Wednesday, September 03, 2014

R.I.P. Survivor Vocalist Jimi Jamison 1951-2014

One of my earliest vocal influences, Jimi Jamison, passed away over the weekend on Sunday, August 31, 2014 (or perhaps the early hours of September 1).

You may not recognize the name Jimi Jamison, because aside from his work with post-"Eye of the Tiger" Survivor, you had to be a bit of a liner notes geek to know his work. As a kid, I happened to be one of those liner notes geeks, and Memphis-based Jimi Jamison happened to be one of the"go-to" guys for backup vocals for many of the artists I heard on the radio.

That statement doesn't do Jimi Jamison's voice justice, though.
Pre-Pro-Tools, Jimi's voice possessed all four elements of what I call "The Four Perfect Vocal Attributes Of a Great Studio Singer": Soulful, Beautiful, Powerful, and Blendable. Very few voices have all four elements, and at his best, Jimi Jamison could pull any combination of them out of his pocket to suit the needs of a particular track.

Jimi Jamison's studio work was prolific, but Jimi's backup vocalist work I remember hearing the most as a kid
were ZZ Top's Eliminator album (his backup vocals can be heard on "Legs," "Gimme All Your Lovin'" and others) and Krokus's Bob Rock-produced The Blitz album (on which you can most clearly hear him on "Our Love Will Never Die").

Had he never joined Survivor, which gave him a wider audience, MTV video exposure, and a string of hits courtesy of Survivor's Jim Peterik and Frankie Sullivan's songwriting talents, Jimi Jamison would still have made an OK living as a studio backup and and jingles singer, just as he did before joining Survivor in 1984. When Survivor's lead singer Dave Bickler left the band due to throat problems (long since resolved), Jimi became Survivor's lead singer and found success with the band's Karate Kid soundtrack single and subsequent Vital Signs album and Rocky IV soundtrack single.

Jimi Jamison's lead vocal duties included pre-Survivor stints with D. Beaver, Target, and Cobra. According to a 1993 interview with Deep Purple's Jon Lord, at one point Jimi was asked to join Deep Purple as a replacement for the just-fired Ian Gillian but had to decline, as he was officially still in Survivor.  Post-Survivor, Jimi
co-wrote and performed the theme from Baywatch and recorded and toured as a solo artist.

It was always Jimi Jamison's backup vocalist work that intrigued me most, though. It takes a certain kind of singer to be a successful studio singer, and not many can do it. It's not your project, and the meter's running, so you have to be able to not only deliver, but get it the way the producer wants it on a time crunch.

On a personal note, many years ago, Jimi Jamison was one of my first-ever interviews. It was for a school project and was my first full-length interview, and to get it I went through the same proper channels any other journalist had to go through in those days.

Not yet having a clue about the mechanics of touring at that time, it wasn't until much  later that I realized how cool it was of Jimi to even do that interview: it took place outside, after a Survivor show, on a hot June evening--with a show the next day that required travel by tour bus. Not only was Jimi nice about doing an interview during the load-out, he even had fun with it and treated me like I was a professional journalist instead of like a kid.

Moreover, he immediately put me at ease: when I turned on the tape recorder, he leaned in as if he was about to tell me a deep dark secret...

...and recited paraphrased lyrics of "The Ballad of Davy Crockett" ("I was born on a mountain in Tennessee, I killed a b'ar when I was three".)
I'm sure I wasn't the first person Jimi told that version of his "life story" to, but it was so corny it was hilarious. After a good laugh we did the real interview, and he gave me my first-ever "scoop": he'd just completed backup vocals on Joe Walsh's Got Any Gum album.

Another thing I remember about that evening was the proud smile Jimi had when he mentioned his then little boy, James Michael, whom he clearly adored.
Later, Jimi wrote me a kind letter, which I still have somewhere in a box of rock and roll mementos.

Here's where things get a little complicated.
I lost track of Jimi's projects for a while, and although I could do the Hollywood thing and gloss over it or give you a "happy unicorns" Hollywood version of why, that would be a lie. Life isn't all happy unicorns. People are multi-faceted. People have faults. No one is all wonderful or all bad. It's part of being human.

There's no pleasant way to put this: in the '90's after Survivor broke up, there was a nasty legal battle over Survivor's trademark between Jimi and founding guitarist/Survivor songwriter Frankie Sullivan. Having liked Survivor's music before Jimi joined the band, and knowing it had been Frankie's band...let's just say I wasn't Jimi's biggest supporter during that time.

Frankie Sullivan eventually won the Survivor trademark, and he and Jimi settled their differences, even eventually becoming Survivor bandmates again. It took them a few attempts, plus a couple of other changes in the band's lineup, but in the end, they worked things out.

Best of all, for their Summer 2014 tour, Survivor added Dave Bickler to the band, with Dave and Jimi switching lead vocal duties and singing backup on each others' respective hits. Candid photos from Survivor's recent shows, including the August 30 show in Northern California the night before Jimi passed away, depict a band having a good time.

In the end, Frankie Sullivan, Jimi Jamison, and Dave Bickler did what's impossible for most of us after a major conflict: they worked it out, got along and respected each other, and had some fun. Given Jimi's ultimate passing, I'm especially glad they did.

The music world lost an amazing singer this past weekend, and the angels got a voice that, at times, sounded like he already was one.

R.I.P. Jimi Jamison.

My deepest condolences to Jimi's Survivor bandmate brothers, family, and friends.