The Popdose Interview: Jimi Jamison of Survivor
In more than four decades in the music business, Jimi Jamison has worn quite a few different hats. While perhaps best known for his work with Chicago-based AOR rockers Survivor, his trademark vocals also helped to power albums by ZZ Top (take a fresh listen to “Gimme All Your Lovin’,” for example), George Thorogood and Joe Walsh, among others.
When he stepped into the lead vocalist slot for Survivor in the mid-’80s, following the departure of original vocalist Dave Bickler, it was an important addition that would bring the band a second lease on life and add an extra five Top 20 hits (four of them went Top 10) to their resume.
The road-worn huskiness of Jamison’s vocals helped make him one of the most distinctive vocalists of the decade, instantly identifiable on a crowded radio dial, where sounding different was the key, especially considering the hefty amount of competition that he was up against.
Never Too Late, the new solo album from Jamison, plays out like a lost chapter from the Survivor discography and you won’t find Jamison denying the similarities. “I think they must have listened to a lot of Survivor stuff, because some of it’s got little inklings of Survivor in it and they did a great job of coming up with stuff that fits me to a t.”
Songwriter/producer Erik Martensson and lyricist Miquael Persson are the “they” in this situation and it was Martensson who was the mastermind behind the material for Never Too Late, working to prepare an album’s worth of songs that were ready-made for Jamison’s voice.
Understandably, Jamison is very proud of the songs that wound up on the Never Too Late album and he gives a lots of credit to his collaborators, saying that after hearing the demos for the material, he decided not to tweak anything. “I just left everything as is and they did a great job.”
We spoke at length, not only about the new album, but his career and process. It was a conversation that was as relaxed as his Memphis drawl and as you’re speaking with him, it’s not hard to hear how much Jamison loves the life and success that he’s been fortunate enough to enjoy as a musician.
This album is a collaboration that at the core, begins with you and Erik Martensson. As I understand it, the two of you first met during sessions for the Kimball/Jamison album. Where did the idea come around to do a Jimi Jamison album with Erik?
It came from Serafino at Frontiers Records, actually. He got the ball rolling and Erik and I hooked up and we finally met face to face at Firefest actually, in England. We hit it off and he’s such a talented guy. He plays everything – sings leads, sings the backgrounds, you name it and he does it. Serafino hooked us up and said we should do something together, so we did it and it turned out really good.
How much input did you have into where the material went from the way it was when you first came in to where it ended up?
Well, I had a lot of input. Serafino sent me the songs and actually, he only sent me one song that I didn’t like and it was written by an outside writer and it sounded more like a game show or something. [Laughs] But Serafino’s good about that: he listens to his artists and he goes along with it, but he knows good music himself too.
Do you have a sense of your audience changing and growing with you the last 28 years? If so, does that factor into the material you record?
You know, I don’t think about the audience maturing with me. I’m maturing and so my music matures a little bit and it’s a natural thing that people who liked our music back then, they’re getting older and what I like is usually what they like. So I think it’s a natural process.
This album Never Too Late, you could say it’s just a tad heavier than usual, but it’s still got the great melodies and the great message and the melodic sounds and the great instrumentation. So I think this fits right in with all of it. It’s a natural thing to mature and your fans mature along with you. I think that if I play these songs live, I think they’ll really like them live as much as they do the old stuff.
“Not Tonight” is one of the songs on this album that has a swagger to the vocal that I would consider to be one of your trademarks. When you talk about stuff on this album that sounds like material that you’ve done in the past, boy, they really hit it out of the park with that one. Can you talk about how that song came together?
Well, actually, Erik sent me his vocal rendition of the song and of course I took all of the songs and produced my vocals myself in the studio here in Memphis and all of the [music] tracks were laid down over in Sweden [prior to that], with Erik’s vocals on them.
I pretty much just sang them like I thought they should be sung and I sent it back to Erik and he sent me back an email that said “WOW.” [Laughs] So he must have liked it! But Erik pretty much laid down the basic melodies though and did a great job and I made it my own in the studio here in Memphis. I changed a melody here and there and something here and there, but not enough to say I wrote the song. I could never do that. I just sing it the way I think it should be sung and it just comes out like I do it.
