Singer Jimi Jamison died unexpectedly from a heart attack on August 31st. Jamison had a voice that is beyond comprehension by today's standards. He used his talent to earn success, friendship, and respect at the highest levels of the music industry. To say that a musician became a great success out of Memphis and that everyone liked him speaks of a very special personality.
"He just seemed like an absolutely normal guy," says Sam Shoup, a close friend who worked with Jamison at jingle specialty house the William B. Tanner Company in the early 1980s. "You see it on Facebook now: He was friends with everyone. Never once had a big head on him. He was always just one of the guys, and I'm sure you'll hear that from everyone. He was always the same guy. No matter how big he got, he loved living here in Memphis and being around his kids and his wife. That's why it's so sad. It's like the whole town has been punched in the stomach. The whole town is just devastated. He was so loved by everybody."
His first relase was in 1968 with the single "If I Cry," a track that was meant to be a Box Tops tune. He sang on D. Beaver's proggish Combinations in 1973. In the mid- to late-1970s, Jamison recorded two albums with Target, whose second album, Captured, is a beautifully recorded golden mean between Thin Lizzy and Bad Company. A later band Cobra released First Strike in 1983. Jack Holder was a member of Cobra as was Mandy Meyer, who played for '80s bands Asia and Krokus, for whom Jamison did background vocal work.
Jamison joined Survivor after that band's success with "Eye of the Tiger," when singer Dave Bickler developed vocal chord polyps. In 1984, the group released Vital Signs with Jamison singing. The album was certified Platinum by the RIAA and had two Top-10 singles with "The Search Is Over" and "High On You." Jamison's voice was so strong and dependable — and he was so easy to work with — that he's heard on other massive successes. But you may not see his name.
"Back in the day, it was kind of kept quiet if there was ever anybody except group members on things," engineer Terry Manning says. Manning was an engineer at Stax and engineered ZZ Top's 1983 album, Eliminator, at Ardent Studios in Memphis. That album is certified Diamond for sales over 10 million units. "That album, which was by far [ZZ Top's] biggest album ever with all those hits: 'Legs,' 'Sharp Dressed Man.' I brought him in and the two of us sang backing harmonies all over Billy Gibbons."
Jamison's voice paved the way for success. His talent was immediately obvious.
"I first met him when I was 25 years old, right out of college," Shoup says. "I got a job writing jingles for the Tanner Company. The staff vocal group was all people who read music and were trained singers. You had to sing all of these five- and six-part harmonies, and the parts were really weird. Jimi was the first guy they hired who didn't officially read music. His voice was so incredible and he could learn the parts so quickly. He actually taught himself to read music on the job. He would just nail it every time. It was obvious that he was headed for bigger and better things than a career singing jingles."
When Shoup found himself in Los Angeles after Survivor had recorded two Top-20 hits, Jamison turned out to be a very gracious host.
"I called him, and it was the day they were shooting the video for 'The Search Is Over,'" Shoup says. That song stayed in the Top 40 for 14 weeks. "He called me back, and I got to be on the set. It was like, 'Wow, I know a big star.' It was my first brush with that kind of thing. But he was always the same guy. He never once got a big head or anything like that."
By the time he joined Survivor in 1984, Jamison had already sung on Eliminator. After Jamison left Survivor, Manning would continue to work with Jamison both in Memphis and in Nassau, Bahamas, where he ran Compass Point Studios.
"I can confidently say that Jimi had the best ear and voice for accompanying people that I have ever seen, heard of, or worked with in any capacity. He had such an uncanny ability to sound just like what was needed. He could sound just like the person who was doing the lead vocal when he was doing the harmonizing. When it was a woman — I don't mean that he sounded like a woman — but he fit right in and you didn't think of it as an outside thing. If it was a deep, gruff male voice like Billy Gibbons, he sounded like he had to. He had an amazing ear."
Auto-Tune is software that allows engineers to manipulate the pitch of a vocal. It was designed to fix flaws in vocal tracks but became its own source of fascination starting with Cher's 1998 hit "Believe." The pitch-fixing technology became a parody of itself. But Auto-Tuning is still rampant and harder than ever to detect.
"We didn't even consider it on him," Manning says. "We didn't even have it back then. He never needed it. He could hold pitch. He could sing vibrato when needed. He could sing straight when needed. He could do whatever you needed. Casey Kasem, the big DJ guy, called him 'The Voice.' That's what he named him. He just was the voice."
Jamison recorded the theme song for Rocky 4 with Survivor and went on to co-write and sing the soundtrack to Baywatch. At one point, he was considered for the role of Jim Morrison in Oliver Stone's The Doors. At another point, he was approached to replace Ian Gillian in Deep Purple.
Take a minute and go listen to the big hits. Listen to how Jamison sings the first verse of "The Search Is Over." He controls his dynamics (loud and soft) so that each new part is more exciting. People making records today don't even bother to hit the note. Jamison sets off an atom bomb of tissue and air that is like something out of the X-Men. It is superhuman.
"He was the nicest guy you could ever meet," Manning says. "He was cheerful and happy and funny and caring. That means more in life than anything else. But when we talk about the things that made a pro a pro at what he does, I was there for that sort of work, and there's nobody better."