he left, seventeen months into the century in which he didn't
belong. His timing was always good. Perry Como saw it all from
singing through megaphones to sampling. A lot of history died with
him. He was an unlikely cultural icon, and he'd dismiss the notion
with a shrug. But a cultural icon is what he was. He reflected a
culture back at itself. He was what they wanted to be, the millions
who saw him every week: not just rich and successful, but decent,
family-centered, even-handed, quietly confident, an ideal neighbor.
Perry Como figured out understatement. How much effort does it take before it appears effortless? Perry didn't carry it off with quite the panache of Dean Martin, but neither did he take it to the point where 'no sweat' became 'no interest.' Perry figured out television, too. If you came of age between 1948 and 1963, he was in your living room at least once a week. Intuitively and instinctively, he knew what it took to work the new medium. Had he tried to be something he wasn't over those fifteen seasons, he'd have been unmasked as an imposter. In person, he was a little saltier, a little funnier, a little sharper, but still very Perry. People felt they knew him because they invited him into their homes and, to all intents and purposes, they really did know him.
But Perry Rocks? He would have been aghast at the notion, and of course he didn't really. Rock, that is. But he had some very canny A&R men who knew just how far they could take him before he objected or his audience forsook him. To his credit, Perry's dumb songs weren't trivializations of R&B songs whose original versions had passion and integrity. One of the few R&B songs he recorded, Ko-Ko-Mo, began life stupid. Likewise, Perry's dumb songs were written as dumb songs, and Perry himself brought an insouciant self-effacing humor to them as if he was saying, "Sure they're rubbish, but hey a guy's gotta eat."
Pietro and Lucia Como arrived in the United States from Italy around 1903. They settled in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, just southwest of Pittsburg, across the river from Steubenville, Ohio, where Dean Martin, another son of first generation Italian immigrants, grew up. For the Comos, the New World was an almost exact replica of the Old. Pietro worked at Standard Tin Plate, but he and Lucia continued to speak Italian, never learning more than a few words of English until they died. They ate the food and drank the wine of the old country, attended church, and sang the songs they'd always sung. Women with less than five children were thought barren; the Comos had thirteen. Some were born in the old world, some in the new. Pierino, or Perry as he became known, arrived on May 18, 1912, the seventh son of a seventh son.
Third Avenue in Canonsburg is now Perry Como Avenue. Just the idea of it elicited a wince from Perry. He didn't like that sort of thing. For the first five years that Perry ran up and down what would become Perry Como Avenue, he didn't speak English. He only began picking it up when he went to school. The mines and the mills where many of the immigrants worked were not for him: he would be a 'barbiere.' Nick Tosches reckoned that between one-half and two-thirds of Italian immigrants declared that they were 'barbiere.' Even the great Caruso had been a barbiere. Perry started apprenticing when he was twelve, and took over an established business when he was fourteen with two grown men working for him. "A haircut was fifty cents; now I pay twenty bucks. Maybe I got out too soon," he said. Another shrug. Maybe he'd told that joke too often. Perry had a guitar, and led his own barbershop quartet in his own barbershop, and played valve trombone in a brass marching band. On July 4 and Italian saints' days, they would parade around Canonsburg. "My father walked right alongside me in the crowd," said Perry. "That's-a-my boy, you know. He loved music."
When it came to singing, Perry freely admitted to two influences, Russ Columbo and Bing Crosby. Perry always went out of his way to acknowledge Crosby's influence. Crosby has been portrayed as unlovable, sour-tempered, and miserly, but that's not the way Perry remembered him. "He was supposed to be surly, tough, but he was never that way with me," he said, "He was gentle. We got along. Played golf, did each other's shows, but he couldn't take a compliment. One time we did a duet on television, and I said, 'If it hadn't been for him, folks, I'd still be cutting hair.' He was embarrassed, almost insulted. Afterward, he said, 'Perry, don't say that.'"
Around the time that Crosby became really popular in 1931 and 1932, Perry was getting up on stage around Canonsburg to sings the hits of the hour. Then, during a spring vacation in Cleveland in 1933, he went to see a local bandleader, Freddie Carlone, and auditioned. Carlone offered him a job, but Perry's barber shop was a thriving business netting him around $40 a week, and he needed some prodding from his father to go with Carlone who was only offering $28. He met the band at a park in Meadville, Pennsylvania. His girlfriend, Roselle Belline, came up there with him. Neither could face their parents if they weren't married so they went to see a justice of the peace in Meadville on July 31, 1933, just a few days after Perry officially changed profession. For years, he kept up his membership in the Barbers Guild. Just in case.
