One of the characteristics of getting old is the ever-increasing need to check your age against other people… especially famous people whose work you grew up with.
For example: on the day I’m writing this, one-time Journey frontman Steve Perry turned 70.
Now, that might not mean anything to you. But for me that fact is simultaneously frightening and unbelievable. What?…Steve Perry is 70! How can Steve Perry be 70?
Wait long enough and you will have your own version of this, with some other beloved entertainer from your youth. Oh yes, you will. And you’ll understand exactly what I’m talking about here.
Anyway, I have a long-standing issue with Steve Perry that I think is instructive; so let me give you the backstory.
So… my Journey journey started and ended in the eighties. It was an intense romance followed by an acrimonious breakup. The reason for which stems almost entirely from my own bitterness over the realisation that I couldn’t sing like Steve Perry. You see, for most of the ’80s I thought I might be able to. Perhaps more accurately, wished I might be able to.
I used to lerv singing along to Journey songs. Especially in the car, with the volume turned all the way up. You see, my then girlfriend had left me for some other dude, and many of Journey’s songs were especially crafted to embrace the swirling emotions involved in that exact situation for people of my exact age… making Separate Ways one of the best break-up songs ever… to me.
But singing along to cassettes in the car isn’t the same as having to sing songs for yourself. So, I bought a book of Journey sheet music, sat down at the piano and discovered I loved playing them even more than listening to them. Especially because I was singing all the notes.
Except… well… I wasn’t actually singing. What I was doing was singing falsetto. And even though I pretty much knew it at the time; I dunno, I felt that I must somehow have “had the notes in me” and, that with the right vocal coaching, I could learn to sing the notes as Steve Perry did.
It took two events for me to realise why that was never going to happen.
Event 1/. I was at a rehearsal for a band I was sound mixing for. In a break I was noodling around on their piano, and I sang (my falsetto version of) Oh, Sherrie. I vividly remember James their drummer literally screaming into my face at full volume:
“I SHOULDA BEEN GOH-ONNNNE!!!!!
That’s how Steve Perry sings it, Charley..!
Not whatever you think you’re doing!”
That was the moment the tide turned. I tried to ignore it––don’t stop believin, right?––but I couldn’t for long because:
Event 2/. I started having singing lessons and discovered my vocal range was nowhere near Steve Perry’s vocal range. I can still see the teacher looking at me and grinning as he played chords at entirely different places on the piano:
You’re down here, Charley.
Steve Perry… is wa-a-ay up here.
But you… you’re down here. Understand?
So, I had been fooling myself. I couldn’t sing anything like Steve Perry. What a goose. It was only a few short years later that I was muttering bad things about Steve Perry under my breath every time I heard Don’t Stop Believin’.
home in the range
Much has been made of Steve Perry’s singing… in particular, his vocal range; which, it must be said, isn’t particularly broad… it’s just higher than usual.
All singers have their own natural vocal range––which, yes, can be widened with practice––but is, for the most part, the result of whatever physical characteristics they happen to be born with.
Steve Perry is not a big guy. In his day he was quite petite. But have you seen the circumference of his throat? It’s like a frickin’ tree stump. This isn’t something that can be developed; you’re either born with that thing, or you’re not.
Vocal range varies from person to person. Within your range is what’s known as your chest voice, which are the notes at the lower end of your range; and your head voice, which are the notes at the higher end of your range.
Singing instruction uses a lot of analogy to placehold for processes in your mind and body that can’t be physically inspected. All notes, of course, are produced by the vocal cords in your neck. It’s just that from the feeling of the singer, the lower notes tend to resonate more in your chest, and the higher notes tend to resonate more in your head.
A typical untrained, male singer might be able to hold a simple tune using notes of (let’s say) the octave below middle C (also known as C3 to C4), but they will struggle singing notes higher than that in a projected, ‘open throated’ kind of way.