You know, growing up in bands, I tried to mimic so many different singers like Eric Clapton and Robert Plant and all of these great singers – that’s how you learn to get your own sound. I tried to mimic all of those people and of course, it never sounded like them, it always came out sounding like a mixture of all of them with me doing them.
“Wow” is an appropriate reaction, because you place the vocal on that song next to some of your other songs from the past, where in some cases, it’s been close to 30 years, it doesn’t sound like a moment has passed.
Yeah, it really has. It’s been quite a while. I’ve been very lucky when it comes to not losing my voice and being able to still hit pretty high notes, you know? There’s some notes on this record that are just as high as some of the ones that I hit on the other records and I really was surprised in the studio, because when I was listening to the stuff, I said “oh man, that’s pretty high. I don’t know if I’m going to be able to do that or not.” But I went in the studio and I got emotionally involved in it and it came out great. It was easy. I said to the engineer, “am I in tune, am I hitting these notes?” And Matt Martone, the vocal engineer that I had in the studio said “man, it’s like yesterday all over again.”
You’ve got one of the most distinctive voices in rock, but it’s also changed over the years. For a project like this, how difficult was it to match the expectations of what they might have had in mind vocally when they wrote the material?
Well, I didn’t really even think about that! [Laughs] I just did it my way and hopefully they would like it, because that’s the way I do it and that’s the way I sing it. You know, when I first got with Survivor, I wasn’t really that kind of singer at all. I was more of a rhythm and blues kind of singer, a Paul Rodgers-soul kind of singer, because of being from Memphis and growing up around Stax and all of the soul music here.
So I really had to learn how to sing the old Survivor stuff and I’m glad I did, because it really broadened my vocal mileage and I’m really thankful for that. And it just evolved into what it is now and I think they knew I was going to do what I did anyway pretty much [with the material on this new album] [Laughs]. They knew I was going to sing it the way I thought it oughta be sung.
You mention coming in and singing that older Survivor material. I read an older interview with you recently where you talked about how you didn’t feel weird about singing “Eye of the Tiger,” but you were thinking about having to hit that note every night. And I think that happens a lot when a guy like you comes into a new situation like that.
Exactly. My first audition with those guys, I hit the note spot-on and I’d never hit a note that high in my life! And Marc, the drummer, and the road manager, took me out the night before and we got toasted. Kind of an initiation kind of thing or something and I went in the next day and we were still a little hungover and I hit the note perfect. But after that, we started doing shows and I’d worry about that note every night, because it’s a very high note.
It’s a C and for a guy, that’s pretty high. And then after about six or seven shows, I figured out how to hit that note mentally and I wish I could write it down, because it was totally mental. From that point on, I never had another problem hitting that note and I look forward to it every night. It’s the strangest thing. If I could write down how I did it, I’d get rich writing “Singing For Dummies” just off one note and mentally, how to hit a high note, if I could just put it on paper, but I can’t. But it’s totally mental.
There’s a lot of talk about the songwriting in the ’80s and the disconnect between what the songwriters were writing in regards to how realistic it was for the singers who had to then sing that material. As a vocalist in that era, did you see a lot of that going on, as far as a songwriting approach that didn’t really consider that those vocalists would have to sing those same songs and hit those same notes several decades down the line?
Oh yeah. Oh, for sure. Lou Gramm, to name one. They put poor Lou through the mill, you know? He had to sing those songs and sometimes you could tell he was just barely making it to the note, but he was such a great singer and delivered it so great and his voice sounded so good that you just overlooked that. But yeah, back in those days, everybody was writing everything with such a high pitch when they really didn’t have to be doing that.
But I guess that’s what the songwriters and the bands, hearing all of these songs on the radio with all of these high singers having hit songs and so they just wrote them in really high keys. It’s strange that it happened like that and it caused a lot of problems for a lot of singers, including myself, every once in a while. If you’ve been going through a really long tour, unless you really warm up before a show, you might be in a little trouble. But to answer your question in one word, yes.