Carlone led what was known as a territory band. It had thirteen pieces and they toured up and down the Ohio valley, and did a little radio but never recorded. When they weren't working, Carlone's brother would take Perry to a club in Cleveland where he would sing for his tips. "Some guy would ask to hear 'Melancholy Baby,' I'd sing it, he'd put a buck into a jar," said Perry. "I did better with that than I did with the band." It was around this time that amplification became commonplace. Prior to that, singers would use megaphones. Perry had a megaphone with stardust painted on it. Now he was confronted with the new technology, but was slow to embrace it. "Freddie would say, 'Sing in the goddamn thing!'" he remembered, "and I'd say, 'No, I want to sing with the megaphone,' so in the end I sang through the megaphone into the microphone and it sounded awful. I don't think I ever knew how bad."
Carlone's band was run by three brothers, and Perry was treated as the fourth Carlone. After a show, they'd pay off the band, then do a four-way split. Perry felt so much a part of the outfit that he didn't even respond to a wire from the self-styled 'King of Jazz,' Paul Whitman, offering him a job. Carlone tried to persuade him to leave, but Perry was adamant that he wanted to stay, and, when an offer came from Ted Weems in 1935, Carlone had to push him out the door. Weems had heard Perry at a casino in Warren, Ohio, and wired him. "Ted was the same kind of man as Freddie," said Perry. "Gentle. A gentleman. I was doing well, sending money home to my dad, ten dollars, twelve dollars. Roselle came with me on the road. We had an old Packard, we'd load it up, put a mattress in there for my son Ronnie who was just a few months old, and we'd hit the road. California. Wherever."
Perry was just one of several featured vocalists in the Weems outfit, and was at a double disadvantage when it came to recording because Weems recorded for Decca, and Perry sounded so close to Bing Crosby, who also recorded for Decca, that the label balked at using him. On one of his first sessions, Dave Kapp, the brother of Decca president Jack Kapp, said to Weems, "Why are you letting him sing? Hell, we got one Crosby." Perry didn't hear this, but he saw the confusion, and an engineer told him later. "It was like someone was stabbing me," he said. "Here I was trying to get on record."
Perry was happy with Weems, but the constant touring irked him and when the band broke up after Weems' enlistment in December 1942, Perry decided he'd had enough. Over Roselle's objections, he went back to Canonsburg to pick up where he'd left off. He said he came to his decision during a show date in New Orleans. "We were playing the Roosevelt Grill," he said, "and I noticed a little boy about eight. He was the son of one of the musicians in the band. I looked at this kid, sitting there among the strangers, lonely and restless, and I said to Roselle, 'Is this what's going to happen to Ronnie?' There and then I decided to quit." It was 1942, one of those moments when all the cards are in the air. War had started and the big bands were dissolving because of the draft and gas rationing. Former star vocalists, like Sinatra, Peggy Lee, and Dick Haymes, were testing the waters on their own. Then the Musicians Union threw a curve into everyone's plans with a recording ban.
Booking agent Tommy Rockwell called Perry as soon as he heard he'd gone back to Canonsburg. The story goes that Perry was on the verge of signing a lease on a barbershop when he got Rockwell's wire. "He was the top agent," said Perry, "I'd have been a fool not to go with him." Recognizing that Perry hated the road, Rockwell mapped out an alternative strategy. He put him in some New York nightclubs, and landed a show on CBS radio at 4:30PM. It looked like a downwardly mobile move, from $700 a week in the clubs to around $75, but Rockwell gave Perry a little stash of money to draw on, and told him to keep the faith. When Perry returned to the clubs, Rockwell got him into the Copacabana where his two-week stint was extended to thirteen. By the time Perry began at the Paramount, he was getting the screams and squeals reserved for Sinatra, and drawing lines around the block. Perry Como -- Teenage Idol! Perry shrugged and winced at the memory. Even at the time, he was dismissive. "It's just a trend," he said in 1945. "Press agents have planted (the screaming) in the kids' heads."
