06/23/2008 at 01:00 AM EDT
Arnel Pineda had been fooled by Internet scams before. So when the Manila, Philippines-based singer of an '80s cover band got an e-mail asking him to audition to be the frontman of Journey—the group that rocked the decade with power ballads like "Don't Stop Believin'"—he didn't buy it. "I thought it was a big hoax," says Pineda, 41.
It wasn't. Looking to replace Journey's original singer, Steve Perry (he stopped touring with the group in 1998 after a hip injury), guitarist Neal Schon had stumbled upon Pineda's jaw-dropping concert videos on YouTube. "I couldn't believe how good he sounded live," says Schon of Pineda's dead-on Perry vocals. "I told my manager, 'I found the guy [in] Manila.' He asked, 'Does he speak English?' I said, 'When you sing like that, you don't need to!'"
For Pineda (who grilled Schon in English before realizing the offer was legit), just making it to YouTube was a miracle. His family was so poor that after his mom died when he was 13, he chose to live on the streets. "My dad had other mouths to feed—I'd be a burden," says Pineda. He slept in parks, collecting bottles and newspapers and eventually singing for money. While daunted by fans' expectations for Journey's new album, Revelation, and summer tour, Pineda knows he's living a fantasy. "Everything is a dream," he says. "The only difference is I am awake."
See Arnel Pineda sing with Journey and hear more of the band's interview at PEOPLE.COM/JOURNEYVIDEO