Your voice always seems to match the content and tenor of the song you’re singing – something like “Street Survivor” necessitates a different kind of vocal than “Heaven Call Your Name” or “The Air I Breathe.” What do you do to sync your approach and performance to the needs of a given song?
You know, when I listen to the track, it makes me feel a certain way. It’s all about emotion with me. When I hear a hard track like “Street Survivor” or something like that, I naturally want to sing a little bit harder and a little more edgy. When I hear a song like “The Air That I Breathe,” of course I want to do something just a little bit more mellower, although it’s still high. The song pretty much dictates how I’m going to sing it.
Your stuff has always interested me, because career-wise, at least from Survivor forward, you’ve done a lot of work interpreting the songwriting of others, at times, vs. writing your own material. Knowing what you’d done prior to that with bands like Cobra and Target, how easy or comfortable was that for you to step into. Was there a period of adjustment there?
Yeah, there was a big adjustment. [Laughs] But it was a good adjustment, actually. It taught me a lot that I didn’t know previously. With Cobra and Target, I didn’t even really know if I could sing good or not, to be honest with you. And when I got with Survivor, things started changing and the music was different and the melody was different and it taught me a lot, being with that band. And I played with a lot of other bands and [later] sang with a lot of other great singers also, in some of these all-star bands that we did for a little while, you know, with Mickey Thomas and all of these great singers surrounding me.
It’s like a fraternity now. We all learn from each other and it’s wild, because we were in such competition back in the day and now, it’s like I call Don Barnes up in a heartbeat or Lou or anybody and we all try to help each other and we all learn from each other. I think the Survivor songwriting helped me a lot as far as control and knowing where to go and how to sing a certain line hard and a certain line, you back off of. And also, I did a lot of jingle singing before I got into Survivor. I was in the studio every day from 8:30 in the morning until 7:30 at night, so it really taught me a lot about being in the studio and learning how to work the microphone.
You really have to sing it like the person who’s buying the jingle wants it and you have to feel that and you have to know what they want and you have to second guess them, because most of the time, they can’t explain how they want it. So I think that taught me a lot, also.
Being able to deliver someone else’s material and make it feel like your own is not something that everybody is able to master. Sometimes, it’s painfully obvious when an artist or band is doing something that was written by someone else or outside writers. When you look at the songs from the Vital Signs and When Seconds Count albums, what are the songs that you’re really proud of from that time period, that maybe were a little bit of a struggle to deliver from where they started?
On Vital Signs, “Everlasting” as a good example. All of the songs on Vital Signs were pretty hard to sing at that time, but the one that gave me the most trouble and it’s probably the easiest to sing now, is “The Search Is Over.” It wasn’t that it was that high, it was that it had to be sung a certain way and I think I almost caught that on the album, but I think I do it better now than I did then. At that time, I just couldn’t get the feel of “The Search Is Over,” because I’d never sung a song like that before, for one thing. I was used to doing heavier stuff.
Ron Nevison was producing that record and so Ron kicks everybody out of the studio and it’s just he and I in there. We get a bottle of wine and we’re sitting there and we drink the wine and I’m not much of a drinker, so I got a little tipsy before he said “alright, go ahead and sing it.” I went out and I sang it twice and he said “come in here.” And Ron Nevison, one of the toughest producers that I’ve ever worked with in the business – this man will scare you to death, if you don’t know him! [Laughs] I came into the studio and he actually had tears in his eyes and that told me everything. Right then, I said “wow,” that was an honor, you know?
I’ve seen both Sullivan and Peterik talk about how intense he can be in the studio, particularly with singers, so I was curious to hear what your experience was working with him on those albums.
We got into a little tiff one time, but after that, we were the best of friends. [Laughs] I think he tries to pull that out of you. He tries to make you angry sometimes and it’s a brilliant thing to do, because after that anger, it’s like total cooperation. You know what he wants and he knows what you can do and he knows what you can deliver and he’s pulling for you one hundred thousand percent and that’s exactly what happened with us.
