JIMI JAMISON – Never Too Late To Rock
Having written about rock and metal music for over half of my life, I feel honored to have the chance to speak to some of the best musicians in the business. Growing up in the 1980’s during the beginning stages of MTV, one of the acts that benefitted from a movie soundtrack placement in Rocky III was the Mid-West rock act Survivor with "Eye of the Tiger". When switching singers in 1984, a heavy metal singer from the band Cobra named Jimi Jamison came into the picture. The follow up album "Vital Signs" was a huge hit across the board, going multi-platinum in the United States with a couple of top 10 hits and numerous videos.
Following with two more albums, Jimi eventually set out on a solo career- and he’s performed consistently through the years both with Survivor (I personally took in a show in 2002 at the Hampton Beach Casino Ballroom with Loverboy and Eddie Money on the bill) and his own solo shows. This year his latest studio album "Never Too Late" hit the streets- a fine slice of rock material with a mix of high energy arrangements and the occasional ballad foray that proves Jimi still has the touches and the pipes to deliver the goods.
So recently on a rainy afternoon I received a call from Jimi and I must say he’s one of the most engaging, easy going and funny musicians I’ve ever talked to through the years. I hope you enjoy his thoughts as much as I enjoyed this conversation.
The new album is "Never Too Late"- and a rarity in your career in that you didn’t write or co-write any of the material, trusting Frontiers Records label president Serafino Perugino and multi-instrumentalist / melodic rock songwriter Erik Martensson because of your busy touring and recording schedule since returning to Survivor. What were the initial discussions like as far as direction, how long did it take to pull everything together and what changes (if any) did you make from initial demos you heard to the final outcome?
"As far as the songs that they sent me, I liked all of the songs except one- we ended up changing that song. When it came to the vocals I did make quite a few changes- I produced the vocals here in Memphis and Erik did all of the music demos in Sweden. I sang the songs like the way I would sing them- I went by Erik’s guide vocals somewhat but I took into consideration the way I sing."
You shot a video for the title track- and I enjoy the fact that it’s a mixture of performance footage and a ‘pay it forward’ type of story with many acting scenes shot across your hometown of Memphis. Who developed the treatment with you- and where do you see the art of video today with social media outlets in comparison to the MTV explosion 25-30 years ago?
"I’m so glad that you see the video in this way. We were really worried that people weren’t going to see the storyline and get a feel for what was going on. Greg Bizarro was the director of the video, and he and I put our heads together to get the basic idea for the video. I think he did a wonderful job directing and editing the video- the camera work came out pretty much like I wanted the video to be. As far as MTV- it was one of the most important discoveries of that time. It let the people see what the bands looked like and people want to see video no matter what. You can listen to songs all day long and that’s what I have done all my life- that was what I was used to doing- but now I understand that people love video. It’s still important to have today- I think MTV should go back to the old format or develop something in addition to that, along with VH1. Most kids want to watch television anyway- so they need to emphasize music more on the video side, because lord knows they aren’t emphasizing it on the radio side (laughs)."
You just turned 61 this summer- are there any special tricks of the trade to keep your multi-octave voice in such incredible shape? Do you have different approaches in your studio work and delivery in comparison to live shows?
"Yes, there are a few different things I do. Just recently I started using in ear monitors because it’s so much easier to sing in tune when you can actually hear yourself and get the instruments that you need to hear to be able to sing in tune without blowing your voice out. You have your own volume control and with a ballad for instance you can turn your vocal up a little bit for a sensitive sound and it will let you know exactly what sound you are getting as you are singing. As far as the studio goes, I pretty much I have a lot of different approaches. We set up 3 or 4 different microphones- each singer has a unique sound to their voice and it depends a lot upon which microphone you are singing in. If a singer has a lowness to their voice you need a microphone with a little more mid-range or high end on it. If he is a squeaky singer you may want to put a little more low end on things. You can do some of these same things in a live environment to make you sound better, or as good as you can. As far as keeping myself in shape to sing, for years I was always a guy that didn’t think I needed to warm up, I get hoarse and sometimes lose my voice… then I finally got smart and figured out, yeah, I need to warm up! (laughs). I admit it… when you are young and bulletproof you think differently and warming up before a show is so important. Little tricks like gargling with some warm salt water before a show clears all the phlegm out of your throat which is a major help to me. It’s better than drinking any kind of warm tea – that won’t clear the phlegm out of your throat. I figured out mentally how to sing the high note in "Eye of the Tiger"- I used to dread hitting that C note. One night I figured out how to do that mentally- and if I could just write that down and figured out how I did it, I would be in the Cayman Islands hiding my money or something. From that night on I look forward to singing that song."
Almost a similar situation as when you struggled to sing "The Search Is Over" and had to have producer Ron Nevison loosen you up with some wine, eh?
