From the time that motion pictures added sound, movies have always benefitted from a standout song. Whether it’s a Disney tune or a full-on Busby Berkeley number, it’s hard to argue with the power of music and movies working together. After the one-two punch of Saturday Night Fever and Grease in the late ’70s, the 1980s became a boom time for carefully constructed soundtracks. 1982 saw a guaranteed hit film add a propulsive rock tune to its mix. The result was a mammoth sensation that hasn’t left cultural consciousness for the past four decades. That song from Rocky III, by the appropriately named Survivor, was “Eye of the Tiger.”
The original Rocky was a phenomenon. Written by and starring Sylvester Stallone and directed by John G. Avildsen, the film was a smash. Opening at the end of 1976, Rocky garnered ten Oscar nominations and eventually pulled in three wins (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Film Editing). The underdog boxer became a cultural icon and pieces of dialogue (notably “Yo, Adrian!”) became part of America’s vocabulary. Of course, Rocky ended the picture with a moral victory, but didn’t defeat Carl Weathers’ Apollo Creed. The world all but demanded 1979’s Rocky II; Stallone wrote, directed, and starred in the film, which saw Rocky finally beat Apollo to become champion.
As production moved along on Rocky III, Stallone envisioned one song as the theme for his film. That was . . . “Another One Bites the Dust” by Queen. However, Queen denied permission for the song’s use. Enter Chicago’s own Survivor. Stallone had heard of the band through their record label president, Tony Scotti; Stallone liked what he heard, notably their tune “Poor Man’s Son,” and asked the band to take a swing at a theme for the picture as he wanted a more youthful, rock-oriented vibe that differentiated the music from Bill Conti’s orchestral “Rocky’s Theme.”
Survivor had been active since 1978. The primary songwriters were guitarist Frankie Sullivan and keyboardist/guitarist Jim Peterik, who had already co-written 38 Special’s 1980 hit “Rockin’ into the Night.” Vocalist Dave Bickler, drummer Marc Droubay, and bassist Stephan Ellis rounded out the line-up. Peterik and Sullivan set to work on a tune that they originally called “Survival.” In an interview with the SongFacts blog, Peterik recounted that they viewed a rough cut of one fight scene from the movie; Peterik tried playing some guitar chords in time with the punches, and that approach birthed the familiar opening riff. He and Sullivan put together about “80% of the music and 30% of the lyrics” on their first day of work on the tune.
When the group cut a demo of the song, they took it to Stallone for his thoughts. Stallone was an instant fan, but gave the band a few notes. He asked if they could write a new third verse (it originally just repeated the first) and for the percussion to be louder. Peterik welcomed the input, noting that the line (and eventual title of the song) “eye of the tiger” came from Stallone’s own dialogue in his script. While the completely finished version of the song appears on Survivor’s Eye of the Tiger album and the Rocky III soundtrack album, Stallone opted to use the demo in the movie.
Rocky III opened in late May of 1982 and was another blockbuster hit. It was the fourth highest grossing film of the year; the top earners were phenomenon E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Tootsie, and An Officer and A Gentleman (which only surpassed Rocky by five million dollars). At the Oscars, Officer bedeviled “Eye of the Tiger” as well, as its chance to nab Best Original Song was foiled by Officer’s own hit, “Up Where We Belong” by Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes.
However, the popular duet couldn’t hold Survivor down on the charts. “Eye of the Tiger” stormed radio airwaves and MTV, its driving beat and rough energy attracting listeners everywhere. By July 24, it had taken #1 on the Hot 100, and would reign for six weeks. It ended up being the #2 song of the year, bested only by Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical.” Since “Physical” was released in 1981 and had a run that stretched across both years, “Eye of the Tiger” was in reality the most popular song released in 1982, eclipsing other multi-week #1s like Joan Jett and the Blackhearts’ “I Love Rock and Roll” and the Stevie Wonder-Paul McCartney duet “Ebony and Ivory.”
In the wake of the song’s success, Survivor had to, well, survive a couple of obstacles. Their next album, Caught in the Game, didn’t resonate. Bickler had to have surgery for vocal nodes and ended up being replaced by Jimi Jamison on lead vocals. Ironically, or perhaps appropriately, things began to turn a corner for the band when their first song with Jamison, “The Moment of Truth,” landed on the soundtrack for The Karate Kid (which was directed by original Rocky helmer Avildsen). That set the table for their 1984 album Vital Signs, which yielded three major hits: “I Can’t Hold Back,” “High on You,” and “The Search Is Over.”
Over the years, the band has gone through many line-up changes. At one point in 2013 and 2014, Bickler and Jamison were both in the band as co-lead singers. Today, Sullivan is the sole remaining original member of the band, and Peterik fronts the band Pride of Lions while continuing songwriting and producing for other acts. Bickler still performs, and lent his voice to the hugely popular “Real Men of Genius” radio and TV ad campaign from Bud Light. Jamison performed until his passing in 2014; outside the band, his most well-known work was “I’m Always Here,” the theme to international TV hit Baywatch.
“Eye of the Tiger” turned out to be one of those almost magical soundtrack successes where the song perfectly suits the film. Though it’s inextricably linked with Rocky III, it has endured as a radio staple, stadium anthem, and occasional source for hip-hop samples (notably “We Be Clubbin’ (Eye of the Tiger Remix)” by Ice Cube and DMX). Perhaps its longevity rests on a couple of simple premises: the relatable notion expressed in the lyrics that life is hard work, and because it rocks. It’s not really that much of a surprise that after 40 years the song still . . . endures? Sticks around? Wait . . . survives.
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