Steve Perry — a bit confusing, frankly

This article’s been getting a bit more traction lately — any readers who want a more thorough background on the history of the high male voice should check out this article as well.

Steve Perry

Steve Perry

A slow recognition is beginning to coalesce around former Journey vocalist Steve Perry as one of the great voices of the 20th century. It’s matched by a slight giddiness on the part of his fans, as to be frank, rock hasn’t generated many of these. Whatever one’s opinion may be, Perry is also one of the more difficult to classify.

Considering range and technique presents us with a problem. In his range — high tenor and a solid alto, the only possible conclusion to draw is that he is a countertenor. However, his technique is not at all that of the most common counters: he hasn’t a hint of owly, woodwind quality to his lower register as he’s not producing sound the same way, and he has no baritone register. In these days when “countertenor” and “falsettist” are used interchangeably, many would not classify Perry as a countertenor.

Also, without similar classical training, there is no way of knowing what operatic label might have applied to Perry’s voice had he opted to go the route of “Giulio Cesare” and not “Raised on Radio.” The universe in which La Fenice staged “Crusader in Egypt” thirty years earlier with an Armando named Stephen Pereira robbing the production of its breeches role is not the one in which we live.

Perry is perhaps best considered as part “tenor altino” or “haute contre” (natural male alto, a rare form of countertenor and one of the rarest voice types), and part his own creature, and as he inhabits the worlds of rock and pop, which require far less stringent classification of voices (since labeled parts need not be assigned to equally labeled vocalists), strict classification may be outside of necessary consideration for him — although I imagine voice enthusiasts will continue to debate. Such high male voices are so much more common in the world of pop and rock than in classical or opera, so using the word “countertenor” to define such voices isn’t unreasonable, if only to draw attention to this predictable distinction.

No articles that I’ve found focusing on vocal training or quality exist for Perry, and most interviews concentrate on the somewhat acrimonious breakup between him and his former bandmates. Other interviews mention only in passing the difficulties of performing as a quasi-operatic vocalist for 180+ sets a year for years on end, well beyond that which is euphemistically called “punishing” or “grueling” in the operatic world and firmly in the realm of larynx-shredding insanity.

In comparison, the extremely focused and legendarily hardworking German operatic falsettist Andreas Scholl keeps what is considered to be a ridiculously demanding schedule at 60 performances per year. He is considering dropping that down to 40. No manager of an operatic vocalist could suggest anything approaching 180 sets a year without being immediately euthanized.

Perry made some accommodations for this, including his habit of not speaking at all between the time he came off-stage after one performance and 4pm the following day, as well as the typical tiring, on-the-fly mental arithmetic done by all high-powered vocalists and completely without parallel among instrumentalists. With few other performers in rock music who had to make that sort of accommodation and to whom he could be compared, Perry acquired the reputation of being distant and unapproachable.

Also mentioned only in passing are the psychological performance pressures widely understood and even anticipated by operatic vocalists but of which Perry, his bandmates, and his management seemed entirely unaware at the time. The problems caused by this apparently took them all by surprise, when any such vocalist in the classical world would have anticipated and permitted for them years in advance. There was no community of like vocalists in rock to advocate for him or function as points of comparison. Having originated from outside all three common sources of high-performance vocalist (classical/operatic, musical theater, and gospel), Perry was left quite on his own in dealing with these issues and both he and his voice suffered for it. Often the only points of comparison for singers in rock are their instrumentalist bandmates, who while they are also subject to great stress while touring, can nevertheless do something singers can never do — buy new strings or new instruments when they play out their old ones. The already great stress of touring is magnified enormously when a musician is effectively playing an instrument that bleeds, ages, and cannot be swapped out, and the world of rock is not known for mentoring performers through this uniquely vocal stress.

There are no implications whatever that these pressures were acknowledged even by Perry until years after his first sabbatical. Due to the fact that neither the rock music industry, his management, his bandmates, nor Perry himself apparently had any profound awareness of how to caretake voices of that caliber, what should have been a luminous 35-year career was effectively burned through in what amounted to roughly one decade of active recorded performance. Like the largely self-taught Titta Ruffo, the great baritone of seven decades prior, Perry “did not have a voice, he had a miracle” — a brilliant, crystalline creation unmatched in the history of popular music — and it was squandered by an industry that had no idea how to manage it or the singer to whom it belonged.

The fact that Perry’s genre has very little experience with vocalists of his caliber goes a long way to explaining why, three decades after he began singing with the band most closely associated with him, both the public in general and the world of fine voice are slowly beginning to realize the magnitude of what he accomplished. The world of rock seems to regard a voice as either a “chick thing” or something akin to a musical condom: an annoying necessity that interferes with the “real action,” but you need one out front if you expect to get anywhere. It’s often tolerated better as an excuse for flashy showmanship than real talent. The world of fine voice is just as suspicious toward rock, often dismissing it as (to be blunt) heroin addicts screaming on pitch. Rock critics didn’t know how to regard a man with such stunning yet out-of-place virtuosity, often preferring to sneer at it, and opera lovers found it difficult to look past the long hair and blue jeans.

Thus as an operatic vocalist functioning in rock, Perry stood in a tiny area of overlap that did not exist until he created it, located between two of the most mutually suspicious forms of music. As high as the barriers to critical respect are between classical and popular music, they are a thousand times higher between opera and rock. This left only the fans themselves, who flooded toward his music by the millions, to recognize the monumental achievement that his musically tribeless voice represents. Those fans have now begun to achieve some position of authority as they (we) enter middle age, and their respect for Perry’s voice is beginning to be taken more seriously as a result.

As there are no articles or interviews examining vocal issues, I’ve linked only to clips here demonstrating range and clarity, the evolution of Perry’s voice as his preposterous early touring schedule took a far greater toll on it than it should have, the occasional leaps over his second passaggio, and his altino-like speaking voice.

Clips illustrating Perry’s singing voice:

Wheel in the Sky” — countertenor territory particularly with the high “ring” and almost eerie champagne clarity his voice was known for early on, and includes a leap into falsetto territory at 2:30. Late 70s. Contrasting this with Russell Oberlin’s non-falsetto male alto in his version of “Vivi, tiranno” from “Rodelinda” is extremely revealing. (Note also that lip-syncing on television has never been the exclusive property of pop or rock singers.)

Homemade Love” — multiple accurate leaps back and forth over the passaggio. Also late 70s.

Sweet and Simple” — good downward movement across the passaggio at 2:53 in what amounts to a short cadenza.

Open Arms” — performed live in Houston in 1981, and a clear example of the sort of vocal performance that, while thrilling, could not be reasonably sustained for nearly 200 sets a year.

You Better Wait” — a good artistic use of the “burr” that developed due to the too-strenuous performance schedule illustrated by the previous clip. Still fairly clean in the high end. Mid 90s.

Clips illustrating Perry’s speaking voice:

Absolutely delightful blues jam session — band instrumentalists only, with Perry introducing them and the blues greats who are joining them on stage. Late 70s.

Interview on Japanese television reminiscing about a performance in Chicago. Again, compare to the speaking voices of other natural and falsettist male altos. (It should be noted that if he were touring to perform, he would have taken care to speak very lightly in order to safeguard his voice.) Mid 90s.