Forty years ago, Chicago hard rock band Survivor released their third and most successful album, Eye of the Tiger, anchored by its massive title track, which took the group to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 in the summer of ‘82.
A song as successful as “Eye of the Tiger,” which has spent four decades within the collective pop culture consciousness, is bound to be subject to varying accounts. And guitarist Frankie Sullivan, who co-wrote the tune with Jim Peterik, wants to give credit where credit is due.
“The only reason I agreed to do this interview is because I wanted to make sure the Scotti Brothers get their credit,” he tells Billboard in reference to Tony and Ben Scotti, whose record label, Scotti Bros. Records, released “Tiger.” “Without Tony Scotti, none of this ever happens. My life would have been very different. We might’ve gotten dropped. ‘Tiger’ was our third record, so it was do or die.”
For Sullivan, who rarely participates in interviews surrounding their biggest album and tune, much of the fanfare prescribed to the origin story has taken away from the simplicity of how it became such a success. Especially in the context of how “Tiger” became the theme song for Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky III, which hit theaters on May 28, 1982 and earned the band an Oscar nomination for best original song.
“Sly Stallone and Tony Scotti are incredibly good friends,” Sullivan explains. “When we’d go up to the Scotti Bros. offices there’d be all these big posters of Stallone on the walls. I thought they must be big fans or something, and then Ben Scotti says to me, ‘What are ya talking about, he’s best friends with my brother and comes in here all the time.’ So it wasn’t unusual to see him around the offices a lot. We were around some real characters.”
That friendship sowed the seeds of Survivor’s involvement in Rocky III, which would go on to become one of the most successful films of ‘82, taking home a whopping $16,015,408 in its opening weekend, while earning $270 worldwide following its theatrical run.
“There’s a purity to every story,” Sullivan proclaims about the song. “And all these years, ‘Tiger’ gets embellished and sensationalized, and it takes away the simplicity of two guys. It always starts with people, and here you had two Italian guys stuck out in Hollywood, that’s not easy. One was starting a label when there were no Italian-owned record labels. Then you got Sylvester Stallone, who is a mustang. He’s a rebel, ya know? And to consider how this song and its legacy emerged from two friends eating dinner, its intent feels like such a pure and magical moment.”
According to Sullivan, it was during this dinner between Scotti and Stallone when the conversation about the music for the upcoming Rocky III was casually brought up.
“Sly didn’t want ‘Gonna Fly Now’ or any of that for the new Rocky,” he tells Billboard, referencing the iconic movie theme composed by Bill Conti, who also largely did the score for Rocky III. “The film was done, and it had been done for a couple of months. He and Tony were having dinner at this Italian restaurant, eating pasta, and Sly goes, ‘I don’t like the music they are gonna put in the film.’ Then he told him about this one spot in the movie where he wants the right song. Now Tony Scotti’s sharp, and he told him, ‘Well, I got this band if you wanna give them a shot and submit some music for it.’ And Stallone goes, ‘Yeah, why not.’
“That’s a simple fact I know, because I prodded and asked so many people through the years,” he continues. “We didn’t even know it was in the film until I asked his brother. It was that simple in its inception. So by the time it trickled down to us, such a thing wasn’t even on the horizon. I knew that whatever Bill Conti was gonna do was gonna be separate from what we did. I also know, because of Tony Scotti, Sly wanted something different from that. And when he wants something, he gets it.”
Sullivan does remember sitting in the studio with Stallone when they were doing the last mix in the studio for “Tiger” once it made the final cut.
“Sly put us in the hot seat,” he explains. “I learned a lot in that school of hard knocks. For three weeks, I was put in a chair with an Oscar winner next to me asking me to turn the drums up louder, because he liked the kick of the bass drum. And the engineers are all worried about distortion, but he’s telling them to sit down and turn it up and it’s going into the red. It wasn’t about the meters; it was when he felt it. And once he did, he was like, ‘Print it!’ That was Sly. The engineers were being very conservative with the levels, and he was like, ‘F–k that! I want to feel it.’”
Sullivan also remembers when he first got to see the finished Rocky III in the movie theater for the first time, watching “Eye of the Tiger” come alive in that unforgettable opening title montage depicting Rocky Balboa’s rise to success, contrasted with Mr. T’s Clubber Lang awaiting his moment to confront the champion. It was a one-two combination that delivered a knockout blow, helping “Tiger” pounce its way up the Billboard Hot 100, where it reached No. 1 on July 24, 1982 and remained perched at the top for six consecutive weeks (it would stay in the top ten for a total of 15 weeks).
“When I went to see the movie in the theaters, it sounded slammin’,” he smiles. “That was the best music video you could ever ask for, the Rocky movie. They used all four minutes and 58 seconds of our song, and in the beginning of the movie! Think about that. MTV was cool and all, but it wasn’t Rocky.”