Nothing uptight about “Mr. C”. Perry Como was the definition of laid-back during his more than six decades in show business. He was one of the most successful singers of popular music through those years, hosting tv shows and specials, and selling records, enduring, even as he was knocked off the charts, first by rock and roll in the 50’s and then by the Beatles and the British Invasion of the 1960’s. He earned so many gold records, that he stopped counting!
What Created that Cool?
Chaos, mostly. The chaos of tv in it’s infancy, live, unpredictable and impossible to control. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote in it’s obituary of Perry Como:
His casual legend grew from his first pressure-packed appearances on the pioneering medium of live television – with its crashing scenery, misplaced cue cards and camera confusion.
“I decided the only thing to do was take it as it came,” he recalled in a 1985 interview. “People wrote in asking how I could be so casual. It all started to grow.”
The Singing Barber
Perry Como was an Italian-American, born Pierino Ronald Como, on May 18th, 1912 in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, not far from Pittsburgh. He first set out to be a barber, more or less inheriting his own shop in his hometown when the barber there died. But he liked singing and his smooth baritone voice won him a job in 1933, with bandleader Freddie Carlone. That same year he married his high school sweetheart, Roselle.
In 1936, Como hooked up with Ted Weems & his Orchestra as the featured singer. His experience on the Weems Band’s popular radio show, “Beat the Band” led to his next opportunity. When the Weems Orchestra split up in 1942, Como was hired to team with Jo Stafford on the Supper Club radio show on the NBC network. In 1943, he signed with RCA Records and remained with the label, even though it changed hands, for almost 50 years.
Life in the Movies
Hollywood summoned Como in the early 40’s but the movies weren’t a good fit for the former singing barber. The best thing to come out of his association with the film world was his recording of “Till the End of Time”. That tune hit the top of the charts and stayed there for 10 weeks-the biggest hit of the year.
Between 1945 and 1947, Como recorded more number one hits including Prisoner of Love, Surrender and Chi-Baba, Chi-Baba (My Bambino, Go to Sleep). NBC hired him for another radio show in 1948.
Made for TV
And if he wasn’t cut out to be a movie star, Como’s relaxed style and pleasant manner seemed tailor-made for TV. NBC invited him to the “Chesterfield Supper Club” in 1948.. a show that resulted in four Emmy Awards for Como. He later signed an unprecedented 12 year contract to host his own show.
Breezin’ Along in the 1950’s
The mid-1950’s were a time for novelty tunes like Rosemary Clooney’s “Come On a My House” and Patty Page’s “How Much is that Doggie in the Window?”. But Como really cashed in on those songs, even though, privately, he reportedly hated them. He recorded tunes, like “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” from the Disney feature Cinderella, “Hot Diggity, Dog Ziggity, Boom, Whatcha Do to Me”, “Dig You Later (A Hubba-Hubba-Hubba)” and “Papa loves Mambo” And for those of us who grew up in that era, it’s hard to read the titles of many of his songs without hearing that dreamy voice in our heads. Just try it with this list:
- “Magic Moments”
- “Catch a Falling Star”
- “Round and Round”
- “A Bushel and A Peck”
- “Accentuate the Positive”
- “Breezin’ Along with the Breeze”
Change in the Air
His popularity began to wane as rock ‘n roll came into vogue, but Como’s music never went out of style for many fans. He continued to do television specials and to sell albums and singles, even recording more than 70 songs in Nashville between 1965 and 1975. His version of the lovely Don McClean ballad “And I Love You So” came out of one of these sessions. That song won him a Grammy award nomination in 1973.
Como’s first Christmas Special aired on television in 1948 and quickly became a popular holiday tradition. His last was recorded in 1993-1994, the Irish Christmas special, resulting in his fourth album of Christmas music. The other three Christmas albums were recorded in the mid 1940’s. Como’s career also took him into inspirational music, recording hymns like “Ave Maria” and “Bless This House” and many many more.
Como launched a world tour in 1970, and a song he recorded that year, “It’s Impossible” hit the Top 10. He continued recording, doing tv specials and occasional concerts during the remaining decades, but the Irish Christmas Special was his last performance and it was not an easy experience for him. He wasn’t feeling well and was losing his voice. But true to his reputation, he soldiered on and produced one of the most popular programs of his career.
In 1998, Como’s wife died, two weeks after they had celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary. The couple raised three children, and had made their home in Jupiter, Florida for many years. Those close to Como say he never really recovered from her death or the death of his sister, a short time later. Como himself died in 2001, just 5 days before what would have been his 89th birthday.
The Como Legacy
Some have attributed the entire “Easy Listening” genre to Perry Como, because of his mellow, easy style. Jokes about that casual approach dogged him throughout his career and some, he reportedly thought were pretty funny-like the guy who impersonated him by lying on the floor, singing a song with his lips barely moving. Bing Crosby and Mario Lanza were said to be two singers who influenced Como. Crosby used to say that Como “invented casual” but Como himself called Crosby his “biggest influence. What he would do, I would do.”.
But he was more than just a good singer. Como helped pioneer variety shows on television. His contract with NBC made the Guines
s Book of Records as the longest performance contract in TV. He left behind a massive collection of music, much of it still heard on easy listening radio stations and still popular today.
Home on the Web
Perry Como is represented on the Web, perhaps not as well as Frank Sinatra or Bing Crosby, but the tributes are just as loving, thoughtful and heartfelt. Some links you may want to explore include this site, By Request. It features a complete discography and insightful comments about the recordings and recording sessions. You will also find reprints of interviews and remembrances under the heading “Selekt Links”. The Perry Como Home on the Net is another wonderful resource for photos and memories. Check the “Submissions” link for personal stories from those who knew or met Perry Como.