Frankie Sullivan of Survivor - An Interview - OurVinyl
frankie sullivan interview

Frankie Sullivan of Survivor – An Interview


Survivor came out of Chicago in 1978, released their defining song “Eye of the Tiger” in 1982, changed lead vocalists in 1984 and then watched as their album Vital Signs, produced three top twenty hits. As MTV changed the way music was marketed, Survivor rode the crest of video popularity, while releasing several more chart topping songs.

Over the past thirty years, Survivor has broken up, regrouped and changed personnel several times. In late 2011, Survivor founding member Frankie Sullivan announced former lead singer Jimi Jamison would reunite with the band. Survivor then spent last summer on tour, but no new music was released. Just as the 2013 summer tour was about to begin, Sullivan made another announcement; original lead singer Dave Bickler was rejoining Survivor. With both Jamison and Bickler fronting the band, there were many questions to be answered.

After a recent performance, I sat down with Frankie Sullivan to discuss how the return of Dave Bickler came about, the effect of having two lead singers in the band, the future of Survivor and we welcome a surprise guest.

frankie sullivan interviewKath Galasso (KG): How did this whole thing come about with Dave getting back together with the band?

Frankie Sullivan (FS):Honestly, I was thinking about it for, I don’t know, two years, maybe longer. Jimmy Holliday, he works for Sony, asked me to do the liner notes to our playlist, and we were talking on the phone about music and he asked if I ever think about Dave. I said I think about Dave all the time because I like Dave, I’ve been friends with him forever. And we didn’t talk for a while, and I just called him up and it was like I talked to him yesterday. I said, “hey I’ve got this idea,” and we would never talk about working together… or maybe we would, but not the band. And I just said to him, you should just come back and sing in the band, we’ll have both singers.” He was like… “that’s a pretty good idea.”

So I said to just think about it for a few days. Think about it and I’ll talk to you on Thursday. So on Thursday I call him and he said, “yeah, I’ll do it.” It was really easy. He’s easy. He’s a really, really nice guy. He’s a rarity in this business.

KG: Tell me about Dave leaving the first time with his vocal issues and Jimi coming in.

FS: You know when Dave had his throat problems, we did that to him. We burned him out. We just kept touring, we should have taken a break. Then Jim (Jimi Jamison) was the first guy we auditioned and my other partner Jim (Peterik) said we should try other guys out. After the fourth guy I said, I’m done. I said,“get the guy from Memphis, just call him up. Hopefully he hasn’t taken a gig yet, and tell him he’s got the gig.” I said “Jim (Peterik), we’re gonna try people out forever. That guy is good.” Jim said “I don’t know, we should try more guys out.” And I said “no man, he’s the guy.” And then we made Vital Signs, and I got to say “I told you so” for about four years.

KG: And how are things working with the two lead singers?

FS: Well, we’ve only done four shows so it’s kind of fun, but we’re finding our way still. I knew this going in, but I don’t think the other guys did. When you add one guy on stage, it’s like ten. It changes things. So I just laid back, let them slide into it. And Dave’s smart, I said “so what’s in your head,” and he goes “I’m just gonna take it easy and find my place.” He’s a thinker, Jim’s like, fuck it, where’s the mic. They’re kind of yin and yang. But they get along really good, which is important. I knew they would, but they’re different, they’re total yin and yang, which is why they get along.

KG: I saw a video of the first show and it looked a little…

FS: Ragged.

KG: It was a little awkward, like you said nobody was finding their place just yet.

FS: It was really awkward, but we had to do it. We had all these shows booked, so we had to do it. We rehearsed for about four days, then we had the two shows. This was our fourth, the first two were like bad rehearsals. It was finding the vibe, and that’s like a dichotomy thing, you’ve got to let people find their way, you can’t interfere with that process.

KG: I saw the band last year at Penn’s Peak (PA), and as enjoyable as it was because I hadn’t seen you in a really long time, that was when you had just gotten back together with Jimi, it was not quite as tight as it should be.

FS: Yeah, this band, one of the problems we have is we don’t rehearse enough. But then that’s kind of the beauty of it. If you could capture that in a performance… it’s magic. Like the vocal on ‘The Search is Over.”

KG: Tonight it was really good.

