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Encore: 'Don't Stop Believin'' goes on and on, because we need it to

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

Nearly 40 years ago, the band Journey debuted what's become its signature song - "Don't Stop Believin'." It was a top-10 hit and has gone on and on to become even more popular. A few years back, Roben Farzad of member station VPM first gave us this story of a song that's become an inspiration across generations.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ROBEN FARZAD, BYLINE: Jonathan Cain was a struggling, down-on-his-luck rocker in the 1970s. He was ready to quit the LA music scene.

JONATHAN CAIN: Everything had been going wrong. Girlfriend left. Dog got hit by a car. I called my father for some money. I said, Dad, I'm out of cash here.

FARZAD: Cain asked his dad if he should move back to Chicago.

CAIN: And he told me, you know, we've always had a vision, son, and don't stop believing. And so I had a lyric book next to me, and I wrote it down in my lyric book.

FARZAD: He finally got his big break when Journey recruited him as its new keyboardist. Frontman Steve Perry asked Jonathan Cain to write a song for the upcoming album "Escape." Cain's dad's advice inspired his insistent and now famous piano opening.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOURNEY SONG, "DON'T STOP BELIEVIN'")

FARZAD: Steve Perry brought soaring vocals.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T STOP BELIEVIN'")

JOURNEY: (Singing) Oh, the movie never ends. It goes on and on, and on, and on.

FARZAD: And Neal Schon, his guitar sounding like a midnight train whizzing right past you.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOURNEY SONG, "DON'T STOP BELIEVIN'")

FARZAD: The song builds and releases, culminating in the chorus, finally arriving more than three-quarters of the way into the track.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T STOP BELIEVIN'")

JOURNEY: (Singing) Don't stop believin'. Hold on to that feelin'. Streetlight, people...

FARZAD: Critic Deborah Frost didn't even mention "Don't Stop Believin'" by name in her record review for Rolling Stone, which gave the Journey album 2 out of 5 stars.

DEBORAH FROST: I would have given it a minus 100. Just incredibly cheesy, cheesy track.

FARZAD: Maybe so, but it's incredibly popular. According to Nielsen Music, "Don't Stop Believin'" now holds the record as the most downloaded 20th century song. A song birthed in the era of mixtapes and rock radio found its glory in the era of binge TV and streaming.

Its revival started with Adam Sandler's 1998 comedy "The Wedding Singer." In 2003, Charlize Theron used "Don't Stop Believin'" in her Oscar-winning turn in "Monster." In 2007, The Sopranos ended with that tense diner scene soundtracked to "Don't Stop Believin'." Downloads of the song soared. Then in 2009, the hit TV show "Glee" covered the song.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GLEE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing).

FARZAD: Again, downloads, both the original track and the "Glee" cover, spiked. It landed in a Broadway musical as the rally song for the Chicago White Sox 2005 World Series run.

"Don't Stop Believin'" is an anthem for persevering and keeping the faith. The singer in a smoky room and smell of wine and cheap perfume evokes Jonathan Cain's struggling days on LA's Sunset Strip.

CAIN: And I said, I really believe this song is about wanting to make it, you know, and you're not stuck where you think you're stuck in life, you know that you're able to get out the same way I got out of Chicago, to not stop believing.

FARZAD: And here's where the story takes an unlikely turn. Steve Perry left the band in 1998. And for a decade, Journey could not find a lead singer who could pull off Perry's legendary tenor altino (ph).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T STOP BELIEVIN'")

JOURNEY: (Singing) Hidin' somewhere in the night.

FARZAD: Guitarist Neal Schon was desperate. Late one night on YouTube, he discovered a lounge singer in the Philippines covering the band's ballads. He reached out to the young man - Arnel Pineda, a formerly homeless kid. He thought he was being pranked. In 2007, the band flew him to the U.S. and hired him - a fairy tale story that was the subject of the documentary "Don't Stop Believin': Everyman's Journey." Here's Pineda singing with Journey.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ARNEL PINEDA: (Singing) Just a small-town girl, livin' in a lonely world. She took the midnight train going anywhere.

FARZAD: Arnel Pineda says the story of "Don't Stop Believin'" felt like his own story after living on Manila streets and sleeping in a park. He spoke with Oprah Winfrey in 2009.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PINEDA: I never dreamed that big. All I wanted was, you know, to be able to get out of the pain and the poverty and, you know, live decently.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Brett (ph), come on up.

FARZAD: A world away in Richmond, Va., the spirit of the song animates karaoke night. It's Midnight Tuesday at Sticky Rice, a sushi joint that hosts the college town's most raucous sing-along. The restaurant is fully packed, and the line is out the door.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: So ladies and gentlemen, don't be shy. Here we go.

FARZAD: Twenty-somethings Shilpa Gangisetty and Matt Malone are tonight's lucky believers, prevailing over at least five other karaoke-ers who requested the Journey anthem.

SHILPA GANGISETTY: I'm an Indian American, actually, and this song is something that my parents know. And this came out right before my parents came to this country. So it's really interesting because there aren't too many cultural things that we can relate on. But I know this is a song that my dad knows.

MATT MALONE: It's like "Itsy Bitsy Spider," "Miss Mary Mack." But, like, once you get into middle school, it's like "Don't Stop Believin'" and like that - you have to know it.

GANGISETTY: Yeah.

MALONE: Everyone hates to love it.

FARZAD: Even the folks stuck outside - they're under a streetlight - press against the windows and mouth the lyrics.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Just a small-town girl livin' in a lonely world. She took the midnight train going anywhere. Just a city boy, born and raised in South Detroit.

FARZAD: Whether you sing along ironically or straight, whether it won you over on rock radio, mixtape, iTunes, binge TV or at acapella lessons, it's a mainstay at bar mitzvahs and weddings. For whatever reason, "Don't Stop Believin'" is an anthem for sticking it out, and it goes on and on.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Singing).

FARZAD: For NPR News, I'm Roben Farzad.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.