Rockwell talked to RCA Victor Records, a company that needed a crooner to go head-to-head with Crosby and Dick Haymes on Decca and Sinatra on Columbia. RCA vice-president Manie Sacks signed Perry on June 17, 1943. Starting in April 1944, Rockwell got Perry on NBC radio's Chesterfield Supper Club. Perry did three nights a week and Jo Stafford did the other two. Then came 'The Perry Como Show' on CBS radio. And then came movies. "Oh, please, please," said Perry. "I get sick to my stomach when I see them."
The recording ban ended, but Perry's big hit remained elusive. During the closing months of the war, he recorded a xenophobic jive number, A-Hubba, Hubba, Hubba. In March 1945 General Curtis LeMay had ordered the indiscriminate firebombing of Tokyo that resulted in 100,000 deaths (and would have resulted in LeMay being tried as a war criminal had the United States lost the war). "A friend of mine in a B-29 dropped another one for luck / As he flew away, I heard him say, 'Hubba, hubba, hubba, yuk, yuk." A few verses on, Perry meets a buddy "in the know" who assures him it's getting "mighty smoky over Toke-ee-oh." A hundred thousand dead bodies will do that. Perry shrugged at the mention of the song: wartime, you know.
Then the hits started coming: Till the End of Time, Prisoner of Love, and so on. Even Perry admitted that everything was looking swell. On December 24, 1948, 'The Chesterfield Supper Club' moved to television. Perry did three 15-minute shows a week. Most of his contemporaries were ignoring television in favor of movies, radio, and concerts, but he reduced a complex equation to a blindingly simple one. "I don't want to sound like Methuselah," he said, "but people had just started buying television sets. They'd tune in, and if they liked you, they kept tuning in." Perry didn't shout at people while they were having their supper. He quietly charmed them, and by the time the '50s dawned, he no longer needed to do personal appearances. Record sales went up and down, but for three decades Perry seemed able to pull himself out of a slump. He was the last to take the credit for this, acknowledging that most of his biggest hits were songs he did not want to do. "Every piece of crap I hated became a really big hit," he said. "I'd tell the A&R (artists and repertoire) man, 'I can't sing that garbage,' and he'd say, 'Just do one take -- one take for me.' I'd say, 'I'm gonna get ill if I do two.'"
Don't Let the Stars Get In Your Eyes was Perry's biggest record from the early '50s. Originally a hillbilly record by a Texas deejay named Slim Willet, it was so wretchedly sloppy and off-key that no one could see its potential. Willet was forced to issue it on his own label, and, after plugging it himself, it became a regional breakout in Texas. Very quickly, there were half-a-dozen country versions, and then Steve Sholes, the head of RCA's country division, brought it to Perry's attention. Pop covers of country songs were doing well (Tony Bennett's Cold, Cold Heart and Patti Page's Tennessee Waltz, to name two), but Perry hated Don't Let the Stars. It was out-of-meter and it wasn't his type of song. But just a few weeks before the session, RCA had lured him out of the television studio long enough to do a tour of distributors. He'd been told how the jukebox operators came in, listened to the first few bars of a record, and decided whether or not to stock it. The distributors were looking for songs with short, loud introductions and snappy tempos. Traditionally, Perry had always favored the exact opposite, but now it was time to rethink. Arranger Mitch Ayres set Don't Let the Stars . . . to a brisk Latin rhythm, and kicked it off with a loud, brassy intro. The session got off to a bad start when Perry came in, looked up into the control room and saw Dave Kapp, the man who had refused to record him when he was with Ted Weems. "I walked in, and I said to the engineer, 'What's he doing here?' The engineer said, 'He's with RCA now. He's the A&R man.' I got on the microphone so everyone could hear. I said, 'Hi Dave, get the Hell out of there. Get that son-of-a-bitch out of there.' I had him put out. I told him why and he said he was just kidding back then." Perry's version of Don't Let the Stars Get In Your Eyes was a terrific record. The engineers took the vocal and the forty-piece orchestra, mixing them down on-the-fly to single-track tape. An incredible achievement in itself. The sound leaped out of the grooves, and the record streaked to #1. By June 1953 it had sold one-and-a-half million copies, just in time for Perry's tenth anniversary with RCA. As a token of gratitude for 35 million sales, RCA built a pressing plant in Canonsburg.
