Chicagoans is a first-person account from off the beaten track, as told to Anne Ford. This week’s Chicagoan is Jim Peterik, 67, musician and songwriter (“Vehicle,” “Eye of the Tiger”).
I grew up in Berwyn, and my dad was a member of a polka band. I started playing sax and going on jobs, playing at the VFW or the Knights of Columbus with his band. I didn’t get paid, but I got all the White Castles at midnight I could eat. Pretty heady stuff for an 11-year-old.
In high school, I started playing with the Ides of March. We used to rehearse at my friend Larry Millas’s parents’ house. One day, Larry says, “You’re not gonna believe this, but we have an appointment with Mercury Records in Chicago. My mom looked in the phone book and made the appointment.” And on Monday morning, my dad drove us down. It all spiderwebbed from that. We’re going on 56 years together, the original guys from Berwyn.
Our first single came out in 1966. The song was called “You Wouldn’t Listen,” and it was featured on American Bandstand. Suddenly the cheerleaders at school started talking to us. Then in 1970 we released “Vehicle,” which made it to number two on the Billboard Hot 100. At the time I wrote it, I had a lab partner in chemistry who would come to school pretty fried. He started laughing one day at this antidrug pamphlet that had a cartoon of the “friendly stranger,” who was of course the drug pusher who lured you into the car. I said: “There’s my first line: ‘I’m the friendly stranger in the black sedan, won’t you hop inside my car?'” Boom. To the races.
Ides of March went on hiatus in 1973. I wanted to see what it was like to work with other musicians, so I called up Frankie Sullivan, this hot guitarist, and Dave Bickler, a great singer, and we went out playing as the Jim Peterik Band, and one day I said, “Let’s call the band ‘Survivor,'” ’cause I love that word.
We had two albums that kinda stiffed, and then I got a call from Sylvester Stallone. He wanted a song for Rocky III, something with the street feel of “Poor Man’s Son.” He sent us the first three minutes of the movie. I rented a Betamax Pro, and Frankie came over, and I had my guitar around my neck, catching the action, starting that little dooga dooga dooga dooga dooga, and as the punches were thrown onscreen, I started accenting them with these chords: Bam! Bam bam bam! And that turned into “Eye of the Tiger.”
I am so thankful for that song. You can’t deny the stories that people tell me of how that song got ’em through a tough period, whether it was fighting cancer or getting through a divorce. I hear ’em every week, and that’s what nourishes me, really.
I can’t go to the supermarket with my wife, because it bothers her when she’s trying to pick out broccoli and there’s a fan who wants a photo. I don’t mind it. I signed up for this program. So I usually go shopping alone, because there are going to be people, and really nice people, who say, “You’re awesome! Do you mind a photograph?” And in the background there’s the broccoli. I’m good with that.
The Ides of March play Friday, March 23, at the Metropolis Performing Arts Centre (111 W. Campbell St., Arlington Heights, 847-577-2121) and Thursday, May 3, at City Winery (1200 W. Randolph, 312-733-9463).