Nicest Guy Perry Como's Wednesday Night Music Hall
in Show Business

In the multimillion-dollar class now as television entertainer, Perry Como found success by doing hardly more than living his own life and singing the songs he loves best.

By Charles Dexter, New York
for "The Star Weekly"
Toronto, October 29, 1955

"This singing business is crazy," said Perry Como, a few days after he had signed a $15,000,000 contract for a period of 12 years with the National Broadcasting Company.  A barber works 14 hours a day and makes maybe $50 a week.  An engineer, a doctor, a writer    they sweat and study for years before they make a buck. But I've been paid $50,000 for recording a song hit.  And now  "

Perry, one of the United States favourite singers of sweet songs, stars in a variety show on NBC-TV in a series which began this fall. His show goes on the air a half-hour before Jackie Gleason's, at 8 on Saturday evenings. When Jackie signed an $11,000,000 contract with the Columbia Broadcasting System, it was the biggest news on television row in years. Perry's pact, at an even higher figure, received little publicity.

"I told my press agent to send out a news item and let it go at that," he explains. "I was thinking of little-fellows, like I used to be. They'd sit in front of their TV set and say, "Okay, Como, let's see what makes you worth all that dough.'"  

Perry was sitting in his office in one of Rockefeller's Centre's skyscrapers, looking not a day older than in 1942, when he suddenly zoomed to stardom. 

Those were the days when Bing Crosby's popularity as a crooner was at its peak and when bobby-soxers were rioting wherever Frank Sinatra warbled. Bing's private life, horses, golf and manifold business activities have been in newspaper headlines for nearly a quarter of a century. Frankie's loves, labors and private opinions are equally well known. But Perry has remained a virtual man of mystery even to his most fervent fans.

The slim, dark Italian-American with the liquid voice is seldom interviewed and rarely mentioned by gossip columnists. He is never seen at the ringside tables of smart cafes. His intimate friends call him "the nicest guy in show business." His outstanding characteristics are his shyness and his deep loyalty to his family.

Swing Era Rise

Things just happen to Perry Como. Or, as he puts it, "someone must have laid his hand on my head somewhere along the line." Success has come to him without his doing much more than living his own life and singing the songs he loves best.

This season, Perry is contending for popularity with Jackie Gleason, television's phenomenal comedy star. Jackie is a man of many roles on camera and off.

Perry sings beautifully but until a few years ago he sang only ballads. He has never taken a music lesson. He has never wielded a baton before a band. He has appeared in four Hollywood movies in which he sang but did not act. He knows a few dance steps. Recently he has become fairly proficient as an ad-libbing light comedian, but he has never tried to do slapstick and never will. He owns no horses and has but one hobby, golf. In fact, his success would be difficult to explain if one did not know that he possesses a unique personality, which wins and keeps friends, on and off the TV screen.

When Perry tries to analyze the source of his popularity, he inevitably talks about his childhood. "I was one of 13 children, you know, " he says, "Pop, who was born in Italy, was a mill hand who never made more than $175 a month. When I was 11, I was working in a barbershop, sweeping up hair, helping the customers put on their coats and learning the trade. When I was 14, Pop somehow found enough money to open a barbershop for me."

"We Como's were poor but happy. I used to sing as I worked. I was making $40 a week when I was 20, and so I got married to Roselle Belline, who was my sweetheart when we were both in school, and is still my sweetheart today."

"In July, 1933, we went to Cleveland on our honeymoon. Before we left, my friends told me to ask Freddy Carlone, a Cleveland bandleader, for an audition. I thought it was a big joke, but I went to Carlone and sang. Then Roselle and I went home to Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, and forgot about it. A few weeks later I received a telegram. Carlone wanted me to sing for his band. Plainly I had nothing to do with getting into show business show business was thrust upon me.

Perry sang with the Carlone band for two years. In 1936 he joined the nationally popular Ted Weems band. The swing era was beginning and Perry traveled from one end of the country to the other. He was earning approximately $100 a week in 1942.

"I wasn't happy in my work. Sure, I loved to sing, but singing on the road meant that Roselle and I had no home life," he recalled. "One day the phone rang. It was the Columbia Broadcasting System. They wanted me to sing in a fifteen-minute radio show for $76 dollars a week. Roselle and I talked it over and decided to accept the offer only because it meant that we could stay together in New York City. Again, I had nothing to do with starting a new career."

