IN HIS OWN WORDS:
Music Legend Jim Peterik Talks Songwriting, Collaboration, Mentoring, Leadership and More
THE MUSIC MAN REMEMBERS: Jim Peterik in his home studio (Moresby Press photos)
Sept. 5, 2019
Jim Peterik, a founding member of the bands The Ides of March, Survivor, Pride of Lions, and World Stage, is a multitalented songwriter, singer, guitarist, keyboard player and record producer. A driven talent with a generous spirit, he has been a musical leader, collaborator and mentor for more than half a century. Peterik has released two new albums this year: Winds of Change, from his melodic-rock band Jim Peterik & World Stage, appeared in April; and Play On, a new record from his soul band The Ides of March, came out in August. He spoke with Moresby Press about his career and the principles that have guided him.
JIM PETERIK ON SONGWRITING
When they asked me to write the book Songwriting for Dummies, they wanted me to describe the writing process. Man, I was at wit’s end. I don’t like analyzing what I do; I like just doing it. I had to unravel the magic of writing a song. It was really difficult, because so much of it is random.
“The Search Is Over” (from the 1984 Survivor album Vital Signs)
I was driving down the street and I heard a melody in my head. I sang it into my tape recorder. I had my notebook next to me and I saw the phrase “The search is over.” I had written that line down randomly, because it sounded good. Probably got it from a newscast: “The search is over for the missing” whatever. When I got home I had to find the chords that went with the melody. So it started with a melody, then it was a title, then I brought it to [Survivor lead guitarist] Frankie Sullivan, and we woodshedded the song into what it is.
I never would have done the modulation [when a song changes keys to build excitement] into the chorus had I been locked to a keyboard. It shouldn’t have worked, how “The Search Is Over” goes up a fifth on the chorus, and then it comes back down without anybody being jerked around. Modulations are a funny thing: They can work, or they can really suck, and sound very contrived. The modulation at the end of “Is This Love?” is brilliant because you don’t see it coming. All of a sudden it’s half a key up. But with the ones that signal, “Okay, here it comes,” you think, “Oh, shit, it’s gonna be a modulation.” Those are the ones you don’t like. With “The Search Is Over,” you never get that manipulated feeling.
JIM AND JIMI: Jim Peterik plays grand piano in his studio, as Hendrix looks on.
“I Can’t Hold Back” (Vital Signs)
We were packing up our equipment at The Record Plant in L.A., ready to leave, because we thought we had finished the album. Frankie Sullivan was playing this arpeggiated guitar thing on his electric Stratocaster. I said, “What’s that?” And he goes, “I’m just fiddling around.” And then I went to the grand piano and started doing these grand chords, and we just started rockin’.
And then Ron Nevison, our producer, comes over to the piano and says, “Take out the equipment. You ain’t going home. But you’ve got to finish this song by tomorrow morning, because we’re recording it then.” No pressure, right? I came up with the line: “I can’t hold back; I’m on the edge.” I got about three hours of sleep. I was walking on the beach the next morning, still finishing the lyrics. Had it all done by 10 o’clock, and then we were at The Record Plant cutting “I Can’t Hold Back.”
The song became the first release from Survivor’s Vital Signs album. We were in L.A. doing the music-tennis festival, and the album hadn’t quite come out yet. And roaring up to the front of the hotel was a Harley with a big radio on it, and all of a sudden: “New from Survivor: ‘I Can’t Hold Back.’” And then I hear the song blaring from the motorcycle. I said, “Man, we are made.” I’ll never forget that motorcycle, because that was when we knew it’s out, and it’s gonna be a big hit.
“Summer Nights” (from the 1981 Survivor album Premonition)
Frankie started that song. He showed me this great verse: “Don’t it always seem about September, that’s the time, again I remember, the lights, and all the fun of those summer nights.” And I go, “Frankie, that’s amazing.” And then I started: “Young and innocent and livin’ fast, didn’t know enough to know that a summer love can’t last.” When I got home I found the ultimate chorus: “Do you remember those … summer nights, all night, dancin’ in the light of love.” I thought, “Holy crap.” I called Frankie and said, “Dude, we’ve got our first hit record. Wait till you hear it.” That was a magic time.