FS: Yeah, like even when he did it in the studio, if you capture what he is in a performance, he’s fucking great. He can be amazing. Dave’s more of a thinker, Jimi…

KG: It comes from the heart more.

FS: Yeah, Jimi’s more like… we just kind of do it.

frankie sullivan interviewKG: Now how do you write? Like now you’re writing more solo… you don’t have a writing partner so much now.

FS: No, I still write with a lot of people. I go to Austin a lot. There are some guys I work with down there that I love to work with. I like people, I like other ideas, just like food. I could come up with ideas on my own, but I’m always like… what do you have. And I like that, because it’s not mine. In the inception, it’s somebody else’s, sometimes that inspires me.

KG: And does melody come first to you usually?

FS: If I’m in the car, it’s melodies. If I’m at home playing, it’s a part or something on the piano, it’s something I’m playing. It depends. A lot of my lyrics are from writing poetry. I write down a few lines at the time, like on a barf bag on an airplane, if I think “that’s a good idea.” Now I carry “hook books” I call them, where I write a few things down. And I’ll look at it a couple of weeks later and I’ll write some more and pretty soon I say “hey that could be pretty good and I tweak it a little, but not too much. I’m not too horribly anal. I don’t like that. I don’t really give a crap if things rhyme, I like if they feel good and roll off the tongue good. Jim’s got really good annunciation when he sings; that’s unusual. You can understand every word he sings. The great guys have it, but not a lot of people are like that. So he got me more into lyrics because of the way he sang.

When I wrote lyrics, that weren’t really important, I used to call them dummy lyrics. When I don’t have a really good lyric for the second verse, rather than leave it unfinished, I’d have an idea, so I put in a dummy lyric. The second verse of “The Search Is Over” is a dummy verse. We were supposed to finish it then Jim (Peterik) and I went home to Chicago to take three days off, and the Ron (producer Ron Nevison) cut the vocal. He outsmarted us. We got back and he cut “The Search Is Over.” Five-thirty in the morning, the phone rings in my apartment I was renting while we were recording in LA, and it was Jim (Peterik) “I can’t believe you let him…, we’ve gotta fix that second verse. You’ve got to talk to Ron.” So I ask, what’s wrong with it. “It’s the dummy lyric.” So I said, “I’ll talk to him today.” I went back to sleep. Later I went to the studio and Ron goes “I already threw him (Jim Peterik) out.” What do you mean? “Jim already said the shit about this dummy verse. Fuck you guys, it’s done. I’m not touching it. It’s not dumb, it’s simple and it’s beautiful and leave it alone.” Then he played it for me and I said “that’s really good.” Jim was like “I can’t believe you’re gonna let him leave that lyric on the record.” I‘m like, he’s not going to change it and it’s fine. Then it went to number one. I said “boy Jim, that second verse really ruined the song.” I did, I called him cause we used to tease each other. All the way to number one… that really killed the song. Ron was right. Ron’s really smart.

I told him when I was thinking about doing this (having Bickler and Jamison in the band), he said “that’s a brilliant idea. If you could pull that off, that’s unbelievable.” And I did it. And he said “I’m in,” so see, I want to work with him, cause he’s the kind of guy we need.

KG: So now what’s going on with that? You guys haven’t done any writing yet.

FS: No, and we’ve got to get through these shows and we’re not anywhere near ready for Ron. He’d say call me in six months when you guys are serious, because he doesn’t like to waste time. We’re not ready for him, but we will be.

KG: It’s a little hard I would think for you guys to do any writing, because even though you’re on a tour, it’s not a sustained tour where you’re out there four three or four months. You do a few shows here and there, and then everybody goes back home for a little while.

FS: I get frustrated with that, but I think you have to give people their space. I think we should rehearse more, write more and be together more than we are.

frankie sullivan interviewKG: What do I know, but I think sometimes it’s better to get everybody together for a long, long time… until you’re sick of each other.

FS: It’s always better. And then you find out you never get sick of each other because you’re getting so much good work done. It’s just geography but then that’s a kind of excuse too.

KG: How did Jimi react when you told him you were bringing Dave back?

FS: He liked it. Yeah, it’s less for him to do (smiles). Well, part of that is kind of true, but not in a bad way.