"And all of a sudden things began happening to me. RCA-Victor signed me to a recording contract. I was booked into theatres and ballrooms. My radio show obtained an important sponsor.  Before I knew why or how, I was being cheered like mad whenever I sang in public. Now I realize I was wonderfully lucky. I just happened to get a new start at a time when crooners were the rage."

The first time Pop Como heard his son sing from a stage, Perry was anxious to obtain his father's approval. Pop came timidly into the dressing room. "How was it?"  Perry asked.

Pop wrinkled his nose. "Bravo," he quietly said. "But this audience do they all act like that, so loud and crazy?"

Perry knew what his father meant. "He didn't want me to get a swelled head. He didn't think much of popular songs. His favourite singers were opera stars like Caruso, Martinelli, and Scotti. It was a lesson in humility I never forgot."

Change in Style

Perry rode the popularity wave through the war years. With peace, the styles in music changed, first to brazen bop and then to "jump-tunes" with a strong downbeat. Perry had become a best-selling recording star, with such million-sales hits to his credit as "Prisoner of Love,"  "Because,"  "When You Were Sweet Sixteen," and "Temptation."

Suddenly the bottom fell out of the ballad market. Perry's sales dwindled to 200,000 per record. Unlike other star vocalists, he had let the executives of his recording company choose his numbers. In 1949 their choice was a "jump-tune."

"I listened to it," Perry relates, "and I couldn't do it. The argued with me, but I explained that I'd never tried to sing on or off beat I just sang from the heart. They insisted and I said I'd try. It took me weeks to learn how to do it properly, and then, at last, it was waxed."

The number was "Don't Let the Stars Get in Your Eyes." It re-established Perry as a front-rank recording star. In fact, it began a new era for him at a time when he was apparently losing his hold on popular taste.

Still another crisis faced the singing barber from Canonsburg. The television era had begun. For seven years millions of listeners on his 15-minute, five-times-a-week radio program had heard him. Little by little his audience dwindled. His sponsor was casting about for a seasoned performer who could make a good impression in the new medium.

An experimental TV show was inaugurated during the 1949-1950 season. "It was the toughest job I've ever had," said Perry. "Back in the old days I'd sung into a standing microphone before a band. On radio I had also worked before a standing mike. All I had to do was sing. Afterwards I was through."

"But on camera, I suddenly found myself alone in the middle of a big stage, and with no mike to lean on. I didn't know what to do with my hands. I held them out stiffly. I stuck them in my pockets. They were always getting in the way. And I had to make up, dress the part of a star. After the song ended I had to read lines and talk. I thought I'd never make it."

Another Step Forward

But Perry did "make it." He looked unprofessional before the cameras, but his home audiences liked his casual manner, his relaxed voice. He began to acquire showmanship, improving with each program. His TV audience edged up to a total of 15,000,000.

Last year Perry took another great step forward. His rivals, Bing and Frankie, had developed into dramatic actors of such quality that each had won a Hollywood Oscar. Perry had played no role but himself. Suddenly he blossomed into an ad-libbing comedian who, when he lacked a smart wisecrack in repartee, knew how to make funny faces. He became the master of ceremonies in several hour-long variety shows. He didn't toss custard pies or play the cello. He did appear in skits and did provide easy viewing. Critics acknowledged that he was ideal for the task.

Between 30,000,000 and 40,000,000 every week relax in front of TV screens with Perry Como, ex-barber, whose quietly amiable manner, warm smile and melting baritone brings him something like $1,000,000 a year.  Now 45, he lives quietly with his wife and three children when he's not at work.And then fate intervened to raise him into the multi-million dollar class as an entertainer. The success of Jackie Gleason's "The Honeymooners" had sent chills up and down the spines of NBC's executives. When Jackie announced he had been signed by CBS to that $11,000,000 contract, NBC decided something drastic must be done. Inquiries were made among sponsors as to the sales value of various stars. Perry's name topped the list. The $15,000,000 Como contract followed.

Copyright 1955 ~ The Star Weekly

Perry Como's success would be difficult to explain if one did not know that he possesses a unique personality, which wins and keeps friends. His outstanding characteristics are his shyness and deep loyalty to his family. His hobby is golf, at which his wife joins him.
 

 

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