On the heels of the release of Creed, the seventh installment in the Rocky franchise, SI.com caught up with guitarist Frankie Sullivan of legendary rock band Survivor, who co-wrote Rocky III’s hit song “Eye of the Tiger” with band member Jim Peterik. Since the song’s release in 1982, Sullivan’s lyrics have flooded the speakers of sports arenas and made “Eye of the Tiger” one of the most popular and recognizable sports songs of all time.
After a series of changes in recent years, including the death of lead singer Jimi Jamison and his recent replacement with 21-year-old Cameron Barton, Survivor has been revived and plans to release an album and go on tour in 2016. In the interview below, the 60-year-old Sullivan talks Rocky, the story behind “Eye of the Tiger” and the impact running has had on his life.
Frankie Sullivan: I have to tell you this because I’m going to burst if I don’t. I was going through O’Hare airport when Sports Illustrated’s 50th birthday cover came out honoring Muhammad Ali. So I bought the magazine and started looking at it—because I worship him, he’s the greatest fighter of all time—and I looked up, and there he was sitting right across from me! He was with two of his assistants because his Parkinson’s had pretty much gotten the best of him. Now, I perform in front of a lot of people and don’t get nervous, but for this, my knees were shaking and I didn’t have the guts to ask him for his autograph. I got on the airplane and I sat down and I was mad that I hadn’t spoken to The Champ. The captain came on and said, “We have to board one more passenger,” and there was an open seat next to me. Guess who got on? The Champ. And they sat him right next to me. So it took me about two hours, and I finally asked one of his assistants for his autograph. She asked him and he agreed and then she asked me what my name was. I told her and said I wrote “Eye of the Tiger,” but that I just wanted him to sign his name and not include mine, and Muhammad just laughed loudly at that, and then she said to me, “The Champ says you’re a really wise man.” I have it framed and it’s hanging in my house to this day. It was the only thing he signed that day.
Kayla Lombardo: Is Ali your favorite athlete?
FS: I don’t know if I have a favorite athlete. I love Lance Armstrong. They all did what he did, he just got caught, by the way. But yeah, I think Muhammad is the greatest fighter of all time. He made it a sport, brought great attention to it, had an amazing personality, and when it came to boxing, he was the greatest boxer to ever live. He’s the King Kong of sports. He’s The Champ!
KL: So if Rocky Balboa were a real person and he were to fight Muhammad Ali, who would win?
FS: You should ask [Sylvester] Stallone that. First off, if Rocky Balboa was a real person, he would never fight Muhammad Ali. He would know better.
KL: Are there any other athletes you admire?
FS: Well, one of my other favorite athletes is Sylvester Stallone, in many ways. Not just physically, but mentally and emotionally. Look at what he just did! People say, “Oh, he’s done, he’s washed up. That last Rocky movie was bad.” Then he came out with The Expendables, which is a couple billion dollar franchise. Now he’s got the new Rocky and he’s got everybody in the world in it and he’s nominated for a Golden Globe. He’s just an amazing person, and athlete too.
KL: Have you seen Creed?
FS: No, not yet.
KL: Do you plan on seeing it?
FS: Yeah, absolutely.
KL: Do you have a favorite Rocky movie or are you biased toward Rocky III because of “Eye of the Tiger?”
FS: No, I’m not biased toward it. I think the first one is amazing, and if I do have a second favorite—and it has nothing to do with my song—it’s Rocky III because of what Stallone did as an athlete in it. Look at the physique he developed. He lost 70 pounds and went from a big whatever to a guy with a 29-inch waist. He looked like an unbelievable version of Sugar Ray Leonard. Now that’s an athlete!
KL: So what was the inspiration behind “Eye of the Tiger” when you wrote it?
FS: It comes from within, so it’s kind of hard to reveal that.
KL: How did “Eye of the Tiger” become the theme song for Rocky III?
