Behind the Song: Survivor, “Eye of the Tiger”

It’s hard for most of us to comprehend having written dozens of commercially recorded songs, but imagine also having co-authored a number one song that received a Grammy award, as well as Oscar, Golden Globe and Emmy nominations. Now imagine that somewhere, on some cable channel or terrestrial or Internet radio station somewhere in the world, your song has been played daily for nearly 40 years.

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“Eye of the Tiger,” written by Frankie Sullivan and Jim Peterik of Chicago rock band Survivor, found its place in history not only as the theme song of the Sylvester Stallone movie Rocky III, but also as a number one song on the Billboard charts and the title song of an album that has sold in the millions. Sullivan was a young Midwestern guitar player when all this was happening, never imagining that he had just co-written the “career record” everyone dreams of. Via phone with American Songwriter, Sullivan explained how the ball got rolling when one of the owners of Survivor’s label, Scotti Brothers Records, got the band the gig recording the song which became the theme for Rocky III

“Tony Scotti and Sly Stallone were friends,” he said. “Way before ‘Eye of the Tiger.’ They were out to dinner one night. And Tony asks Sly when he’s gonna put his new movie out, and if the music’s done, and [Stallone] says, ‘Well, there’s this one part…’ and that’s how the process started.” 

After discussing what Stallone still needed for the movie, and reading a copy of the Rocky III script, Sullivan and Peterik came up with the song. “Sly said, ‘I need a pulse,’” Sullivan recalled. “He needed something with a pulse, something with a vibe. We turned it around fast. We wrote the music together in 10 or 15 minutes. Jim and I worked really good together, it flowed together kinda naturally. The lyric was the problem, and not the verses, but the chorus. The last tag line of the chorus – we couldn’t come up with one, it took a long time. The verse – Risin’ up, back on the street/Did my time, took my chances – we’ve all learned that. Went the distance, now I’m back on my feet – it’s part of life. As a writer you don’t just write about what’s going on in your own life, but about what’s going on in life itself.”

“Jim and I wrote really, really good lyrics because we worked hard at lyrics,” Sullivan continued. “Back on the street – I’m a street guy. I told Jim, you have to be a street guy to write a street song. When I was in high school I had a job and played in a band and paid rent on an apartment. Jim didn’t work, which I liked about writing with him, because sometimes you get two guys who are kinda the same, and that’s okay. But when you get two guys that are night and day, sparks can fly. So we were different and it was really kind of cool. There was a lot of license in the lyrics, two guys sharing what they went through.” 

A lot of people may have never noticed, but the version of the song in Rocky III and the radio hit are two different recordings. “The cut that’s on the record and the one that’s in the movie are two different versions,” Sullivan explained. “The movie uses the demo. The demo just kicked ass, it had a lot of low end. And I think that’s what Sly liked about it, but if you listen to it, it’s raw too. What came out on the single that you heard on the radio, that’s the [album/radio] version. When you do the demo you just do the best you can, but for some reason with that demo we were thinking, ‘Well, let’s really do it, like we’re really doing it now. So we did the demo and it went into the movie.” Sullivan was the producer of both the demo track and the radio track.

Sullivan and Peterik would go on to co-write dozens more songs together over several albums before Peterik left the band, leaving Sullivan the only remaining original member and leading the band in concert to this day. They’re still reaping the benefits of having co-written a song that is identified with one of the richest movie franchises ever, as well as a classic rock and pop radio staple. “I am so blessed,” Sullivan said. “Are you kidding me? Do you know the kind of life I get to live [because of this song]? I still do what I do just because I love it. I love music. I love to play.” 

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