Ever since lead singer Steve Perry was invalided out of the band with an injured hip in 1996, legendary rock group Journey hasn't been the same. Singers Steve Augeri and Jeff Scott Soto tried filling Perry's big shoes (and tight jeans), but the band whose success had, in any case, been on a downward slide since its '80s heyday seemed mortally wounded, relegated to the ignominious status of a nostalgia act.
Thirty-three years after its birth, however, Journey is getting a second lease on life and from a most unexpected quarter. In December, the band signed on new lead vocalist Arnel Pineda, a Filipino singer whom they found leading a Manila cover band. Six months later, the group kicked off a tour of Europe and the U.S. and released Revelation, an album featuring new songs and rerecorded classics that, two weeks after its debut, was the fifth highest-selling album in the States.
How Journey found Pineda is a Cinderella tale of the Internet era. In the wake of Soto's dismissal last June for unspecified reasons, guitarist Neal Schon turned to the Web in search of talent. After two days of surfing on YouTube, he came upon clips of Pineda singing with his band, the Zoo, and nailing all the right notes in a vocal-straining repertoire that included rock anthems by Survivor and Queen as well as Journey's famed power ballads like Faithfully and Don't Stop Believing. "I heard his voice and my eyes got big," says Schon, who has been with Journey since its inception in 1975. "I thought, he can't be that good." Schon left his house, took a spin on his motorcycle to clear his head, and then contacted Pineda. At first, the singer thought the e-mail was a hoax. "I didn't think the real Neal Schon would call a guy like me," says Pineda. "I'm just a guy from the Philippines." But four months later, Pineda became Journey's new lead singer. "I've been waiting for this moment to come for 25 years," he says. "It's like shooting to the moon."
Born in Manila, Pineda, 40, started singing as a child, quickly learning his parents' favorite songs among them hits by the Jackson Five and the Carpenters. His parents struggled to raise their four sons by running a corner shop and tailoring clothes. Pineda performed in local singing competitions until the age of 13, when his mother died from an extended illness. Medical bills had drained their savings, leaving the family homeless and living with relatives. Not wanting to burden his father, Pineda struck out on his own, collecting newspapers and bottles, and living on the street for nearly two years. When he was 15, a friend encouraged him to start singing again, beginning Pineda's 25-year career as a cover-band vocalist in the Philippines and Hong Kong.
The first half of Pineda's story isn't unique. Filipino cover bands are common in the hotels, lounges and bars of many Asian cities a phenomenon Manila-based PhilMusic.com founder Jim Ayson attributes to simple oversupply. "There are more musicians in the Philippines than there are opportunities," says Ayson, himself a drummer and an acquaintance of Pineda in the 1980s. But Pineda's rags-to-riches story is giving new and singular hope to Filipino singers. "A lot of singers here tried to make it in the States and they couldn't," he says. "[Pineda] made it."
Filipino media have predictably lit up with Pineda coverage. The largest broadcaster in the Philippines, ABS-CBN, has called Pineda "the country's pride," and documents everything from the singer's visits home to the health of his voice. Pineda's compatriots are also delighted. "Everyone's talking about it," says Marilyn Deleon, 44, a Filipino-American Journey fan in New York City who helped create animated videos of Pineda and other Journey members and posted them online. At Pineda's first U.S. performance with Journey in Las Vegas in March, Schon estimates Filipino-Americans made up around half of the audience. Many already classify Pineda in the ultimate pantheon of Philippine heroes. "There's [boxer] Manny Pacquiao, [pool player] Efren Reyes and then there's Arnel," says Kookie Luib, a bass player who performed with Pineda during his years in Hong Kong. "Our country is always recognized for corruption and government malfunction. These guys are bringing up Filipino pride."
Not all of Journey's die-hard fans and there are plenty have embraced Pineda with open arms. When Nell, who did not want to reveal her real name, started an Arnel Pineda fan site in December, the Florida-based Web developer says angry Journey fans left death threats on her answering machine. The band's traditional fan base is mostly white and American, and some are upset that Pineda is neither. "Journey is supposed to be an all-American band," one fan complained in an online forum.
But as more people hear Pineda's truly stunning voice, the number of critics is likely to be drowned out by a roar of support. The number of rock stars discovered online could also skyrocket. "If you want to get discovered, you don't need a demo anymore," says Ayson. "Everyone's putting their stuff on YouTube now." And the mantra many of them are taking to heart is "Don't stop believing."