Volume One Notes
RCA VICTOR VPS-6026 (e)
To a generation of record buyers he was that rare personality and stylist — a singer who was known worldwide through a single letter of the alphabet. No last name, no first, just Mr. C. And everybody knew you meant Perry Como.
It was a remarkable achievement in that his fame was as impersonal as that of Leo the Lion. Mr. C. did not make headlines. He was involved in no sensational escapades. He did not even make personal appearances in clubs and theatres. (His recent three week SRO engagement at Las Vegas' International Hotel was the first in 27 years.) Mr. C.'s hold on people was uniquely the product of a voice — warm, cream smooth and expressive — and of a style — relaxed, affectionate and low-keyed. As Dream Along with Me (I'm On My Way to a Star) was his TV theme song, so he was the singer par excellence of dreams. For the men and women who came out of World War II and the youngsters who grew up during those turbulent times, his voice became the expression of the quiet love, the good-natured fun and the peaceful life they had long been dreaming about.
In the year that the war ended for Americans Mr. C. exploded on the record scene with a lyrical adaptation of Chopin's Polonaise in A-Flat. Titled 'Till the End of Time, it contained an echo of the war in the stately, martial sound of the polonaise, but it was more appealing in its expression of an unquenchable yearning for permanence and an enduring love. The following year (1946) Mr. C. scored with a ballad identified with Russ Colombo, a crooner of the Rudy Vallee-Bing Crosby era. With Prisoner of Love he demonstrated that his career was "on its way to a star." From that time Mr. C. became a consistent hit-maker on the record scene and a wonderfully welcome figure on the TV tube.
The gentle humility and humanity that are part of the Como image were qualities that Mr. C. came by naturally, He was born in the small mining town of Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, in 1912. His own circumstances were so humble that by the time he was 11 he was working in a local barbershop. In Steve Fragapane's three-chair tonsorial parlour, Perry swept the floor, stropped the straightedge razors and performed other menial tasks. But, like any enterprising youngster, he studied the craft of the men working at the chairs and, after several years, got to give an occasional shave and haircut. He was not yet finished with high school when he felt confident enough to open his own shop. He remained a full-time Canonsburg barber until he passed his 21st birthday.
It was his feeling for the art of the barber of Seville that brought a drastic change in Mr. C.'s life and circumstances. Never a garrulous man, Perry sang as he barbered, in time he became acquainted with musicians whose bands traversed the area, many of whom were impressed by his voice. When he was offered a job with a Cleveland dance band in 1933, he was faced with the difficult choice of giving up $125 a week as a barber for $28 a week as a vocalist. He took the cut.
Perry's lucky number came up three years later. The Freddy Carlone band, with which he was singing, was then working at a gambling casino in Warren, Ohio. "Ted Weems came in one night in 1936," Perry recalls, "played the double O in roulette and won. Then he came downstairs where we were playing and heard me sing. Art Jarrett had just left him and he offered me the job."
Becoming associated with Weems was for Perry like Sinatra's moving some years later from Harry James to Tommy Dorsey. Weems was not nearly as big a name as TD. His was a Midwestern, a Chicago band rather than a New York or nationally known orchestra. But Weems' was a name band in the era of Big Dance Bands and Como's pay went up to $50 a week. More important, like Dorsey's, Weems' was a singers band, with Como being one of six vocalists; among them whistler Elmo Tanner, novelty singer Red Ingle and torch singer Marvell Maxwell (later Marilyn Maxwell).
When the impact of World War II began to be felt in '42 by the dance bands — musicians' shortage, gas rationing, night blackouts, etc. — Ted Weems broke up his band. (His record hit "Heartaches" did not happen until 1947, when it was revived by a North Carolina disc jockey.) Como immediately returned to Canonsburg, apparently intent on resuming his barbering. He did not remain long. He had been heard with the Ted Weems band over station WGN out of Chicago, and he soon had an offer to do a sustaining radio show out of New York for $100 a week. His arrival in the big town occurred just about the time when the Big Baritones (led by Sinatra and Dick Haymes) were superseding the Big Bands on the pop music scene. Mr. C. quickly became one of the Big Baritones and contributed vitally to the sound of the Big Ballad era.
Despite the impassioned and exuberant romanticism of early hits like 'Till the End of Time and Prisoner of Love, Como's voice early became an expressive reflection of the quiet and unhurried tenor of his own life. The style was the man. He was not a publicity seeker and he somehow managed to function in a hectic atmosphere with a minimum of tension. He was known to be a well-adjusted family man with three children. Although his voice soon made him a rather wealthy man with many business interests, he remained a dedicated golfer who never missed an opportunity to play. A careful and demanding craftsman, he even succeeded in keeping the pace and pitch of his record sessions low-keyed.
Como's gross record sales are in the 50-million class, but he is too cool to tell you how many Gold Records adorn the walls of his study. What is interesting about these million-copy sellers is not merely their number but their range. While love, everlasting or unrequited, is a major theme of his repertoire, he scored mightily with material in other, contrasting categories.
A delicate sense of comedy was always in evidence on Mr. C.'s television appearances. Long before he became a TV superstar — and signed a two-year Kraft Music Hall contract for $25 million — Como displayed a friendly ear for comedy and novelty songs. There are several gems in this collection. Papa Loves Mambo, out of the mid '50s, is a delightful spoof on the cowbell-and-grunt type of Latin dance. Hot Diggity (Dog Ziggity Boom), adapted from Chabrier's famous España Rapsodie, is a rather novel way of describing the romantic feelings stirred by a particular miss, just as Caterina, with its infectiously happy sound, offers a good-natured comment on a light-hearted miss with a "long list."
And then there's Delaware, with its extended play on the names of states — "She called to say Hawaii" and "Where has Oregon . . . Alaska." Como's charm transforms what could have sounded corny or contrived into something deliciously funny. As the canon or round is a perpetually appealing device , Como's use of it in Catch a Falling Star and Round and Round yielded flawless and timeless discs. Seldom has counterpoint been so impressively uncluttered or "the fade" used with such memorable impact; the sound just keeps going "round and round" in your head long after the record is finished.
Como's talent in overwhelming material is nowhere so evident, perhaps, as in Don't Let the Stars Get in Your Eyes. A country rhythm song written by Slim Willet and launched by him on a small record label, the ballad has very contemporary characteristics. Like many rock songs, it keeps changing meters and has an unorthodox form. In 1953 it struck pop ears as offbeat or simply crude, depending on the catholicity of your aesthetics. Como approached it warily, as well he might. But the record he made not only has drive and excitement but it became one of his biggest-selling singles.
In a large sense all these accomplishments would be minor or meaningless if Como did not stand forth as one of the supreme ballad singers of our time. At the opposite end of the emotional spectrum from Sinatra, he is cool, detached, soothing. But his romanticism can also be dramatic, as in Rodgers and Hammerstein's No Other Love, impassioned, as in Temptation, and soulful, as in Because.
This two-volume retrospective is a journey through pop music from 1945 to 1957 and later, a memorable tour conducted by a master singer who was once appropriately called, in the lingo of the bobby-soxers, a "durable dreamboat."
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