The Survivor albums you should definitely own

Survivor in 1982
Survivor in 1982 (Image credit: Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo)

On August 31, 2014, rock’n’roll lost another great singer. Jimi Jamison was not a household name, but the songs he sang were loved by millions – songs such as Burning Heart, the biggest hit he had with Survivor, and I’m Always Here, recorded as a solo artist – the theme to hugely popular TV series Baywatch.

What Jamison left behind – principally, in the albums he cut with Survivor in the 80s – is some of the greatest AOR music of all time. As Jim Peterik, one of the group’s founding members, said in tribute: “Jimi was one of the very best.”

When Jamison joined Survivor in 1984, the band was already a household name. Formed in Chicago in 1977 around the nucleus of keyboard player Peterik, guitarist Frankie Sullivan and Dave Bickler, Survivor shot to fame in 1982 with Eye Of The Tiger. Written for the blockbuster Rocky III – at the personal request of the movie’s star Sylvester Stallone – Eye Of The Tiger topped the charts in eight countries.

Bickler was a charismatic figure, with his powerful voice and signature Che Guevara-style beret, worn to hide his premature baldness. But after the phenomenal success of Eye Of The Tiger, he developed nodes on his vocal cords and was forced to leave the band. As Peterik said: “Very few bands can survive a lead singer transplant.” 

And yet, with Jamison, Survivor had a huge hit with the album Vital Signs and then with a repeat performance for Stallone on Burning Heart, the theme song from Rocky IV, which reached No.2 in the US.

When the hits dried up at the end of the 80s, Survivor was officially declared “on hiatus”. In the years that followed, there would be various reunions but, in 1996, Peterik left the band never to return. In 2006, Jamison and Sullivan made Survivor’s comeback album, Reach.

With Jimi Jamison gone, the career of a legendary American rock band faltered. He was replaced by 21-year-old Cameron Barton, who sang alongside Bickler until the latter quit in 2017. And while they haven't made an album since Reach, their music lives on. 

“The legacy of Survivor is the songs and the message in those songs,” Jim Peterik says. “We stood for the good fight.”

Alt

Eye Of The Tiger (Scotti Brothers, 1982) (opens in new tab)

Eye Of The Tiger (Scotti Brothers, 1982) (opens in new tab)

This album’s iconic title track punched as hard as Rocky himself, holding the number one spot in America for six weeks in the summer of 1982, and selling two million copies in the process. But there are many more great songs on what is unquestionably the finest album Survivor made with original vocalist Dave Bickler.

American Heartbeat, also a US hit, is a pulsating anthem with a new wave-inspired synthesizer riff. And on two outstanding power ballads, Silver Girl and Ever Since The World Began, Bickler sang with soul as well as power. Sadly, he would never sing like this again. But with Eye Of The Tiger, Dave Bickler earned his place in rock folklore

Vital Signs (Scotti Brothers, 1984) (opens in new tab)

Vital Signs (Scotti Brothers, 1984) (opens in new tab)

Eye Of The Tiger is Survivor’s biggest album, but Vital Signs, their second-highest seller, is their best. With Jimi Jamison coming in for Dave Bickler, the band made a remarkable comeback. The album yielded three top 20 US hits: I Can’t Hold Back, High On You and the ballad rated by Jim Peterik as their greatest song, The Search Is Over

And, in addition to those classic singles, there were equally brilliant album tracks – Popular Girl, Broken Promises, I See You In Everyone and, best of all, It’s The Singer Not The Song. Simply, Vital Signs stands alongside Journey’s Escape, Boston’s debut and Foreigner 4 as a genuine AOR masterpiece.

Survivor (Scotti Brothers, 1980) (opens in new tab)

Survivor (Scotti Brothers, 1980) (opens in new tab)

The making of Survivor’s debut album was problematic. First, producer Barry Mraz was fired – his work deemed “too fussy”. And once the album was completed with Ron Nevison, A&R man John Kalodner demanded it was remixed by Bruce Fairbairn and Bob Rock. Nevison subsequently had his name removed from the credits.

The album still wasn’t a hit. But the band’s potential was clearly evident in classic radio-rock songs: Somewhere In America, Whole Town’s Talkin’ and 20/20. Survivor would go on to bigger things. And so, too, would the album’s cover model: future Hollywood star Kim Basinger.

Premonition (Scotti Brothers, 1981) (opens in new tab)

Premonition (Scotti Brothers, 1981) (opens in new tab)

A new-look Survivor was unveiled on this second album, with drummer Gary Smith and bassist Dennis Keith Johnson replaced by Marc Droubay and Stefan Ellis. And, with this rock-solid rhythm section, the band arrived at its signature sound. Opening at full throttle with Chevy Nights, a piece of hard-rocking Americana, Premonition had more muscle than the first album. 

