful phone calls, but let’s hang on to that a moment. First, I’d like to talk about .38 Special. You weren’t with the band, but you played a huge part in their success by co-writing some of their best-known hits.
Okay, but you have to understand an aspect of my songwriting process. Like, I love Nashville, but I’m not one of those guys where they can be in a cubicle and write songs all day without the input of a live crowd. I can’t do that. I need the feed back from an audience. I guess that’s ego. But after a good live show, we’re all higher than kites – naturally high, mind you – and we use those experiences to fire up the next song.
Plus, it’s the perfect market research, right? I notice what the audience likes, what they respond to, what they’re clapping to. I can use that as my intel for my writing. And I can write anywhere. My main instrument is the guitar, but I can write on a piano, and songs come to me without either. Like with “Vehicle,” I just heard it in my head long before I worked it out on the guitar.
And it was the same with “The Search Is Over” which was for my former group Survivor. I knew that whole song before I ever tried it out on piano. I used to have a portable tape recorder but now use an iPhone…but the point is that the impetus for it all starts with those live performances, and I can subsist on the energy from those for months before I need another shot. What really brings out the best in me, however, is the collaborative process.
Which brings us to .38 Special, which was more about collaboration. My biggest hits were collaborations. When I got together with .38 Special, we didn’t know each other from Adam. We had an informal meeting around my kitchen table, and it’s very much like a blind date. Suddenly, Jeff Carlisi (former guitarist for .38 Special) looks at a picture on my wall of The Ides of March. He said, “Oh, I love The Ides of March! Why’s that picture up there?”
I said because that was me, I’m the guy on the left! That kind of broke the ice.
Don Barnes was there as well, and that we’re all comfortable with each other, he said, “I’ve got this title…’Hold On Loosely.” And I responded, ‘but don’t let go!’ Jeff had a riff to go with it, that kind of chunky, new wave, Elliot Easton/Cars-like riff, and we were off. We had that song done in four hours!
Collaboration is very important in songwriting. You get that cross-pollenization of personalities and styles. “Caught Up In You,” “Rockin’ Into The Night,” “Fantasy Girl,” “Wild-Eyed Southern Boys”…it was magic.
You’ve continued to work with them, haven’t you?
Yes, we got back together to work on an album in 1997, Resolution. It was a good album, but it didn’t set the world on fire. The world was changing, but we were proud of it. I also worked with them on the 2004 album Drivetrain, and we’re putting together another one soon. They’re total road dogs, though. They’re always on the road.
(Editor’s note – While it was not directly touched upon in the conversation, Jim Peterik has collaborated with many artists including Cheap Trick for the Woke Up With A Monster album, Sammy Hagar for the song “Heavy Metal,” Kelly Keagy from Night Ranger, and more.)
So now we come to that other big phone call you referenced before.
Yeah, that was pretty big, wasn’t it? So, in 1982, I come home to a message on our answering machine. I hear, ‘Yo, Jim, call me back…you got a nice answering machine there.’ It’s Sylvester Stallone, or rather, it sounds like Sylvester Stallone. I listened to it three or four times to determine if someone was playing a joke on me, but finally I gave in and called the number that was left. Now remember, this is like where Stallone is at the height of his fame, and you just don’t get calls like that from out of the blue. I asked, is this really Sylvester Stallone? He responds, “Jimbo, just call me Sly. We love your band and want that sound for our new movie.”
That band was the one I was formerly with, Survivor, and that movie was Rocky III. He asks, “Can you help me out?” and I said hell, yeah!
Stallone sent out a rough cut of the movie, so Frankie Sullivan and I rented a Betamax Pro machine to watch the tape. We watched that movie and got so inspired. But again, if you told me that song would still be so ingrained in popular culture, even today, I have said, well…shut the door!
The movie fully informed what “Eye of the Tiger” became. It was written by watching the action on screen. Take that main riff. I was trying to match the punches onscreen. ‘Bum — bum-bum-bum.’ Those are synchronized to the punches, but it wasn’t a conscious act. Frankie and I are watching the movie and I grab my guitar, and those chords just came when I saw the punches happen, I’m just repeating that.
It’s something that drives drummers crazy, though. There’s that part where you’ve locked into the rhythm, but then we all hold back. That wasn’t to mess with anyone – that’s just a reflection of what happened in the scene. But it has become a litmus test for whether you’re a good drummer, being able to anticipate that hold there.
But that’s collaboration, not just with the film, but between Frankie and me. We could not have written that song without each other.
Stallone gave us four days to write “Eye of the Tiger,” and a fifth day to record it. I remember that first playback and getting goosebumps hearing it, but again like “Vehicle,” I didn’t have a sense that this was going to be such a big song.
Yes! It’s kind of built it’s own atmosphere around it, right? It’s like Journey with “Don’t Stop Believin'” or Toto with “Africa.” It has a life of its own that’s superseded it’s origins.
