“What we do is mostly understand a song and try to interpret a lyric,” Perry Como says. “I think the older you get, the better you understand what the writer was trying to put down on paper.”
“I understand a lyric a hell of a lot better now than I did at the beginning of my career,” says Como, who began singing professionally in 1933, which was also the year he married his childhood sweetheart, Roselle Belline.
“In the early days it was just getting the records out and selling them,” he says. “It used to be quite something to sell a million albums. I’ve had my share. We have 20 gold records. Everybody has his job to do.”
Already one of the nation’s favorite singers when he made his television debut on Christmas Eve 1948, Como went on to host an hour-long weekly show on CBS from 1950 to 1955 and on NBC from 1955 to 1963. The variety series attracted hundreds of the world’s most popular actors, including John Wayne, Kirk Douglas, and Charlton Heston, as well as singers Peggy Lee, Bing Crosby, and Frank Sinatra.
Sinatra says, “My pal Perry Como was born the seventh son of a seventh son, and you just don’t get any luckier than that. But it wasn’t luck that brought him the half-century of success, love, and admiration from millions of fans throughout the world, especially me. I’ve always admired Perry’s ability to combine a solid sense of musicianship with a laid-back charm, making everyone feel comfortable in his company. For a long time, people have kidded Perry about his lack of excitement, but, like a well-oiled machine that functions best with a minimum of noise, Mr. C has mastered the skill we all strive to achieve: effortless elegance.”
Como was born and raised in the small coal-mining town of Canonsburg in southwestern Pennsylvania. His first professional singing performance was with the Freddie Carlone Band.
“I was doing pretty well with my own barbershop outside Pittsburgh and gave that up to be a singer,” Como says. “That’s gutsy, but I figured I could always go back to cutting hair.
“I had a lot of fun with that band. My wife and I had a little car, and we would drive from California to Chicago and Dallas and New York.”
In 1936, Como joined the popular Ted Weems Orchestra. “Then I got a little more serious,” Como says, but I still wasn’t serious enough to give up the shop. I said to my wife, ‘We’ve had enough fun. Let’s get the hell home and do some work and make a living. We certainly won’t make it in the bands.’ You make $150; you spend $200. To me, singing was a lark. It’s hard to make people believe that. But if it hadn’t been for my wife, I don’t think I would be singing today, because we had fun and a few dollars. The man who really influenced all of us was Bing [Crosby], and he was a very dear friend. I used to buy all his records and find out what the hell he was doing and try to emulate him.”
Throughout the 1940s, Como’s voice and popular personality earned him millions of fans. He appeared with the Weems band through 1944 and then began a solo career that included smash-hit bookings at the Paramount Theater on Broadway. His Chesterfield Supper Club radio show premiered in 1944 and made Como a household name. His million-selling RCA Victor singles and albums included “Till the End of Time,” “Because,” and “Don’t Let the Stars Get in Your Eyes.” He appeared in the Hollywood musicals Something for the Boys, Doll Face, If I’m Lucky, and Words and Music.
Composer and arranger Ray Charles, who began his television association with Como in 1948, says, “Perry was already a star by the time he went on television, but he didn’t come on like a star. His personality was such that he wasn’t intrusive. You looked at him like a friend of the family, and that’s how he was treated by the audiences. His whole approach is very nonthreatening, which is one of the reasons men like him as well as women.”
Como says, “Television is a medium that you can’t fight. I always compare it to somebody knocking on your door. If you don’t particularly care for their company, you won’t let them in. It’s the same thing with television. That’s why I always began my show by saying, ‘Thank you for inviting us into your home.’ If the audience isn’t happy with you, they just won’t tune you in. That’s why there’s no pretense in television. You can’t put on airs. If you do, you are doomed. If you are a singer, you just do what you do and hope to God the audience accepts it.”
Como’s easygoing manner became legendary. “I got a kick out of live television. The spontaneity was the fun of it. We tried to do the best we could with the best songs available and let it go at that. What we did must have been hitting the right chord, because we were on for about 400 years — a very long time.”
Today Como maintains a brisk concert schedule between golf matches and other engagements. Last year in Tokyo, Como sang at a dinner honoring former President Ronald Reagan and Mrs. Reagan, his hosts for two performances in the East Room of the White House.
Charles says, “Perry is singing magnificently now. He’s 78 this year, and when he starts singing, everybody looks at everybody else because he sounds just wonderful. When he walks onstage, there’s an aura about him. The whole room feels it. You know you’re in the presence of an important person. And Perry sustains that feeling throughout his performance.”
“There was a time when Perry was going for tone. He was listening to the way he sang, as opposed to what he was singing,” Charles continues. “He sings lyrics now, even though he’s got a big voice if he wants to use it and a big range. There’s great strength at the top of it, but he gets embarrassed. It’s like, ‘I got the job. Why am I singing so loud?’ Perry has a very relaxed and a very soft, lovely voice. Singing is a personal experience for him. The person in the audience is the microphone. That’s why he doesn’t sing loud very often. You don’t say, ‘I love you’ loudly. You say, ‘I love you’ softly, and that’s the way he sings.
Jay Leno, who toured with Como in 1977 and 1978, says, “The great thing for me was that Perry was always very down-to-earth. It was like being with an uncle or a relative or someone who just happened to sing for a living. There was never a show business connotation to it. He enjoys his fame, he’d stop and sign autographs, but he never took it very seriously. He’s just a class act, a real nice man. He’s a good role model for performers on how to handle show business.
Como says, “I don’t know what makes people accept one singer over another. Sometimes they accept the person themselves. Sometimes they accept the music. Sometimes they accept the voice. What I always tell kids who write to me for advice is: Keep singing.”
This tribute originally appeared in the Television Academy Hall of Fame program celebrating Perry Como's induction in 1989.