Then the rules began to change. Perry was studiedly diplomatic when it came to rock 'n' roll. Someone else's negative comment might elicit a knowing nod from him. Maybe he'd grimace, shrug, or make a vaguely disparaging sound, but he knew that every generation had to have its own music. "Play 'Stardust' or 'Till the End of Time' to the kids," he told 'Saturday Evening Post' in 1960, "and it doesn't mean a thing. It's strictly for Spanish-American War veterans. I can imagine that twenty years from now when somebody sings 'Hound Dog', it'll make some guy in his late thirties recall some beautiful nostalgic moment. When I hear 'Hound Dog' I have to vomit a little . . . but in 1970 or 1975 it will probably be an ancient classic." Perry Como: prophet of the reissue record business.
Perry also knew that too much was happening too quickly to rock 'n' roll's first stars. They didn't have the grounding in the business, much less in music. When he worked Vegas in the '70s, he saw the toll it had taken on Elvis Presley. Elvis would come to Perry's dressing room. "He'd sit there by the hour and never say a word," said Perry. "Just sit there. I'd say, 'How's it going Elvis?" He'd mumble something, 'Fine, Perry, fine, fine.' I wondered why he came down." Perry knew something strange was going on, but never really wanted to know what it was. The closest Perry came to rocking was at a July 1957 session when he did Just Born to Be Your Baby (co-written by black songwriter Luther Dixon who later masterminded the Shirelles' success), and Dancin' by rock 'n' roll's premier songwriters, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.
For Perry, rock 'n' roll compounded his problems. In September 1955, he'd moved from CBS to NBC, and his new hour-long Saturday night show was pitted against ratings king Jackie Gleason. At the time, Perry downplayed the contest saying that those who wanted musical variety would watch Perry Como, but it was a rivalry both intense and awkward because Gleason was a neighbor and a friend. "Sunday morning the phone would ring," said Perry, "and I'd say, 'That's Jackie.' I'd pick it up and he'd say, 'Old silver throat, I knocked your ass off last night.' Another night, we'd get a point ahead of him in the ratings and I'd phone him and say, 'Hey big ass, last night we knocked your ass off,' and he'd hang up on me." Perry's mother-in-law, who didn't understand English, loved Gleason. She called him "Jackie Glissi." Knowing how much it would mean to her, Perry phoned Gleason and asked him to put in an appearance at the Como house while his mother-in-law was there. "I was worried he was gonna turn up stark naked with a lampshade on his head," he said, "but she was sitting in the kitchen at nine o'clock one morning, and Jackie knocked and walked in. 'Well hello there Mrs. Belline . . .' I swear, she thought she was dreaming. Here was Jackie Glissi. He prattled on, danced around the table with her. Finally, he said, 'Well, Mrs. Belline, I have to get the Hell out of here. I have to work a show opposite this old muthafucker here.' She didn't know what the hell he was saying. I called him later, I said, 'Anything you want, you got it. In fact, I'll even do one of your shows so the ratings will be better.'"
One difference between Como and Gleason was that Gleason pre-taped while Perry still went out live. Perry thought that going live gave his show the spontaneous edge that variety needed, but it had its pitfalls, too. He remembered one show with Esther Williams that , over the course of an hour, went from damage control to disaster. As soon as she appeared, she tore off the piece of lace designed to camouflage her cleavage. Then the lighting crew messed up, and the audience laughed hysterically through the romantic number. At the end, Esther was in a pool on the set, so Perry just said "Goodnight folks," and jumped in fully clothed. Another time, Julie London insisted on wearing a very low-cut dress. Perry's producer tried to talk her out of wearing it, and Perry walked into rehearsal to hear her screaming, "Goddamn, if he wants boys why doesn't he get boys." Perry tried to calm things down, but, as he said, "It's tough telling people to change their act. They knew what they were selling. People would call me Father Como, but we weren't playing Holier than Thou, we just knew our audience. We didn't try to offend, we just tried to entertain."
Perry finally bested Gleason in the ratings, as he would later best Sinatra on ABC. His success led rival production companies to assume that any personable singer could fly in the ratings, but Perry's show was the only musical variety show to consistently place in the top five. Like him or not, Perry Como was woven into the fabric of life. The only shows to outdraw him were 'I Love Lucy' and 'Gunsmoke.' It all seemed so informal that journalists were astonished to learn that the show actually took the best part of a week to assemble and rehearse. It aired on Saturday night, and at eight o'clock on Monday morning the production team met to begin planning the next one. Perry never minded the pace, because he loved what he was doing. Recording sessions were sandwiched between television commitments. The choice of material was left to RCA's A&R staff, and, much as he detested their picks, the fact remained that while his peers from the '40s and early '50s were swept aside, he hung onto his core audience and still got Top 40 airplay. Songs like Tina Marie, Juke Box Baby, Hot Diggity, and Round and Round hinted broadly enough at rock 'n' roll to get played, but never so broadly as to alienate the long-time fans. It was a skilled tightrope act.