We sent the song off to Stallone and he went absolutely berserk. He said, “You’ve created a song that’s going to outlive me and you both.” I said, yeah, right, whatever. (Laughs.)
The Ides of March still play it on tour. We use it as the encore, and even today it gets to me, especially with the Ides treatment with the horns. And yeah, it is so ingrained in music history, so much so that I’m constantly surprised where it jumps back into my life.
I’ll give you an example. My wife Karen and I were watching the Oscars a few weeks ago. To show you how naive I am, the host of the segment announced the next performance would be about the biggest songs in Hollywood movie history. The first song was Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock and Roll” with that scene from Risky Business, with Tom Cruise lipsyncing to it in his underwear.
I looked to Karen and was about to ask her wouldn’t it be great if…but then we hear that “digga-digga-digga-digga” riff of the opening guitar. Stallone’s running on the beach with Clubber Lang, and we just went crazy. I started hugging her. Even after all this time, here it is again only a few weeks ago. I’m still as excited about it as ever.
You’re still writing new music, though. This is still a forward-moving thing with you, which is really the most important part of this story, and you have a lot of projects on your plate right now!
Very true! So in 1996, I created a new band called Pride of Lions and found a singer named Toby Hitchcock to share vocals with me. We’re on Frontiers Records right now. I know it’s a cliche but we’re big in Europe and Japan. This is the band I initially saw Survivor as being, but that became a one-singer band, first with Dave Bickler and later Jimi Jameson. In Survivor, I was the keyboard player, but really I’m mainly a guitar player. That’s one project I am involved with.
The new Ides of March album, Play On, came out last year and was produced by Fred Mollin. He’s a great producer, and he worked with Jimmy Webb from 1975 onward. He’s also worked with Linda Ronstadt, America, just a brilliant guy. We wanted to bring in an outside producer because – true to our history – we wanted someone out of the gene pool to determine what the best songs were! (Laughs.)
Getting back to the idea of working together in a single space, rather than trading files over the Internet, we’d set up recording in Illinois, in my son’s studio called the Jam Lab. We kept doing take after take until we got just the right one. The first single was called “Swagger,” and it’s a duet with Mark Farner who previously was the singer for Grand Funk. We’re doing this live, back-to-back, and pushing each other on. We really couldn’t have gotten that had we done the recording any other way.
I’m really privileged to have so many terrific people involved with the record including Bo Bice, David Pack who was the singer for Ambrosia, Mindi Abair who co-wrote “Friends Like You” with me…and I want to point out a great singer, Kathy Richardson. I’ve been mentoring her since she was 19, now she’s the lead singer for Jefferson Starship. We do a song called “Blue Store Rising” and again, we’re across the same room, separate mics, and feeding off each other. I get goosebumps listening to it.
You did make one exception though, in terms of going for the Internet file, right?
Yeah, but we had a shot and we went for it with Joe Bonamassa who played some lead on “The Cover-Up (Is Worse Than The Crime).” Who wouldn’t, right? He couldn’t come out but agreed to getting the file digitally, and it was a thrill to have him with us. He’s kind of a new guitar hero to me.
Joe and I share the same addiction, I think, in collecting guitars. That’s our vice and I have a really big collection. Matter of fact, I remember talking with Rick Nielsen (Cheap Trick) who is famous for his guitar collection and feeling like we could go toe-to-toe. (Laughs.)
Because of the breadth of your career, I wondered if you had difficulty listening back to previous efforts. I have spoken with many people who have adopted the philosophy that, once it is out in the world, whatever “it” might be, time to move on. They are very uncomfortable with revisiting previous work.
It depends on how well I’ve done. I’m very critical if I feel like I didn’t do a good job. But in the case of Play On, the new Ides album, I’m really pleased with it.
And this is hardly the end of the work. Like I said earlier, this is not full circle or the end of the road, right?
Oh, no, far from it. In fact, I’m good friends with Dennis DeYoung who previously sang and played keyboards with Styx. I worked with him on his new album that just came out, 26 East: Volume One. Two singles are coming out to support it. The first is a song I co-wrote with Dennis and a fellow named John Melnick called “East of Midnight.” It really recalls what he brought to Styx…grandiose and wonderful and uplifting.
The other song is a duet he did with Julian Lennon called “To The Good Old Days.” I’m very excited about it. It is so nostalgic that i always kinda tear up when I hear the song. I encourage everyone to check that out and, not coincidentally, I’m going to be doing some shows with him. We’ll be doing a show at the House of Blues.
So, definitely busy! And the Ides of March tour is going on, and I don’t think we’ve toured this extensively since 1973! It could be grueling: a lot of dates and very few days off, so I’m getting my voice in shape. But we’re gonna be fine and we’re gonna kick some butt. We’re really looking forward to it.
For more on The Ides of March, visit https://www.theidesofmarch.com/