“Winds of Change” (from the 2019 World Stage album Winds of Change)
I was sitting in the bar at a steakhouse after writing with 38 Special. After a session I like to go on my own and have a beer, and just take in the local color, the atmosphere. And while I was sitting there I got this melody for what became the [second Jim Peterik & World Stage] album’s title track, “Winds of Change.”
At the time it wasn’t called “Winds of Change,” just some temporary lyric. But then I started thinking about the Parkland shootings. By the next day, I showed the guys in 38 Special the chorus. And Danny Chauncey, who’s the king of verses, he came up with the verse, and we worked it out together. So it started with the chorus, and then we worked up the story in the verses. And then Don Barnes would add his two cents—more than two cents—with lyrics also.
“You’re Always There” (Winds of Change)
Jason Scheff had a song called “You Are Always There.” It was very awkward the way it phrased. I said, “How about, ‘You’re Always There’? Let’s contract it.” And I took the pieces of the song he had written, and I extrapolated from those. Then I sent it to him and said, “How about this?” And we just kept playing tennis, sending each other these digital files back and forth. It’s ideal to be in the same room together when writing a song, but it can also work like this.
PARTS BIN: Peterik finds musical odds and ends in his storage room of ideas.
JIM PETERIK’S ECLECTIC MUSICAL TASTES
More than a musician or a songwriter, I’m a big fan of music. I’m a fan of so many different kinds of music, which was to the detriment of The Ides of March. Because at the time, I’m 19 years old, I don’t know what I love. All I know is, I love The Hollies, which represented the first song we ever did, in ’66, called “You Wouldn’t Listen.” That song was The Hollies meets Curtis Mayfield meets The Kinks. I also loved soul music. And then we added brass and became a Blood, Sweat & Tears kind of band, with our song “Vehicle.” And then we dropped the brass and became a Crosby, Stills & Nash wannabe, with our song “L.A. Goodbye.” Nobody could put a handle on us.
But as a co-writer, I get to flex all those muscles with different projects. With the new Ides of March, it’s going back to the soul stuff. With Pride of Lions, it’s the Survivor thing: the big choruses, the keyboards. And with World Stage, it’s a mixed bag. With Sammy Hagar I get to flex the more rockin’ stuff. So it’s the perfect job for me, because I like it all. But instead of trying to do it all with The Ides of March or all with World Stage, you get these different facets of your personality. About a quarter of the audience will come to see me in anything I do. But then it stratifies, depending on people’s tastes.
PLAYING KEYBOARDS VERSUS GUITAR
Guitar is my heart and soul. When I started Survivor, I was guitar. Frankie and I played double leads. And gradually it became more useful to go to piano. Frankie pretty much had the guitar covered. And a lot of the songs I started writing were piano-based, like “Summer Nights.”
I had some reservations about playing keyboards when my first love is guitar. But I knew that’s what was needed. I had to hold down that fort. And I’m not sorry I did, although I was always chompin’ at the bit to do more guitar work. Songs like “The Search Is Over,” and “How Much Love” and “Is This Love?” never would have happened if I was locked to that guitar.
MEETING 38 SPECIAL
When we sat down the first time in 1981 around my kitchen table in [the Chicago suburb of] La Grange, they didn’t know me from Adam. They knew I was with Survivor, which as a band hadn’t made an impact yet. And they knew that I had written their first hit, “Rockin’ into the Night,” which was supposed to be on the first Survivor record. But they didn’t really know Jim Peterik.
We’re sitting around the table like deer in the headlights, making awkward conversation, and [38 Special guitarist] Jeff Carlisi sees a picture of The Ides of March on the wall. He goes, “Oh, I love The Ides of March. Why do you have that on your wall?” And I said, “Because that’s me with the big glasses on the right.” And he says, “You’re kidding me.” And then I start singing “Vehicle.” It really broke the ice.