FS: There was another song in its place originally, but Stallone didn’t dig that one. We were on Scotti Brothers Records at that time, and when I would go in there, I would see Rocky posters everywhere with Stallone’s autograph on them. And one time, the president of our label, Tony Scotti, went out to dinner with Stallone. They were good friends, so he asked Stallone, “When are you going to put that movie out?” and Stallone said to him, “I don’t know because I’m not happy with the music.” So Tony Scotti recommended our band to Stallone and asked him if he wanted to give us a chance. Stallone agreed, and then he rang us. It was just about two Italian guys who went out to dinner one night, that’s how it all came about.
KL: Did you foresee any of the success the song has had, even slightly, when you wrote it? Did you think it would become a timeless hit?
FS: That’s a great question. If I did, wouldn’t it have ruined it all, in a way? Are you supposed to? I certainly didn’t. I didn’t have a clue. What did I know? I’m a guitar player and a songwriter. But when you get a couple of guys who are as different as night and day, some magic can happen, and it did. It went from No. 48 on the charts, to No. 19 and then to No. 1. What did I know about charts back then? All I wanted to do was write songs and go out and play in front of people and have a good time.
KL: When did you know you had written a hit?
FS: Right before the movie came out, I was driving down the freeway in Chicago, and I flipped my three favorite stations on and all three were playing “Eye of the Tiger” at the same time. So I pulled over because I knew that moment was a really special one. I flipped back and forth between all three until the song was over on each station, and it gave me goose bumps. But when it really hit me was when I went to see the movie in the theater and the whole place stood up and applauded when the song was over. And they didn’t know who the hell we were, but then I thought, “Maybe I had done a good job.”
KL: So Frankie, you’re a Chicago guy, are you a big Chicago sports fan?
FS: I’ll put it this way, I think the greatest basketball player of all time played on the Bulls. You could argue it, but you’re going to lose. I have a place in Los Angeles and I will tell you that where I go to workout, Magic Johnson also works out, and he says to me, “Hey, you’re from Michael’s town.” That says a lot when Magic Johnson calls it Michael’s town.
KL: Were you an athlete as a kid?
FS: Oh yeah. It kept me out of trouble.
KL: What did you play?
FS: I played everything. I was too short, but I had a will. I played basketball, football and I was really good at baseball. I also took up track and field, and I managed to turn into a youth jogger. I jogged my way across the world. I stayed a jogger for my whole life. I still do it, and I work out avidly. When you start running at 17 or 18, by the time you’re 25, you’re addicted to it.
KL: You wrote one of the biggest pump up songs ever in “Eye of the Tiger,” so what songs do you listen to to get yourself pumped up when you’re working out?
FS: Well, I’m a big fan of Jimmy Hendrix and Cream and Led Zeppelin, so I listen to them a lot. But sports and music have always been big parts of my life. When I was younger, my big things were jogging and playing the guitar. I would sometimes cut out of school early to do both. I pretty much jogged my way through life. Everywhere we ever toured, I jogged. It’s hard on your body as you age, but it certainly keeps you sane in this business.
KL: Lots of changes have occurred within Survivor over the years, most recently with Jimi Jamison’s passing last year. Now the band has a fresh face in 21-year-old Cameron Barton as your new lead singer. What type of element do you think Cameron brings to Survivor?
FS: He brings what Rocky brought to the ring. He brings the edge. He brings back youth. He brings back that version of Rocky Balboa that beat the crap out of Clubber Lang. He is a reminder of the spirit that we all should have to do our best. Joy comes from that youthful spirit.
KL: You and the band are set to tour in 2016 and make Survivor’s first record since “Reach” in 2006. What can you tell your fans to expect from the band going forward?
FS: Well, first off, “Reach” doesn’t count. I’ll be bold and tell you that. It was the record I never wanted to make, from day one. As you know with sports, when complacency comes into a sports team, that team can go from first place to last place, so that kind of happened to us for a little while. If you have the wrong players, the chemistry can change and affect everything. So “Reach” was not a high point, for me or for us.
KL: So do you think Survivor can make a killer record in the future?
FS: Oh, absolutely. As long as we can keep art and business separate. This new kid is 21 years old and he sings his ass off. Period. And when Jamo (Jimi Jamison) was singing his ass off, we did our best work, so I expect something great from our band in the near future.