Survivor was saved by an ex-Cobra.
Early last year, this Chicago-based pop-rock band was sinking. Without Jimi Jamison, the new lead singer picked up from a failed heavy metal band called Cobra, Survivor probably wouldn't have survived.
"I didn't save this band," Jamison, 34, insisted in his Memphis drawl. "It would have done OK without me." His modesty is admirable, but that statement is misguided.
With him, Survivor has its first hit album, the million-selling "Vital Signs," Jamison's debut with the band. The current Top 5 single, "The Search Is Over," is the third hit from the album. "I Can't Hold Back"(Top 15) and "High on You" (Top 10) were the others.
Survivor was one of those meteoric bands whose decline was as swift as its rise. Its moment of glory came in 1982 with "Eye of the Tiger"--the theme from the hit movie "Rocky III." This is one of the most popular singles of the '80s, selling over 2.5 million copies in this country alone.
Early last year, Survivor--which also includes Frankie Sullivan (lead guitar), Jim Peterik (keyboards, guitar), Stephan Ellis (bass) and Marc Droubay (drums)--was preparing to record its third album, "Vital Signs." Peterik and Sullivan, the band's composers, had the material ready. Ron Nevison was scheduled to assume the producing duties previously handled by Peterik and Sullivan. All they needed was a lead singer to replace David Bickler. Through auditions, they discovered Jamison, who was in the market for work after the collapse of Cobra.
At the time, Survivor seemed like another one-hit wonder headed for oblivion. Beyond "Eye of the Tiger," the band didn't have much quality material.
Admittedly, following a monster hit isn't easy, particularly for a band that was previously unknown.
"After 'Eye of the Tiger,' the fans wanted an album full of songs like 'Eye of the Tiger,' " said Jamison, who was not with the band when its second album, "Caught in the Game," was released in 1983, long after the hit single. "An average or a good album wouldn't be enough. The band needed a great album and some huge hit singles. But it didn't happen."
"Caught in the Game" was an awful album that included no hit singles. It sold an embarrassing 100,000 copies, triggering Survivor's decline.
Part of Survivor's problem was its stage show. Boring was the word most often used by critics and fans to describe it. If you had to see this band at all, sarcastic fans would say, then show up at the end for "Eye of the Tiger." The rest of the show was strictly ho-hum.
Former lead singer David Bickler, a shouter with an irritating voice, was a major contributor to Survivor's decline. In concert, he had an abrasive quality that rubbed some fans the wrong way.
Quite simply, if the band was to survive, Bickler had to go. Unfortunately for Survivor, it took two albums to recognize this. According to reports, Survivor sacked Bickler, citing ineffectiveness. But Jamison insisted the change was made for another reason:
"He was having voice problems. That was one reason. Also he didn't want to tour very much and the band wanted to tour. So he and the band came to a parting of the ways."
Jamison's statement about Bickler was supported by Survivor's manager, John Baruck, who said Bickler had a throat polyp operation in 1982, which affected his vocal quality and endurance. According to Baruck, after the operation Bickler's voice couldn't last through a whole concert.
With Jamison as the front man, Survivor finally has some charisma and pizzazz. He's a very capable and energetic singer. Now fans won't be dozing off at Survivor concerts any more.
The ex-Cobra hasn't dragged Survivor into heavy metal. In fact, composers Peterik and Sullivan have guided the band in the opposite direction with the "Vital Signs" album. The hit singles, "High on You" and "The Search Is Over," are rock ballads. It turns out that ballads are Jamison's first love.
"I'm stronger on ballads. I like to sing them more than anything else but I didn't get much of a chance before. I wanted to sing more ballads. Being in this group is just right for me."
This is the first time Jamison has been in a relatively tame band. Before Cobra he spent seven hard-rocking years in Target.
"I did a lot of screaming in those other groups," he said. "I got a little tired of it. I don't lose my voice as much on this kind of singing. From that standpoint, I can't really say that I miss heavy metal."
But Jamison does miss it in another way: "You get to go crazy on stage. That was fun. I can't do that with Survivor. It's a totally different kind of band."
Now that Survivor is leaning towards the slower, romantic rock songs, its sound is often compared to Journey's. A primary factor is that Jamison, with his high voice and melodramatic style, often sounds like a clone of Steve Perry, Journey's lead singer. With Journey on the inactive list, Survivor is filling that void quite nicely.
Survivor was in great demand in the movie theme market for a while, but didn't deliver any more hits. The band recorded "The Moment of Truth" for the "The Karate Kid" sound track. The movie was a smash but the single wasn't.
After the phenomenal success of "Eye of the Tiger," you'd think Sylvester Stallone would automatically assign Survivor to compose and sing the theme for "Rocky IV." But, according to Jamison, the band, now working on songs for the sound track, doesn't seem to have any particular advantage.
"We're turning in songs one at a time and asking what they think about it," Jamison explained. "I haven't done vocals yet for a second song. We may end up with three or four songs on the sound track if they like the songs. Or we may end up with none. It's not clear what's going on. I hope we find out something soon."