With 38 Special, I tried to take their wonderful Southern influence and add the pop edge, the commerciality that I try to bring to the table, to that sound. Then it became this magical combo plate of my pop instincts and their Southern roots. And suddenly it was, “Hold on Loosely,” “Caught Up in You,” “Wild-Eyed Southern Boys,” “Fantasy Girl,” and on and on. It was just incredible.
TICKET TO RIDE: Jim Peterik with his aptly plated Lamborghini sports car.
ON LEADERSHIP, COLLABORATION AND MENTORING
To be a leader, you’ve got to engender a lot of respect. People look up to people who can run a ship and aren’t wimpy. Sometimes I can go overboard in the leadership thing and start calling policy. And then I have to prune my ego back. But I think people want direction, they want leadership. And you become a better mentor if people respect you through leadership. But then you tuck your ego away and you collaborate.
Collaboration is one of my favorite topics. I could be a version of Peter Townshend; I could write a song and finish it. But Peter had a gift that I don’t have all the time. Sometimes I’ll get lucky. But if you’re making a stew, it’s the ingredients that make it tasty. And sometimes [with songwriting] a little friction is needed, too. When you make an Old Fashioned whiskey drink, you put the bitters in. It adds the depth.
I find that when I open myself up to collaboration, [the end result is] different than what I imagined, but it’s usually better. Because there’s a cross-pollination of other viewpoints, other personalities, other musical influences, and it becomes a richer blend. It’s often painful. It’s easier to write a song on your own, but will it have any depth to it?
‘When you collaborate with other viewpoints, personalities and musical influences, it becomes a richer blend. You’ve got to be giving, accepting and transparent.’
My best songs have been collaborations, with rare exceptions. “Vehicle” I wrote all myself, motivated by trying to win back my girlfriend, who’s now my wife of 47 years. So that worked. But my collaboration with Frankie Sullivan of Survivor speaks for itself: hit after hit, with very unique-sounding songs that wouldn’t have been the same without the collaboration effect.
I park my ego at the door when I go into a songwriting session, because I have to be an open channel to ideas. If I’m in there going, “No, this is my idea, and screw you,” it’s not gonna be good. I learned that lesson. I remember writing a few failed attempts at collaborating because I wasn’t open to other people’s ideas.
You only learn by failing. And when I look back at a couple of really powerful collaborations technically, they didn’t work because either I or the collaborator wasn’t open enough. When you’re done with the song, you can exercise your ego all you want. But when you’re collaborating, you’ve got to be very giving, accepting and transparent.
Mentoring is very important to me. It’s paying it forward. I think of Mrs. Hull, who was my music teacher in sixth grade, and how she recognized the spark of music in me—when I didn’t necessarily recognize it in myself. She said, “Jimmy, if you stick with this, you could really make music your life.” Those words of wisdom and her encouragement gave me the confidence to keep going. I think if everyone had a Mrs. Hull in their life, it could be a platform for moving on in music.
As a mentor I want to be like Mrs. Hull to a lot of kids. And it doesn’t take much, that little pep talk. I do it all the time. I’m involved with Little Kids Rock [a nationwide charity that helps facilitate music education in schools]. And just recently there’s this video that’s kind of gone viral, with me, Little Kids Rock, and Yo-Yo Ma at the Pritzker Pavilion in Chicago.
But the kids, a lot of them are just lacking in self-confidence. Who wouldn’t be? I didn’t know what I was when I was in sixth grade. I just knew I loved playing the ukulele and playing the saxophone in front of the class, and hearing the applause. I got totally hooked on people responding to my music. The first time I did the “Talented Teens” search in Berwyn, Illinois when I was 11, and I sang the song “Kansas City” and heard my voice echoing through the PA over the parking lot, and then the applause, I knew I was totally hooked at that moment. I said, “This is what I want.”