I always found that the Survivor songwriting had an interesting complexity to it that I don’t think that you guys get enough credit for, because as I listen to these songs now, it’s interesting to hear how much they were structured in stages, at points, almost very-Broadway like.
Exactly. To be honest with you, “Eye of the Tiger” had nothing to do with me joining the band. That wasn’t the sound that knocked me out about Survivor. I didn’t know anything else that they had done and as a matter of fact, I wasn’t going to even go up and audition until I went out and got the first couple of records and I listened to some of their other songs and I said “man, these guys, they’re onto something here.” And yeah, Jim can get a little bit Broadway every once in a while! [Laughs] But he always had Frank there to rock him out, you know?
How did you come to work with ZZ Top? And do you have a good story from that era?
Well, Terry Manning was a good friend of mine and ZZ Top, they always liked to do stuff cheap, you know what I mean? [Laughs] They wanted to spend the least money possible on a record and Terry Manning knew that I could come in there and knock out every part on the record on one day, because I’d worked with Terry before from over at Ardent Studios and of course now, he’s down at Compass Point Studios. So I came one day and I didn’t get paid any money on that first record I did with them – I was just doing it because it was ZZ Top, you know? So Terry brings me in and I sing all of the parts and I finished the whole album in like three hours, the first record I sang on. I only sang on the singles, but they had a bunch of singles on that one record, Eliminator, I believe it was.[ZZ Top manager] Bill Ham really liked that, so they brought me back in on the next record and of course, they paid more money and they brought me in on the soundtrack for Back to the Future III, which paid pretty good. And you know, they always try to get you as cheap as possible and I love those guys, but they’re businessmen, you know what I mean? They figured that hey, this is our guy – this is the honorary fourth member of ZZ Top.
So that’s what they started calling me and they never would put my name on the albums and they made me sign a piece of paper saying that I couldn’t sue them or anything. But they never denied that I did it and Billy [Gibbons] would be the first one to tell you and say “heck yeah, he’s like the fourth member of ZZ Top.” It was really an honor for me to sing on those records and I doubled some of Billy’s lead vocals and it was a trip, it really was.
I remember walking into the Mid-South Coliseum one time and they didn’t know I was coming to the show. I walked in and here’s Bill Ham, the manager and Billy and Bill goes [Jamison imitates stammering voice] “uh Jimi, you know we use your background vocals as backing tracks live. We just wanted to let you know that.” [Laughs] He thought I was going to sue them or something and I said “hey, that’s cool, man – that’s fine” and he breathed a sigh of relief, because he didn’t know what was going to happen, because he never told me that they were going to do that, but I didn’t mind them doing it at all. And that’s pretty much how I got hooked up with them. I went down to Houston and hung out with Billy and we rode around in his car, you know, his famous car and it became a good friendship.
What about your experiences playing shows with Target where you were playing with bands like Black Sabbath, KISS and Boston. What did you learn working with bands like that as a developing artist?
Man, that was some of the greatest times of my life. One tour would end and we would immediately…we never came off the road…we would immediately go out with somebody else. Black Sabbath’s tour would end and we’d go out with Boston – we did their first headlining tour. Journey, we did their first headlining tour before Steve Perry was in the band. Robin Trower, Styx…we did all of these bands first headlining tours and it was amazing.
Unfortunately, we never sold any records, but we got a great ovation live, you know? And that’s how you would sell records back in those days, really, is that you kept playing and playing. A prime example being Black Oak Arkansas and REO Speedwagon too, that’s how they did it. They played and they played the circuit until the people just got used to them and they built a fanbase, like building a fanbase in a city, but they built it nationwide. Had we kept doing that, we would have been able to do the same thing, I think.
It was some of the most fun times that I’ve ever had in my life. I got to know so many great bands and got to be friends with so many people from Jeff Beck to Thin Lizzy….everybody, you know? All of those great bands that were around back in those days, we got to hang out with them and got to know them and became friends with them and it’s a pretty wild situation, because we pretty much did all of those great bands from that era’s first headlining tours.