KG: Well, yeah, it helps vocally… to save your voice a little bit.

FS: It does, and look at how he sings “The Search Is Over,” cause he gets that little break. It’s just powerful when he gets that five minute break.

KG: This may have been the best I’ve heard him sing it.

FS: See, when he gets those breaks. With singers, even Jim, when we’re recording after a few takes, you can hear they need air. But it’s nice for both of them (Dave/Jimi) that they get the breaks. And it’s not a bad thing. They’re both the kind of singers that it’s hard to do a whole show… they can do it and they do it well. But it’s nice they get the breaks.

KG: How was the show last night at the Egyptian Theater (Dekalb, IL)?

FS: It was good, we were pretty good. Once in a while you say to yourself “what the fuck?” So tonight I finally said “you singers, when you guys get off the stage, get your stands out of our way. Cause then you’ve got all these mic stands you’re banging into. Then I realized that we’ve got to even the set a little more. Dave sings a little more than Jimi sings and I want them both to sing the same. And Jimi said “oh I like it.” Of course you like it… I tease him a lot. I like him a lot. I’ve worked with him under a lot of stressful situations too. But I like him a lot; that makes it easy. I think in the long run, this will be great but it’s going to take us a while.

KG: So this is looking like a permanent thing?

FS: Yeah, yeah, I want it to be that. I want everybody to really buckle down. I’m the nag of the band.

KG: Can I tell you something that I think?

FS: Yeah.

KG: You guys gotta put out something. I don’t care if it’s something you record in a hotel room or a video of you backstage… just something. Does nobody have a Mac where you could just record something in the hotel.

FS: I’ve got a million songs. I tell them, why don’t you pick something I wrote that we like and we’ll just record the thing, so I have one song. And it would be good.

KG: What I see, what I read, the fans are looking for something.

FS: The fans are great. We have the best fans; they’re loyal, they still show up. They care. There’s just one thing missing… can we give them new material, that’s what they want.

KG: And what about you doing solo stuff, because there’s been hints and allegations about you doing a solo project, something bluesy?

FS: No, I’m not doing that. No, that would be more confusing for the fans. If I go do that, the fans are going to go “what the fuck is he doing?” I don’t think it would be a good message to send out.

frankie sullivan interviewKG: So what’s the best thing in your life right now, besides family?

FS: I don’t know, music has always been tops in my life. It has been, cause I’m pretty simple.

At this point we were joined by drummer Marc Droubay who answered a couple of questions.

FS: Marc’s a good guy to ask questions. Ask him a few questions.

KG: I’d love to ask him a few questions. How do you put up with this guy (Frankie) for all these years, that’s the first question?

Marc Droubay (MD): We met back in ’75, I was in this band, a top 40 band and he came out to LA with Mariah (Sullivan’s band) and we opened a couple of shows for them. And one of the shows was an after-hours club. After all the bars closed, everybody came to the after-hours club. It was basically just a bunch of musicians hanging out. So there was three shows: a 3am show, a 4am show and a 5am show. Our band played the 3am show. Mariah did the 4am show. The 5am show there was only three people left standing cause everybody had been drinking all night. It was him, me and his bass player and we just sat and jammed and played Hendrix songs and Cream, Zeppelin, all that stuff. Five years later, he came out to LA and said I gotta find this guy.

KG: From your vantage point, because you see the crowd, do you notice any difference in how the crowd reacts, with having Dave back?

MD: I don’t know. It’s nice to have the original voice doing those songs, but we’ve been doing this stuff for thirty years. You know what it is… it’s another ass in front of me.

KG: That is such a great quote.

MD: We’ve had Dave, we’ve had Jimi singing, we had Robin (McCauley)singing. The best part of the night is when we get to jam. That’s the most fun I have all night, because that’s not scripted. We never know what we’re gonna do and that’s what being a real musician’s about. I just look forward to that. Not that I don’t like the rest of it, but those ten minutes are the best for me.

As security needed to lock up the area, we walked up the stai  rs where we talked about continuing the conversation at a later date. Survivor is currently touring the U.S., with a few scheduled European shows scheduled for June.

Written by Kath Galasso

OurVinyl | Contributor