"(laughs) You heard about that, huh? I couldn’t get the feeling of the song- I could hit the notes but I just couldn’t get the feeling right. That was my first record with Survivor and I was not used to singing that style of music- I had to learn it. Ron Nevison was the producer and he kicked everyone out of the studio and pulled out this bottle of wine- I am not much of a drinker so it didn’t take much to loosen me up. We talked and he had me sing it twice, hit the talk back button and asked me to come back and hear what I did. I walked in the control room and said, ‘oh God, the mean Ron Nevison’ (laughs). He’s not really that mean- but I saw that he had tears in his eyes. This is one of the toughest producers there was in the music business at that time- it wasn’t that he was acting tough, he just knew how to pull stuff out of you that you didn’t think you could do. He did it in a way that it would just sneak up on you. He would get you mad if he had to. He is a brilliant producer, and he got what he wanted out of me because I didn’t think I could hit the feeling. I’m still improving on things now, and I think I sing the song better now than I did when I originally recorded it."
How does a conventional hard rock singer for acts like Target and Cobra get the chance to join Survivor in the mid 1980’s? Do you think your session work with Krokus on "Headhunter" plus your work with ZZ Top on "Eliminator" helped to cement your reputation and vocal abilities?
"No I don’t think the session work really had anything to do with it. The guys… I had done a gig with Cobra, we were heavy metal rockers and I was singing a song that was pretty tough called "Midnight Machine". Somehow Survivor got ahold of that video and guitarist Frankie Sullivan loves to rock. Frank ran to the manager of Cobra and suggested me to Survivor. I went up and auditioned, and I didn’t think I got the gig. I figured I would come home and go back to what I was doing. A month later they called me back and wanted me, they said they were tired of trying other people out."
You are currently developing material for the next Survivor studio album. What type of direction do you sense the material going in- as I’m sure many are hopeful this work will rival the efforts of "Vital Signs" or "When Seconds Count"?
"Yeah, we are hopeful of that too! (laughs). We are just going to write what comes out of us- it’s time to do that. Frank and Jim Peterik and I, that’s what we always did. We will try the old formula which is really no formula at all. We write what we feel and what we know and we aren’t going to try something that is not us. It may be a little more edgy and the ballads will still be sweet of course, we may try to expand upon what we did with "Too Hot To Sleep" which is all of our favorite as far as a Survivor record we ever did."
Who would you consider the best mentor or coach you learned the most from when it came to your vocals?
"Oh gosh- that’s a tough question because I studied and stole a little bit from everybody (laughs). I learned from everybody. I never really had a coach and I never really took any vocal lessons. The way I learned to sing is by trial and error- if I was in a cover band and we were doing a Led Zeppelin song I would try to sound like Robert Plant, or if we were doing a Bad Company song like Paul Rodgers- but you never really sound like those guys. The mixture of trying to sound like those people over a four hour gig when you play every night makes you form your own sound. All the great singers of the 60’s and 70’s were my best mentors without even knowing it. All of these people singing- after a while you start forming your own style and it helps you turn into yourself. I have all the great singers from those eras to thank for that."
I see a similarity these days between country music and melodic rock in the sense that people are willing to assemble the best musicians and songwriters for an album or tour for the greater good of the output as a whole. What do you think of this assessment?
"I don’t see anything wrong with it whatsoever. If I hear a song and I freak out over it, that I totally love, it doesn’t matter if I wrote it or not, if I want to do it I’ll do it. A friend of mine that I was talking to the other day for Garth Brooks, he would play this song in the Blue Bird Café and Garth would hear this guy play- and one time he heard my friend play "The Dance"- and Garth told him that if he ever got a record deal he was going to do that song. Garth did the song, it’s a great song and I would have done it in a heartbeat. It’s not about ego for me and songwriting- I can write, and I’m a songwriter that has written with Frank and Jim and Joe Walsh, but if there’s a great song to be sung I want to sing it. Like Frank Sinatra, he didn’t write any songs but man he could sing some great ones."
Has there been any particular musician you wish to collaborate or perform with that you haven’t been able to through the years?
"Paul McCartney. He may not be the greatest musician in the world but I know he’s one of the greatest that everyone wants to jam with. I would love to do a gig with Paul McCartney- he was one of the Beatles, you know? I saw the Beatles for $5 when I was just a little kid at the Mid-South Coliseum and I will never forget it. They still influence me throughout my career. It’s amazing, I’ve never got the chance to meet any of them and throughout my whole career I’ve wanted to meet Paul and sing a song on stage with him."
What do you think would surprise people to learn about Jimi Jamison the person outside of your music career?
