It all began so innocently. While perusing the New York Times' Arts section a few weeks ago, I checked out a review of Journey's new album, Revelation. I don't really remember what the review said, but what caught my eye was a passing mention that former Journey vocalist Steve Perry used "Sam Cooke-type vocal embellishments" in the band's melodramatic teen anthems.
Really? The "Man Who Invented Soul" and the man who sang "Don't Stop Believin'" had something, anything in common apart from being professional musicians? I had to check it out for myself.
Now, mock Journey though I may, I like several of their songs. I own a 2 CD compilation of their greatest hits, which is about one CD more than I need, but I'd still play them over Styx or Kansas or REO Speedwagon any day. And I'm a huge Sam Cooke fan, so my iTunes was loaded and ready to go. I first called up Cooke's biggest pop hit, 1957's "You Send Me," and played it back-to-back with Journey's Sopranos series-ending 1981 smash, "Don't Stop Believin'." And sure enough, there it was:
"You, you-oo-ooh, send me, honest you do, honest you do, honest you do
"Don't stop believin'
Hold on to that FEE-LA-EE-EH-EH-EN"
Damn, they DID sound alike! Soon I was going through their catalogs, track by track, the scales falling from my ears one melismatic moan at a time. I started IM-ing and emailing my friends, commanding them to listen to "A Change Is Gonna Come" and "Lights" back-to-back so they too could agree that Steve Perry was in fact the feathered-hair, big-nosed heir to Sam Cooke's throne.
I then hit the Web to find out just how many people had made the same discovery as the authors of the Times article. I felt like I had slipped through a wormhole into a bizarre parallel universe as I read blog after blog and fan site after fan site that said, essentially, oh, of course, EVERYONE knows Sam Cooke is one of Steve Perry's biggest musical influences, and their melismatic phrasing is almost exactly the same. How had I been kept in the dark for so long?
And the question that haunted me: If Sam Cooke was one of the all-time great soul singers, and Steve Perry sounded like Sam Cooke, did that make Steve Perry a great soul singer, too? I went back to 8th grade algebra for the answer. If A=B and B=C, then A=C. No doubt about it.
I sank deeper and deeper into Perry quicksand. I stumbled onto a fan-run site where the currently retired and reclusive Perry surfaces but once a year, usually on his birthday (which, coincidentally enough, is also Sam Cooke's birthday -- this thing just keeps getting weirder), to thank the Perryheads and respond to some of their questions and comments. I didn't find out whether he'd ever thought of recording Sam Cooke's hits, arena-rock style, but I did find out that he has an innie, and prefers South Park to Family Guy.
I also found out, thanks to a recent interview in GQ, why he hasn't made made any music since splitting with Journey over a decade ago: "Sometimes, when I hear myself sing, I sound like Steve Perry, and sometimes that has a lot of memories attached to it. I'm serious.... Because it reminds me of so much."
Wait, Steve Perry can't deal with sounding like Steve Perry? Fortunately, Journey doesn't have the same problem -- they're currently on their third Steve-alike singer since the original checked out. Arnel Pineda, Journey's newest vocalist, could easily be mistaken for His Royal Steveness if Mr. Perry were shorter and of Filipino descent. But vocally, the two are so similar that Journey had the balls to re-record 11 of their biggest hits for Revelation. It's basically their way of saying "See? We still sound like Journey even with a different singer! So come on down to Knott's Berry Farm and check us out in concert this summer!" There are also a bunch of new songs that sound like... Journey.
So even if the boys in the band are acting like the divorcee who will only date women who look like his ex-wife, at least they can handle sounding like themselves, which gives them the edge as far as dealing with their past and moving on.
But don't worry, Steve Perry. I'm on my way to the Coast with some South Park DVDs and Sam Cooke albums. We'll get through this together, pal. You and me.
Follow Tony Sachs on Twitter: www.twitter.com/RetroManNYC