For these people, trying to sing anywhere above C4 means breaking in to falsetto… that wispy, airy singing sound made famous by Prince, or groups like The Bee Gees.
Many trained (especially, rock) singers can belt out full (head voice) notes typically up to around A4. Tom Jones’ final note in Thunderball is that very note, blasted over several bars, to the point of him passing out in the recording studio.
Steve Perry, in his heyday, had a range that seemed centred at A4, with plenty of room either side. Yeah, Perry had a great ear for major melodies and runs; but it was his natural higher range that really made you sit up and listen. It was just perfect for hard rock and power ballads, and lifted his voice up out of the mix, giving it a powerful, passionate, soaring quality. Yep… peak-Perry was really something.
And Now For Something Completely Different
I have a theory that most of the famous singers who we now love, initially grabbed our attention with a distinct; highly original; often highly unusual sound. After a while, we become accustomed to that sound and simply end up including it in a collection of sung sounds we consider familiar.
It’s a topic of a whole other essay… but Steve Perry was no exception here. His early work with Journey reveals a very young, almost feminine sounding voice. His stage outfits also had somewhat of an androgynous, post glam aesthetic… somewhat at odds with the hard rock attitude that was to come. At the time, Perry and his voice must have been very different.
I’m just going to say it: Perry’s vocal sound is weird. It’s just that you’re likely used to hearing it and have forgotten how different it really is.
Neither is his voice quite as flawless as one of his heroes Sam Cooke, however… it certainly has no problems eating up notes that would quickly tear a regular voice box to shreds.
The very top of his head voice range was comparatively stratospheric. In songs like Escape and Separate Ways, Perry pops out notes right up at E5. In Sweet & Simple he whistles out a glass-breaking A5.
The fact that Steve Perry could sing these songs night after night on tour without inflicting significant vocal damage is itself both incredible… because the higher range is so rare; and, not so incredible… given that these notes are simply the notes that Perry was capable of singing within his own natural range.
However, keen listeners can hear the “sand” creeping in to his voice with ever subsequent recording.
Like all upper-range belters (Robert Plant, Roger Daltrey, Whitney Houston, Adele), older age and over-use will eventually take its toll, and those high notes once so effortless will slowly become out of reach.
I can’t help but infer that Steve Perry feels a very strong sense of relief that it is Arnel Pineda out there ripping up his voice box on stage every night, maintaining the Steve Perry legacy… without Steve Perry actually having to do it himself.
By the time of 1996’s Trial By Fire––Perry’s last recording with Journey––his vocal centre was appreciably lowered and his range diminished. Perry could still sing higher than many singers could comfortably muster, but this new, huskier lower range somehow made the songs seem rumbly, or even half-speed… at least, for Journey songs.
I actually prefer it, even though it lacks the gymnastic quality that made the classics so outstanding.
You can also hear the raspy, sandy sound to Perry’s vocals steadily get more pronounced as the years rolled on. Perry’s 2018 album release Traces is gritty AF. It’s a wonderful character, but it’s in desperate need of a set of mature lyrical themes other than high school heartaches.
Make The Most Of What You’ve Got
As Arnel Pineda has no doubt realised, there will never be another Steve Perry… even if you are, in almost all respects, another Steve Perry.
And that’s the trick really. That “thing” you call your voice is all you have. And it’s only yours. It’s original. And original is all the matters. Original is what grabs attention and makes a singer truly memorable.
It’s a curse to desperately want to sing like Prince, if you have the voice of Joe Cocker. It’s equally a curse to desperately want to sing like Joe Cocker if you have the voice of Prince.
But that’s the way it goes. When it comes to your voice, what you have is what you have. And you have to come to terms with it… even if it takes you decades.
However, don’t let it take decades. Because you voice will change as you get older, and you don’t want to miss out on what you have right now.
These days, I have also come to terms with the sound of my own, weird, little voice.
Oh, and I love Steve Perry again.