"They would be really surprised to know just how mellow of a person I am. I am just like everyone else, I am a fan of other musicians and music in general. If it’s good, I like it and I’m a fan- I’ll get on the internet and sign up as a fan for the artist. I cut my own grass, I just do the normal stuff. I know so many like that, that I’ve gotten to know- great singers from these bands that back in the day we felt like we were in competition against each other. It’s like a fraternity now- we’ve all become really good friends and we all tell each other everything and help each other out. It’s a great thing to play these gigs with other great singers, and getting up on stage to back them up with harmonies and then they return the favor to back you up."
The Rock Meets Classic tour you participated in 2012 in Europe with incredible musicians like Ian Gillan, Robin Beck, Steve Lukather, Chris Thompson as well as a symphony orchestra. What’s it like performing and hearing the meeting of rock music and a full orchestra- "Eye of the Tiger" sounded quite killer based on the Youtube clips I’ve seen?
"If you had only been there. It was chill bump city. It was amazing, it really was- the orchestra with the killer band we had playing with us on stage. When Ian Gillan got up there and performed "Perfect Strangers", it was unbelievable. And Steve when he got up there to do the Toto stuff, Chris of course is a killer singer, Robin was great also. I’d love to do it again sometime- we got along great and we’ve all become really good friends. I got to sing "Smoke on the Water" with Ian, Deep Purple was the first heavy band I ever got into. The first band I was in was a soul band, and the guitar player brought in a record with "Kentucky Woman" on it- this was prior to Ian joining Deep Purple- and we thought that was so heavy back then. So we learned that and Deep Purple was the beginning of me going into the harder type of music."
How do you feel about the general pace and speed of the world that we live in? Do you balance your use of instant communication and faster technology with good , old fashioned face to face time with people?
"You know, I try to. It’s really hard to do these days. Everybody is just so acclimated to getting on the computer, the closest face to face interaction you get there is on Skype or something. When I go play shows, that’s where I go see my people. I go out in the crowd and I talk to everybody that I can, as much as I can to communicate with the audience. It makes them feel like a part of it, they are friends and I want to be friends with my audience."
Do younger musicians consistently ask you for tips and advice on how to navigate the ups and down of the music business? What areas do you think musicians need to work on to keep the rock scene vibrant?
"They ask me how to make it and how I was able to be successful and I tell them one word: persistence. Do it as much as you can, and the more that you do it the better you get and the more people will like you. As far as songwriting goes, songwriting is a craft- you may write a great song once in a while but really it comes down to it being a craft, there are a lot of little tricks and tips that people can give you that you can use to write a song. Singing is just a little more difficult, it’s something that is physical. You have to watch other singers- you can’t get drunk before you go on stage because when you sing you’ll blow your voice out. The main thing I tell people is that you can’t expect to be famous overnight- do it because you love it and keep at it, play anywhere and everywhere that you can. Do not become an egotistical rock star before your time and you’ll be fine.
Do you think the European scene appears to be ahead of the curve with the level of musicianship and songwriting in the melodic rock genre compared to America these days?
"Without a doubt- we need an infusion of the young talent from Europe into the United States. There are a lot of great musicians- in Europe it’s different. They love their rock music- they love the old rock, and they love the new songs too. I can’t really figure out what’s going on in the United States right now, because I don’t think anybody else really can either. We need to bring some of those writers and musicians over to the United States and maybe shake things up a little bit. I spend quite a bit of my time in Europe and you are right, there are a lot of good rock musicians and who are writing great rock songs- Erik is a great songwriter and he loves rock, even the high energy stuff as well as the ballads. It’s refreshing to go over there, experience it and be a part of the scene. It would be so great to get that over here."
What’s on your schedule for the next 12 months?
"I’m trying to get together a tour so I can play these new songs live so badly. I’m also going to be in a movie believe it or not called "Trouble In Paradise". I’m singing the title track and myself and a friend of mine are contributing a couple of other songs to it. I didn’t even have to try out for the movie so I fully expect to be killed in one of the first scenes of the movie (laughs). It’s a Cuban mafia movie, starring Christian Slater- so the director thought I looked like a guy they were thinking of casting in the picture. Maybe I’ll be in 5 or 10 minutes of it, I get to sing the title track which is called "Havana Mine" and it’s a great song that I didn’t write. We are going to shoot the movie in Puerto Rico, they may kill me when they find out I can’t act (laughs).
Is it hopeful that we can expect a new Survivor album sometime in 2013?
"That would be nice. There needs to be another Survivor record. There are still a lot of ideas floating around in these brains of ours that need to come out. There are a lot of folks that want to hear another Survivor record. It would be nice if we could get together more of the original guys in it, but we don’t- so it looks like me and Frank (laughs). I think it’ll be a wonderful thing and thrilling for the fans as well as us."