In was the early 1980s, and Sylvester Stallone — “Sly” to his friends — had a problem. He was hard at work on the third entry in the “Rocky” series that his made his name. But this “Rocky” was unlike any “Rocky” that had come before.
“In ‘Rocky III,’ Rocky’s life is taken out of his hands,” Stallone said in a making of featurette. “Rocky has no longer become a fighter. He has become a civilized status symbol. … He just doesn’t have that much time for the ring anymore. He belongs to everyone. He is like a company that has become public.”
Stallone needed something to dramatize Rocky’s de-evolution after the death of his longtime manager Mickey (Burgess Meredith), the rise of new nemesis Clubber Lang (Mr. T), and the birth of an unlikely alliance with former enemy Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers). He needed something that, quickly and effectively — perhaps in a montage — would illustrate Rocky’s ability to morph from well-to-do Philadelphia society muckety-muck back into the street thug who trained by boxing slabs of meat.
Maybe: a song? Unable to secure the rights to his first choice — Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust” — Stallone cold-called a band after the head of their record label played him a track. No one was home, so he left message.
“Hey, yo, Jim,” Stallone said into the answering machine of Jim Peterik, Survivor’s founder. “That’s a nice message you got there. This is Sylvester Stallone. Give me a call.” Stallone left his number. Who knew? Maybe Peterik would call back.
The song that came of that answering machine message — Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger,” co-written by Peterik and Survivor guitarist Frankie Sullivan — became a phenomenon. “Eye of the Tiger” wasn’t just a No. 1 hit that changed the lives of its authors. It was an unforgettable anthem that transcended the film that birthed it — one adaptable enough to, say, be used as the entrance music for a Kentucky court clerk released from jail Tuesday after refusing to grant marriage licenses in the wake of the Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage ruling.
“I just want to give God the glory,” Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis said as Republican presidential candidates Mike Huckabee and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) stood nearby. “Keep on pressing, don’t let down because he is here.”
As reporters tried to figure out what was next for Davis — would she really allow marriage licenses for same-sex couples to be distributed once she returned to work? — “Eye of the Tiger’s” co-author was thinking about something else. Davis and/or her entourage hadn’t just co-opted his song for a cause he didn’t believe in. She had done it without his permission.
“I have not authorized the use of Eye of the Tiger for use by Kim Davis and my publisher will issue a [cease and desist],” Peterik tweeted. “This does not reflect my views.”
Peterik further explained his displeasure in a statement to Billboard magazine.
“I was very surprised and dismayed at the misuse of the song I co-wrote with Frankie Sullivan for Rocky lll,” he said. “The song has motivated thousands through the years to reach beyond their limits. Its use for the release of Kim Davis does not support my views or my politics. I have contacted my publishers to make sure this usage is stopped immediately.”
Sullivan chimed in as well.
“NO!” he wrote on Facebook. “We did not grant Kim Davis any rights … I would not grant her the rights to use Charmin!” Sullivan added a personal message for Huckabee: “C’mon Mike, you are not The Donald but you can do better than that.”
There was the sense that Davis’s use of “Eye of the Tiger” ran afoul of more than the politics of two musicians in their 60s. Even though it was written for a movie, “Eye of the Tiger” was their baby.
“As band members and individuals we were ready for what might turn out to be our defining moment,” Peterik wrote in “Through the Eye of the Tiger,” a 2014 memoir. “We agreed that Rocky Balboa’s story was a lot like ours: Against the odds, a band on a small label tries to fell the giants, Foreigner, Journey, Kansas, and other melodic rock heavyweights.”
Stallone was very specific about what he wanted.
“That’s the sound I want for my movie’s title song,” the filmmaker said, name-checking one of the group’s already-released songs. “It’s raw, it’s street. It’s got energy and it’s got exactly what I need. … I want something for the kids, something with a pulse.”
His final question: “Do you think you can help me out?”
Peterik felt like he was “levitating and looking down at the room from a hundred feet.” Survivor got to work — and “Rocky III” was very much a part of the birthing process. When Stallone sent the band a cut of the montage he wanted the song for, they asked for the whole movie instead.
“We sat there spellbound as we watched the dazzling action and humorous yet meaningful dialogue,” Peterik wrote of the viewing experience. “It was filled with soon-to-be-famous Stallone catchphrases: ‘Go for it!’ ‘Knock you into tomorrow!’ Then we heard it: the Big Hook.”
When Rocky’s crusty Irish trainer Mick cautioned his ward that he was “losing the eye of the tiger,” Survivor realized it needed to look no further.
“Bingo,” Peterik wrote. “There was our title, the focus of our game-changing smash.”
It even became a talking point for Stallone.
“When I began writing about his getting back ‘the eye of the tiger,‘ I was really providing a therapy for myself,” he said in 1982. “It is not only what has happened but is happening to me that is paralleled in the Rocky films.”
“Eye of the Tiger” did indeed change the game for Survivor. The song was all over “Rocky III,” released in 1982 — in the opening, in the closing credits, incorporated into a training sequence. It was nominated for a Grammy — and was the only element of “Rocky III” nominated for an Academy Award. The single eventually sold more than 30 million copies, and pushed the eponymous LP to No. 2.
The song went on to be used in other films, TV shows, singing contests, video games and a Starbucks commercial. Sullivan sued Newt Gingrich in 2012 when the Republican used the song in his presidential campaign. The lyrics, it seemed, proved adaptable to any situation in which an endless supply of grit and fortitude is required. Via AZLyrics:
Rising up, back on the street
Did my time, took my chances
Went the distance, now I’m back on my feet
Just a man and his will to survive
So many times it happens too fast
You trade your passion for glory
Don’t lose your grip on the dreams of the past
You must fight just to keep them alive
CHORUS: It’s the eye of the tiger
It’s the thrill of the fight
Rising up to the challenge of our rival
And the last known survivor
Stalks his prey in the night
And he’s watching us all with the eye of the tiger
Face to face, out in the heat
Hanging tough, staying hungry
They stack the odds still we take to the street
For the kill with the skill to survive
Rising up, straight to the top
Had the guts, got the glory
Went the distance, now I’m not gonna stop
Just a man and his will to survive
“Eye of the Tiger” may even have been better than the band that made it.
“With the group’s first two releases barely causing a ripple on the charts,” AllMusic wrote, “it was ‘Tiger’ that catapulted the band to the top, thanks to the chart-topping title track, which was used as the theme song to the hit movie ‘Rocky III’ the same year. Despite this, the ‘Eye of the Tiger’ album is often overlooked … nothing here really scales the same height as the title track. But as a memento of mainstream rock circa the early ’80s, ‘Eye of the Tiger’ is a faithful snapshot.”
Peterik said that the song “has helped people rise from wheelchairs and walk.”
“What amazes me most is that this song remains alive and well — stronger, it seems with every passing year,” he wrote. “It continues to be a thread in the fabric of millions of lives and it has motivated so many to go beyond their perceived limitations and achieve more than they ever could imagine.”