In 1958 Perry Como received the first gold disc ever awarded by the Recording Industry Association of America for his ballad “Catch a Falling Star.” Como’s star itself has never really fallen. Even grey-haired and grandfatherly, Como remained a popular middle-of-the-road vocalist throughout the 1960s and 1970s. However, Perry Como’s biggest decade was half a century ago—during the 1940s. In 1946, for example, some four million Como records were pressed during one week. Ten years later, 11 of his singles had sold over a million copies each.
Born Pierino Como in 1913, the singer was one of 13 children of a Roman Catholic family. He started working early in life, owning his own barbershop by age 14 in his hometown of Canonsburg, Pennsylvania. At his father’s urging, he completed high school in 1929 before settling into his role as Canonsburg’s premier barber. In 1934, after marrying his school sweetheart, Roselle Beline, Como auditioned for a spot in the Freddie Carlone Orchestra. He spent the next few years touring the Midwest with the band for $28 a week. By 1937 he had joined the Ted Weems Band, which recorded on the Decca label.
Como considered his touring experience an invaluable tool in the development of his industry professionalism and his early calm in the face of fame. In a 1957 Down Beat profile, he explained how difficult it was to acquire a businesslike demeanor and sense of style, commenting, “A couple of records can’t give it to you.” Without road work, he continued, “too many kids hit big and then have nothing. I hate to see that happen to anyone.”
The Weems band broke up in 1942 due to World War II, and Como headed back to Canonsburg, intending to resume the quiet life of a hometown barber. However, CBS interfered in the form of a $100-a-week radio show offer. The following year RCA Victor signed him up, and there was no more talk of barbering. Over the next 14 years, Como landed 42 Top 10 hits; only crooner Bing Crosby proved more popular during this time.
The good-natured Como appealed to young and old audiences alike, and this helped account for his success. He never abandoned singing material suitable for family listening—even when doing Vegas acts in the 1970s. However, Como’s mild music and trademark relaxed manner did not appeal to all. One Time magazine writer noted that the singer sometimes gave the impression he was “made of sponge rubber with a core of [the sedative] Seconal.”
For the Record…
Born Pierino Como, May 18, 1913, in Canonsburg, PA; son of Pietro (a mill hand) and Lucille Como; married Roselle Beline, 1933; children: Ronald, David (adopted), Teri (adopted).
Barber, late 1920s-early 1930s; started touring as a big-band vocalist with Freddie Carlone and Ted Weems, mid-19305; signed by RCA Victor, 1943; radio and club singer throughout the 1940s; by the end of the 1950s, had 42 Top Ten hits on the Billboard charts; host of Saturday night variety show on NBC-TV, 1955-63; headlined in Las Vegas with Ray Charles, Tony Bennett, and Dean Martin, 1970s; retrospective CD released by RCA, 1993.
Selected awards: Named top-selling male singer in a Billboard poll, 1946; Emmy awards for most outstanding television personality, 1956 and 1957; Grammy Award for best vocal performance, male, 1958, for “Catch a Falling Star”; Special Award of Merit, American Music Awards, 1979; Kennedy Center Honors, 1987; named knight of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem.
Along with his singing success on radio and across the club and theater circuits, Como attracted attention in Hollywood. He appeared in a trio of films during the mid-1940s for Twentieth Century Fox, all of which co-starred flamboyant dancer Carmen Miranda. Miranda proved more memorable than Como in these efforts, although his song in Doll Face, “Hubba Hubba Hubba,” was a hit.
“Ed Sullivan With Talent”
In 1955 Como took a whack at television, hosting NBC’s Perry Como Show, a Saturday night variety hour. (Some critics called Como an “Ed Sullivan with talent.”) Playing up his “Mr. Nice Guy” image, numerous magazine stories of the day described the star relaxing in front of the television, stretched out on the couch and munching a piece of fruit. The first year out, Como’s TV show won an Emmy and the Peabody, Christopher, and Golden Mike awards.
Como’s easygoing manner carried over into the studio. In recording a song, Como told Down Beat, “I like to do about half a dozen takes…. Then we pick the best one and that’s it.” The singer added, “I don’t work at home at all. Once you know a song too well, you start to fool around with it. At the session, when the band’s working on the arrangement, I learn the tune right there.” Yet recording engineers and others working with him classified Como as a perfectionist. “Perry knows what he can do,” noted one collaborator in the same article. “He saves it up and gives it to you. He knows when he’s done it that you’ve got his best. You don’t see it in his face or his manner—it comes from inside. He gives you all he’s got and that’s it.”
Como’s television variety show lasted until 1963, when he finally said goodbye to “the kids”—as he referred to members of his cast, notably the Ray Charles singers. By this time, the entertainment industry had started to change, and Como was beginning to seem old-fashioned. The singer went into semi-exile, although he continued to record and do TV specials, his Christmas program being something of an institution.
But in 1970 Perry Como donned the stage tux once again in a summertime show in Vegas that broke a 25-year, self-imposed ban on live performances. With him was his old pal, pianist-singer Ray Charles. Como’s material consisted of tunes like “If I Could Read Your Mind,” and “It’s Impossible,” the latter hitting gold.
As he approached his sixtieth birthday, Como headed out on an international tour; he continued to find success making live appearances for the next decade. Como’s 1976 tour of Australia was standing room only, and at the time one RCA executive crowed that the whole Como catalogue was “moving out fabulously.” The previous year, a K-tel record promotion in England had secured the singer five weeks of Number One U.K. charting.
In 1993 a three-CD compilation set, Yesterday & Today—A Celebration in Song, appeared on Como’s lifelong label, RCA. The package included his last recording, “Wind Beneath My Wings,” from 1987, as well as two duets from the 1950s with Eddie Fisher (“Watermelon Weather” and “Maybe”) and older material not reissued since first appearing on 78s. “Perry Como is a cultural icon,” stated the publicity material accompanying the release, “and it is only right that his talent should be celebrated in a boxed set as extensive as this.” A curious note was sounded in this post-heyday compilation history when in 1994 a Rhino Records CD appeared called The Beat Generation. This CD included spoken-word performances by such standard avant-garde types as Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs. But, nestled bizarrely among such unusual fare came the voice of Perry Como, singing the song “Like Young.”
Musing over his varied successes in an interview with Alan Ebert for Good Housekeeping, Como concluded, “For the amount of talent I had—and I couldn’t dance, act, or tell a joke—I enjoyed a tremendous career.”
Till the End of Time (recorded 1945), RCA, 1948.
I Believe, RCA, 1954.
So Smooth, RCA, 1955.
Hits from Broadway Shows, RCA, 1956.
Merry Christmas Music, RCA, 1957.
Saturday Night With Mr. C, RCA, 1958.
Como Swings, RCA, 1959.
Season’s Greetings, RCA, 1959.
Sing to Me, Mr. C, RCA, 1961.
By Request, RCA, 1962.
Mr. President (features the music of Irving Berlin), Columbia, 1962.
It’s Impossible, RCA, 1970.
Yesterday & Today—A Celebration in Song, RCA, 1993.
(With others) The Beat Generation (appears on “Like Young”), Rhino Records, 1994.
Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music, edited by Donald Clarke, Viking, 1989.
Billboard, September 19, 1970; November 4, 1972; May 15, 1976.
Down Beat, May 16-30, 1957.
Good Housekeeping, January 1991.
Look, November 28, 1944.
Time, March 18, 1946; December 19, 1955; March 16, 1959.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from RCA publicity materials.
—Joseph M. Reiner
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