And, with the gritty blue-collar anthem Poor Man’s Son, Survivor not only scored their first US top 40 hit – they also earned a commission from Sylvester Stallone to write a song just like it for Rocky III. Something big was about to happen…

When Seconds Count (Scotti Brothers, 1986) (opens in new tab)

When Seconds Count (Scotti Brothers, 1986) (opens in new tab)

Survivor began 1986 with a huge hit, Burning Heart. But the song was tied exclusively to the Rocky IV soundtrack, and was therefore omitted from the band’s own album. Consequently, its success was limited. Although the single Is This Love reached the US top 10, the album stalled at 49. 

It was a major setback, but this was still a fine record, with Rebel Son the most epic track of Survivor’s career, and Is This Love an expertly crafted pop song. In 2010, the Rock Candy label reissued When Seconds Count with Burning Heart as a bonus track. The irony wasn’t lost on Peterik.

Too Hot To Sleep (Scotti Brothers, 1988) (opens in new tab)

Too Hot To Sleep (Scotti Brothers, 1988) (opens in new tab)

In commercial terms, Survivor’s seventh album was an unmitigated disaster. It peaked at number 187 on the US chart, prompting the band to split. But it deserved better. Too Hot To Sleep was the last great Survivor album, more guitar-driven than the preceding album – and the last on which Jim Peterik played. 

Although guitarist Frankie Sullivan looked like a failed new romantic with his fancy hairdo, his riffs on She’s A Star and Burning Bridges had real balls. But the best songs were classically AOR: Across The Miles, the atmospheric title track and Desperate Dreams, one of Survivor’s greatest songs.

Caught In The Game (Scotti Brothers, 1983) (opens in new tab)

Caught In The Game (Scotti Brothers, 1983) (opens in new tab)

Getting to the top is hard, but staying there is even harder, as Survivor learned when the follow-up to Eye Of The Tiger bombed. Caught In The Game limped to number 82 on the US chart. And it was Dave Bickler who took the rap. Having developed nodules on his throat during a lengthy tour, Bickler couldn’t nail the high notes as he’d done before. 

As a result, the album was merely good when it could have been great. There were flashes of brilliance on the crunchy title track and the hit single that never was, Jackie Don’t Go. But when Bickler required surgery, the band had no option but to move on without him.

Jimi Jamison’s Survivor - Empires (Frontiers, 1999) (opens in new tab)

Jimi Jamison’s Survivor - Empires (Frontiers, 1999) (opens in new tab)

In the early 90s, there were two Survivors: one led by singer Jimi Jamison, the other featuring Frankie Sullivan and Jim Peterik reunited with Dave Bickler. But the latter would fall apart long before Jamison won the legal rights to the band’s name in 1999, a victory he celebrated with the release of Empires

Jamison’s choice of title track was cheeky – a song he’d written many years earlier with Sullivan and Peterik. But there were echoes of vintage Survivor, especially on the elegant ballad Just Beyond The Clouds. Empires also included a new version of Jamison’s Baywatch theme I’m Always Here, an undisputed AOR classic.

Jimi Jamison - Never Too Late (Frontiers, 2012) (opens in new tab)

Jimi Jamison - Never Too Late (Frontiers, 2012) (opens in new tab)

In the final decade of his life, Jamison worked again with the two men that had brought out the best in him. In 2006, he and Frankie Sullivan created the first genuine Survivor album for 18 years with Reach. And, in 2008, he cut a solo album, Crossroads Moment, written and produced by Jim Peterik. 

Six years later, Jamison found a new foil in Erik Mårtensson, the Swedish writer, producer and member of Eclipse and W.E.T. But what they created together on Never Too Late was a throwback to 1985 – pure AOR, sung as only Jimi could. Sadly, it turned out to be Jamison’s last hurrah. It was, at least, a fitting epitaph.

And one to avoid...

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Jimi Jamison - When Love Comes Down (Scotti Brothers, 1991) (opens in new tab)

Jimi Jamison - When Love Comes Down (Scotti Brothers, 1991) (opens in new tab)

Calling himself plain old Jim, the singer cut his first solo album after failing an audition for Deep Purple – a job that went to Joe Lynn Turner. But without Survivor – and the songwriting of Frankie Sullivan and Jim Peterik – Jamison struggled. When Love Comes Down has only two songs that might have made the cut on a Survivor album: If You Walk Away and Cry Alone

The rest is generic hard rock reminiscent of Jamison’s pre-Survivor band, Cobra. Jimi’s one-in-a-million voice was wasted on this album. His only great solo record came 21 years later with his swansong, Never Too Late.

Paul Elliott

Freelance writer for Classic Rock since 2005, Paul Elliott has worked for leading music titles since 1985, including Sounds, Kerrang!, MOJO and Q. He is the author of several books including the first biography of Guns N’ Roses and the autobiography of bodyguard-to-the-stars Danny Francis. He has written liner notes for classic album reissues by artists such as Def Leppard, Thin Lizzy and Kiss, and currently works as content editor for Total Guitar. He lives in Bath - of which David Coverdale recently said: “How very Roman of you!”