Steve Perry talks about the Detroit inspiration for “Don’t Stop Believin'”
Steve Perry grew up in Hanford, California, a little town about 30 miles south of Fresno, the son of Portuguese immigrants. It was a small farm town with not much happening. Even though he was singing as a 3-year-old, his childhood fantasies of life in the music business seemed oceans away.
But the small-town kid with the big-city dreams not only grew up to be a world-class rock star as the lead singer for Journey, but his unforgettable lead vocals on “Don’t Stop Believin’” helped put the song into the National Recording Registry this year, enshrined as one of the nation’s signature recordings.
“I’m stunned for my parents and my grandparents, who are no longer here, and came to this country as immigrants,” said Perry, 73, in a streaming interview recently. He left Journey and the spotlight more than three decades ago, resides comfortably in California, doesn’t look back on his arena-rock days and rarely gives interviews. But he called the song’s induction into the Registry “the greatest honor of my life.”
“It’s one of those ‘only in America’ kind of things,” he says of his family’s sojourn into the heart of the nation’s culture.
Since the song’s 1981 debut, it has become a worldwide hit record, a stadium anthem embraced by multiple sports teams and a key part of the final episode of “The Sopranos,” widely regarded as one of television’s finest dramas.
“That song, over the years, has become something that has a life of its own,” he said. “It’s about the people who’ve embraced it and found the lyrics to be something they can relate to and hold onto and sing.”
Stardom didn’t come easily for Perry, no matter how early his talent showed up.
He followed a high school friend to the Bay Area in the ’60s, sending demo tapes to record labels, but for years nothing worked out. He was in his late 20s, living in a tiny apartment and had all but given up on the business when an executive asked him if he might want to sing with a band called Journey.
They had not had much success and were looking for a new musical direction. He crushed the subsequent audition, then showed up with a flair for songwriting and piercing vocals. Rock fans know the rest. During its heyday in the late ’70s through the ’80s, Journey filled stadiums and sold millions of records with hits such as ” Who’s Crying Now,” “Separate Ways,“Faithfully,” “Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezin,’ ” “Any Way You Want It” and “Open Arms.”
But nothing shined brighter than “ Don’t Stop Believin’ ” a piece written by Perry and fellow group members Neal Schon and Jonathan Cain. As he recalls it, some of the lyrics came from a concert stop in Detroit, while the finished product was worked out in a warehouse in which the band rehearsed in Oakland, California.
Perry is sometimes teased for one of the opening lines in the song, about a character being raised in “south Detroit,” as there is no such district (Detroit rests on a curve in the Detroit River, with Windsor, Canada, being directly south of downtown). He good-naturedly points out that back in the day there was a southbound exit sign on I-75 north of the city that read “South” on one line and “Detroit” beneath it, giving rise to the misunderstanding. Besides, he says, no other direction (east, west or north) sounded right vocally.
The band had finished an enthusiastic show in Cobo Arena in downtown Detroit on tour one night and were staying the night on the top floor of a nearby hotel. Perry, sleepless after the high-energy show, found himself looking out the window, gazing down at people on the sidewalk, milling about.
“The streetlights in Detroit at the time were this kind of orange color…it’s like three in the morning and these people were still standing around, and I thought, ‘Wow, look at these streetlight people, they’re just out in the night.’ ”
Later, it worked into the song this way:
Up and down the boulevard
Their shadows searching in the night
Living just to find emotion
Hiding somewhere in the night
It’s a real-life rock-and-roll story that’s now part of American music history, preserved in the National Recording Registry. Steve Perry, the man who belted it out into late 20th century pop culture, is just glad it resonated with so many people for so long.
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