I know that you’re only one piece of the puzzle, but as prolific as you’ve been in the past few years, do you see Survivor as an ongoing creative concern with any new music on the horizon? What’s happening there?
Yeah, there probably is going to be some new music. We’ve been talking about it recently and I’m not sure exactly how we’re going to handle it yet, but we’re definitely talking about it. And I think there probably should be, to be honest with you. It would be great to have [Jim] Peterik involved in it, but I doubt that – I don’t think that’ll ever happen. So I guess it’s going to be up to me and Frank [guitarist Frankie Sullivan]! [Laughs] Unless we bring another writer in, but I think we might be able to handle it. I’m not sure, but we may give it a shot.
Your Crossroads Moment album with Peterik was so well-received. Does your current status with Survivor class you out of working with Jim on any future records?
No. I do what I want to do. That’s not going to keep me from doing anything that I want to do. I’m doing my solo thing now, you know? It may in Jim’s mind, somewhat, keep me from doing some things. But as far as I’m concerned, I would do something with him tomorrow. He’s a great friend of mine and a great writer that I respect totally and I would do his songs or whatever. If he wanted me to come sing with his group – which right now is kind of iffy on his end, not because of me, but because of other reasons – I would do it in a heartbeat.
What else is on deck for you right now?
Well, believe it or not. I’m going to be in a movie. I’ve got this friend of mine, Pat Horgan, who’s a songwriter, and we got to be pretty good friends. He’s writing some music for a Cuban mafia movie called Trouble in Paradise and he wanted me to be involved and write some songs with him, so we’ve started writing some songs and I think I’m going to do the title track song, called “Havana Mind.” The movie’s called Trouble in Paradise and Christian Slater is the main star and I don’t even have to try out – they just saw my picture and said “yeah, that looks like the guy we’re thinking about.” So I’ll probably be one of the Cuban mafia guys who gets killed in the first scene or something. But it will be an experience and I’m looking forward to it.
If you get killed off, that’s going to cut into your time sitting on Memphis rooftops writing, like I see in your new video.[Laughs]
That looks like a nice life. I’m not sure I’d want to give that away.
That was pretty cool, I thought. That was the first time I’d ever been on top of that building, man!
Where is that building in Memphis?
It’s in downtown Memphis. It’s pretty close to Beale Street, but there’s an area called Court Square. It’s on Main Street, the building is, and then there’s a park next door with a gazebo that bands play in all of the time. It’s a nice little area. The building that we got up on top of – we were actually going to go use the Peabody Hotel, but we saw this building and we went on top of it and we said “man, this is cool.” It’s a really old building and the guy that runs the place, the supervisor, turned out to be a really nice guy. In fact, we kept going back and forth over there so many times that he said “you guys are like roaches – you never go away!” [Laughs] Because we’d have to do another shot or an interview or something, you know? So it turned out pretty cool.
I want to wrap up and ask you about your experiences working on the first two Eric Gales Band albums.
Man, Eric, oh man. The first one I worked on, you know, he was just a kid. But he played his butt off. Eugene, his brother, was producing and figuring out our little harmony parts and stuff like that and of course, I’m helping him. But Eugene actually would come in and he would sing all of the parts and put it on cassette tape, each part and then we’d go in the studio and he’d play that part and listen to it [and then we’d record it]. Then he’d fast forward the tape a little and the next part would be on there that he had already figured out and it was great.
Eric said to me, “you’re the most soulful white dude that we’ve ever worked with” and that was a big compliment to me, because Eric, he’s unbelievable. He’s really unbelievable and to watch him grow up and become the guitar player that he is, is really an amazing thing.
How’d they know you?
I don’t know. Somebody suggested me to them and I just went in there and sang and they loved it. Because when I walked in, I think they were a little shocked. [Laughs] I think it was kind of like when Wild Cherry went and played the Apollo or something, [and that moment when] the curtains opened, because everybody was really quiet for a minute. Then when I started to sing, it all gelled and it worked out great. I got to know just about his whole family.
Special thanks to Jimi for being generous with his time and additionally, to my Popdose brother Rob Smith, who contributed some of these questions!