Steve Perry Evolves From Yeoman Rocker to Journey-Man
By Carl Arrington
At the time of this story May 13, 1980, Gregg Rolie was still a member of Journey and Jonathan Cain was just a Baby. Journey had just released its third consecutive platinum album, Departure (Columbia), the third LP to feature vocalist Steve Perry, whose unglorious past is examined here. A year later, Journey would have a #1 album with Escape and would then go on to have yet another big seller this year with Frontiers.
Steve Perry, the platinum voice of Journey, almost gave up rock & roll. It happened a couple of years ago after he'd spent a fairly long apprenticeship in the minor leagues. It was late in 1977, and Steve had finally hooked up with a group of musicians who looked like they were going somewhere besides another dead-end bar gig. The group was called the Alien project, and a number of major labels had proferred the all-important recording contracts. Just when the legal documents were ready for everyone's John Hancock, however, the band's bass player was killed in a car wreck and the deal evaporated.
"At that point," says Perry, "I threw my hands up to the sky and asked, 'Why?' I got the impression that somebody up there didn't want me to make it. I then took a leave of absence from the world for a couple of weeks, to decide whether to chuck the whole thing and do something else or jump back into it.
"About the time I decided to go for it, I got a call from Herbie Herbert, who managed this group called Journey. He said he was looking for a singer, and he'd heard my vocals on the Alien demo. He invited me to spend a few days on the road with the guys and I did. Right off, Neal [Schon] and I wrote 'Something To Hide' together, and the next thing I knew we were in the studio, cutting Infinity."
According to manager Herbert, the move to hire Perry came after a great deal of forethought. "We knew exactly what we wanted long before we happened on Perry," he said. "In fact, when we got together with Steve, we'd already hired another singer named Robert Fleischman, and we had to fire him to make room for Steve."
Call it karma, luck, fate or perseverance, Steve Perry and fellow Journeymen Neal Schon (guitar), Gregg Rolie (keyboards), Steve Smith (drums) and Ross Valory (bass) have found themselves on the sunny side of the street. Together they've earned platinum discs for Infinity and Evolution, and their latest collection, Departure, seems destined for the same status. They are also bona fide box-office barons, having already proven themselves among the tough-to-please hard-rockers of the Midwestern factory towns like Detroit, Chicago, Pittsburgh and Toledo.
The band hadn't used short cuts or stage gimmickry to win fans, nor courted critics with experimental forays, but instead has opted to build a solid popular following by developing a brand-name band sound, proliferating it through relentless touring and gaining radio exposure with accessible rock tunes.
"Nothing in this group happens by accident," says Herbert. "Journey trains for platinum albums the way athletes train to win gold medals at the Olympics. We even went so far as to go through a sensitivity training together so we could relate to one another and play together better."
Now that they've established a collective personality, the next step is for a single personality to emerge to give focus to the band, as Mick Jagger has done with the Stones.
Perry is a logical choice, since he seems to have been the catalyst that transformed Journey into something more than what it had been for three albums; merely another respected progressive instrumental rock band spawned in the genre's heyday on the mid-70s. His voice a choirboy tenor that complements the band's crisp hardrock foundation is to Journey what the winged hood statue is to Rolls Royce: not the whole shebang, but a trademark.
Herbert recounts Perry's progress: "When he joined the group he was a fine vocalist and a decent composer, but not much of an entertainer. Now he's grown and really earned his place at the forefront of this band. And as far as the other guys are concerned, it shows how secure veteran stars like Neal Schon and Gregg Rolie are that they would let this new guy have the spotlight."
Perry sees his emergence as spokesman as a necessary part of the band's progress, but remains very much a team player. Aware that a maldistribution of fame can lead to jealousy and friction, he says: "A lead singer naturally gets a lot more attention, but I do my best to move the focus to other members when it's appropriate. Like, if Neal lets loose with an exciting solo, I can lead the spotlight over to him and then step out of the way. No one stands alone in Journey, because we couldn't do it without everyone."
Herbert confirms Perry's statement, saying, "Steve is very dependent on the rest of the group. I don't even think he'd walk out on stage without them."
Still, with his svelte body, boyish good looks and mane of black hair, Perry has the makings of a superstar. He explains his riveting stage performance, saying, "It's a result of having so much energy aimed at you by the audience. I respond with plenty of physical movement on stage, and that seems to keep things flowing."
Perry grew up in the California town of Hanford, located in the middle of the state, which put him under the influence of both San Francisco's acid rock and the Los Angeles surf sound. "I've got the Beach Boys' good vibrations flowing in my veins as well as the sound of Janis, Jimi and Vanilla Fudge," says Steve. He also credits Sam Cooke and Martha Reeves as stylistic vocal influences.
Starting out as a drummer, Perry took up the vocal chores in local bands by the time he was 14. Eventually he gave up drumming and concentrated on singing. "Singing while sitting in the middle of a drum kit puts your diaphragm in an awkward position," he explains.
He hasn't forgotten his old talent, however, and plans to join full-time skinman Steve Smith for a percussion collaboration during their current national tour.
His creative input is also heard in the songs themselves, since Perry is one of the group's chief tunesmiths. Unlike some writers, who produce in solitude and isolation, Perry thrives on the pace and sensory barrage of the road. "The road can wear you down or be a great place to exercise creativity because you are always moving. I just sort of catch the rhythm of the city-to-city movement the first couple of days, and keep that gung-ho spirit until we get back home."
If that sounds like the confession of a veteran of the vagabond lifestyle of the touring musician, it is. "I've been literally living out of a suitcase for the past two years. It has just been in the last few months that I've been able to develop a home base for myself. I bought a house near San Francisco, a convertible 450SL Mercedes to cruise around in, and have everything I need to be happy: clean socks, a heater that works and food in the fridge."
With that kind of secure estate awaiting him, Perry is again on the road for what promises to be the band's most extensive tour to date. "Rock and roll is both my business and my lifestyle. I eat, sleep and breathe it. I can't seem to get enough of it."
Perry's ambition and dedication, no doubt account for much of Journey's momentum, but his isn't a mindless enthusiasm. "As well as things are going at the moment, I don't think we're suffering from platinum paranoia. There are always new challenges, and if we're successful great; if not, we know we've reached some level on our own and not by chasing after some fashionable trend."
© Circus Enterprises Corporation, Oct 31 1983, Best of Circus