"Journey was such a big part of my life," Steve Perry reflects. "The solo career was something that's sort of always been running alongside."
That may be something of an overstatement; after all, Perry has racked up his share of hits -- "Oh Sherrie," "Foolish Heart," "Strung Out," "You Better Wait" -- apart from the considerably successful band he fronted for a total of 12 years during the late '70s, '80s and '90s.
If Perry's solo work has gotten short-shrift, that's an unfortunate oversight which makes his new Greatest Hits + Five Unreleased not only a welcome, but also a crucial, release. It is, of course, part of the same story he's told with Journey, but it goes deeper and offers even more detail about one of the most distinctive voices in popular music. Combining tracks from Perry's two solo albums -- 1984's double-platinum Street Talk and 1994's certified gold For the Love of Strange Medicine -- with selections from his unreleased Against the Wall project and a pair of early songwriting demos, Greatest Hits + Five Unreleased reveals a broader slice of Perry than we've ever heard before. The voice is familiar, yes, but these 17 songs serve to remind us of its soulful, keening quality, as well as Perry's ability to express both great heartbreak and tremendous joy that has touched not only the ears but also the hearts of his fans -- men and women, young and old -- for the past two-plus decades.
"As strange as it sounds, (the solo albums) were an attempt to change my voice," Perry explains. "I started listening to what the song called for instead of sing the same voice that came out of me on everything. I would just hope that the fans would appreciate my work and have the open minds to look into the solo side."
Steve Perry had a sense he'd be making music from a young age. Born and raised in central California, he remembers going to see his mother and father perform in a community theater production at the local civic center when he was just three years old, wearing sandals, shorts and a sport coat. "I can't remember what the play was," he says now, "but my mother was a can-can dancer, and my dad sang an Al Jolson song. I'd look up, and my dad would be singing, and something inside me told me I had that inside me, too. I knew I could do it. I liked it."
There were other musical mileposts as well. Perry recalls being seven years old and walking around the house, singing songs he heard on the radio. He was in a youth barbershop quartet, crew-cutted and bow-tied, performing at the local Kiwanis and Chamber of Commerce functions. Then, when he was about 10 years old, Perry heard Sam Cooke's "Cupid" over the radio in his mother's Thunderbird (it's that vivid a memory for him). More than the subject matter, it was the earnest, heartfelt sound of Cooke's voice that broke through and instilled a goal in the fledgling singer.
"If you want to know the God's truth, music saved my life," Perry says. "My father left when I was seven years old, and he was everything to me. It gave me something to really dive into, and it saved my life and continues to do so."
Perry recorded an album with his high school band, the Sullies, which was distributed to friends "so we could feel like somebody." A few years later, he led another band, Alien Project, in Los Angeles, where things started to happen based on a demo tape that included "If You Need Me, Call Me," which is included on Greatest Hits + Five Unreleased. "This was around the summer of '77," Perry says. "There were actually four songs on the tape, and this was the one that got Columbia and Chrysalis excited." But when the group's bass player died in an auto accident, Perry felt that replacing him would not be the same. Executives at Columbia put him in touch with Journey, then a quartet that played primarily instrumental and improvisational music. Unfortunately, record sales weren't equaling the band's acumen, and a decision had been made to find a singer and songwriter who could help bring Journey to the mainstream. The "If You Need Me, Call Me" demo started the Journey the world came to know.
Enter Perry, who spent his first few months with Journey watching the band perform from the wings while writing songs for their first album together, 1978's Infinity, in hotel rooms after the shows. "We had this chemistry," guitarist and co-writer Neal Schon remembers of those days. "We were writing all over the pace -- in hotel rooms during the tour, downstairs in the living rooms at home. Steve was great to write with...just full of ideas."
With Perry out front, Journey caught fire. Infinity sold three million copies. So did its successor, Evolution. All told, Journey sold more than 40 million records with Perry in the band and became one of rock's biggest radio and touring acts.
But there was other music in Perry's soul as well, and after Schon recorded two solo albums, the singer decided it was time for him to step out as well. So after the group's marathon 1983 tour, he started work on Street Talk. Perry says, he went after a live-sounding soul album. "If you listen to Street Talk, you'll notice there was a certain texture and guttural type of thing I did to my voice to try to achieve a different texture," he explains. Part of that was recording early in the day, when his voice was still "gruff."
The results speak for themselves; Street Talk sold more than two million copies and soared into the Billboard Top 15, while "Oh Sherrie" went Top 3 and "Foolish Heart" was a Top 20 hit.
Journey disbanded after one more album and tour, and Perry spent some time living and "putting some home back in my life." That meant returning to the central California farming area where he was raised to ride his motorcycle, hit some county fairs and visit old friends -- "putting some experience back in my life," he says.
Shortly thereafter, he began work on his second album, entitled Against the Wall, which, due to creative differences between Perry and the label, was not released. Seven of Perry's favorite tracks from those sessions -- the new single "When You're in Love For the First Time," "Against the Wall," "Forever Right or Wrong," "Summer of Luv," "Melody," "Once in a Lifetime Girl" and "What Was" -- appear for the first time on Greatest Hits + Five Unreleased. "The songs are exactly the way I envisioned them," Perry says. "They sound as good to me today as they did then."
Perry returned to the studio again and returned with the more rock-flavored For the Love of Strange Medicine, another Top 20 success that also sent Perry on the road for the first time as a solo act, which served to dispel unfounded rumors about throat cancer and other maladies that had supposedly kept him out of eyesight for seven years. "I was having a great time out there, playing all these beautiful, restored theaters all over America," he says. "Every time I would do a sound check, I'd feel so special to be in these theaters."
These days, Perry says he wait to perform again. For now, however, he will have to wait while he's recovering from a correctable medical problem that required surgery. For now, however, we have Greatest Hits + Five Unreleased a collection of well-crafted songwriting and emotionally pure singing that's as fresh and valid now as it was when these songs were recorded, a rare talent ability that leaves us waiting for his next creative venture.