On a cold day in 1987, Steve Perry called bandmates Neal Schon and Jonathan Cain to convene at a remote location in San Rafael, California. There had been many members to come and go in Journey’s revolving-door lineup throughout the years but the three had remained the group’s nucleus since Cain joined the group several years earlier. Unlike many of their contemporaries the three never truly found themselves at odds with each other. As Cain had put it they were more than just bandmates; they were family. The band found themselves in the midst of a massive world tour that was being chronicled by MTV which promoted their new album Raised on Radio. With recent hits such as “I’ll Be Alright Without You” and “Girl Can’t Help It” dominating the radio waves, Journey was comfortably enjoying their place in the upper echelons of pop music. Anticipating a discussion on what the band’s next steps should be, Schon and Cain were greeted with some show-stopping news: “I’m Toast” Perry said. The message was clear — Perry was leaving Journey while Schon and Cain were left speechless as their futures came to an abrupt halt.
It wasn’t hard to feel for Schon and Cain given how far they’d come over the preceding decade. Their long road started with humble beginnings as a jazz fusion rock group formed by Schon and keyboardist-vocalist Gregg Rollie (of Santana’s acclaimed backing band). After a few less-than-successful albums, the band was in need of a new identity. Enter a handsome young turkey farmer named Steve Perry who had a love for Sam Cooke and a head full of musical dreams.
The ensuing years would lead to Journey becoming one of the defining rock groups of their generation. Singles like “Lights” and “Wheel in the Sky” provided a fresh new sound as Perry’s voice mesmerized audiences worldwide. The hits kept coming with every new release. Indeed, once keyboardist Cain joined the band, the group became an unstoppable force with 1981’s Escape and 1983’s Frontiers delivering now-staples “Who’s Crying Now,” “Faithfully,” and sports arena classic “Don’t Stop Believing.” From the outside, it seemed nothing could stop Journey.
But a series of unfortunate events prompted Perry to make that fateful call in 1987. Relationship woes with his longtime girlfriend (inspiring the lyrics of Frontiers), his mother’s diagnosis with a rare neurological disease that led to her death, and of course the increasing pressure of fame. Throw a grueling tour schedule atop his troubled personal life and it all just became too demanding. “I felt like I reentered the earth’s atmosphere without heat tiles on my face,” Perry told VH1’s Behind the Music. “I was burning on the way in.” Rather than self-destruct, he decided to walk away.
By the mid-‘90s after years of off-the-grid self-care, Perry slowly resurfaced with the album For the Love of Strange Medicine accompanied by a small tour. Once he’d found his groove again, Perry decided to get Journey back together resulting in the 1996 platinum album Trial by Fire and the Grammy-nominated single “When You Love a Woman.” But this highly anticipated reunion would prove short-lived after Perry injured himself in a hiking accident that sidelined him for years. With Perry in limbo and no clear timeline regarding his return, Schon and Cain went through a few replacements before hiring lead singer Arnel Pineda, a true Perry sound-alike.
Over the next two decades, Perry was elusive at best. Updates of Perry’s existence in the 2000s were tabloid photos at San Francisco Giants games, sporadic interviews, and a handful of surprise appearances at live shows with the Indie rockers Eels. Speculation started to swirl. Why had he fallen silent? What exactly happened to him? Had we seen the last of The Voice?
Things changed dramatically when Journey was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame in 2017. Rumors flew left and right about a Journey reunion, but both parties stood firm that this wasn’t meant to be. The difference this time, however, was Perry had no plans to fade into the background again. One of the defining voices of the ‘80s broke a decades-long silence with the release of his single “No Erasin’.” The lyrics were quite appropriate — “I know it’s been a long time coming since I saw your face” as they heralded his long-awaited return.
Traces doesn’t exactly sound like latter-day or vintage Journey either which makes Perry’s return so much more noteworthy. Gone are the energetic and anthemic tunes that Journey trademarked. In their place are songs reflecting a slower, more considered approach well-suited to the uniquely weathered delivery of his naturally smooth vocals. Songs like “We’re Still Here,” “You Belong to Me,” and “We Fly” really exemplify how atmospheric accompaniment mixes flawlessly with Perry’s distinct voice. There’s even a bit of magic to be found on his affectionate cover of The Beatles “I Need You” (which received a blessing from George Harrison’s widow Olivia). After twenty years, ten tracks, and three lead singer replacements (for Journey), we can finally say that The Voice is back.
Photo Credit: Steve Perry of Journey speaks onstage at the 32nd Annual Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame Induction Ceremony at Barclays Center on April 7, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/WireImage for Rock and Roll Hall of Fame/Getty Images)