"I owe television everything," said Perry. "It sold records, sold everything." He used television to test-market songs. Round and Round was previewed on the show and the response persuaded him to cut it, despite the fact that he (of course) hated it. In April 1957, it hit #1, and stayed 29 weeks on the charts. Hot Diggity made Perry wince too, but he sung it on the show, and the crowd seemed to like it. If he checked 'Billboard' on May 5, 1956, he would have found that it had joined Elvis Presley's Heartbreak Hotel in the top slot. Perry also has the distinction of having the first certified gold by the Recording Industry of America. Until 1958, published sales figures had been highly unreliable, but, starting that year, the RIAA tried to verify and audit record company claims, and the prestigious Gold Record was awarded for actual sales of one million copies. The first of four records certified gold in 1958 was Catch a Falling Star / Magic Moments. The Latter, incidentally, was an early entry from Hal David and Burt Bacharach.
Magazine writers were assigned to penetrate the Como enigma. Was he really that mellow? Was he really that nice? Was he really the God-fearing and family-loving man he seemed? It didn't make very good copy, but the writers usually came away believing that Perry Como was more-or-less as he appeared. No one could keep up a front that long. The only criticism that seemed to hurt was that of laziness. Perry had never known a lazy person work so hard. "I'd like one of those writers to follow me around for six months," he said. "They'd start panting quick." But, try as he might, he couldn't lick the illusion that he spent an hour a week on his television show, cut a record in five minutes, then headed for the golf course. No journalists were invited back to his house on Long Island to meet Roselle and the family, and he remained one of the few show business personalities to refuse an interview on Edward R. Morrow's 'Person-to-Person.'
In the Fall of '59 Kraft Foods took over the sponsorship of Perry's show. In an unprecedented deal, Perry's production company, Roncom (for Ronnie Como, his son), produced the show for Kraft, which in turn sponsored it on NBC. Roncom was paid the unprecedented sum of $25 million for two years. Out of that, Perry had to meet all expenses. Even the casual asides scripted by ex-Milton Berle gag writer Goodman Ace cost him $11,500 a week. attracting around 45 million viewers in North America at its peak. Then in 1963, as the ratings sagged a little, Perry gave up weekly television in favor of specials . . . first eight a year, then six. By the time he quit the weekly schedules, he had become part of the family. "Television will do that," he said. "You can't consciously go out and try to build that sort of thing. We tried to bring on guests that people wanted to see, and we could tell from the letters what we meant to people. I've still got some of the letters." Perry truly loved his audience. He didn't talk down to them. He was a good neighbor who dropped in once a week and didn't overstay his welcome. Quitting in '63 was a good move. Perry was inextricably bound to the '50s, and if you reckon that the '50s really ended around 1964, then 1963 was the time to go. Six months after he did his weekly show, the Beatles arrived. The turbulence of the mid-to-late '60s was on the horizon, and the '50s' quiet, buoyant optimism, which seemed to find its embodiment in Perry Como, forever disappeared.
The six years with Ted Weems had cured Perry of any desire to tour, and he'd steadfastly refused all offers for concert appearances, even Vegas, since 1950. He had never been overseas, with the exception of a twenty-fifth wedding anniversary trip to Italy with his wife, which included an audience with Pope Pius XII. So he toured again. The changes ran deeper: he gave up the novelty songs that had gone over so well for so many years. The last big novelty hit was Delaware, and we leave the Perry Como story soon thereafter. Around the time the TV show ended, Perry also parted company from Mitchell Ayres who arranged many of these recordings and worked on Perry's TV show almost from its inception. In 1969, Ayres was killed in a traffic accident in Las Vegas.
Perry charted records in the 1940s, '50s, '60s, and '70s. Perhaps the key to his success was his small-town-ness. Even his face was that of a man who had long ago come to terms with himself. "Some people like dogs," Perry said. "I like people." His audience instinctively knew that, and reciprocated. "I never wanted to give the people the impression that I was above them," he said. "People would come up to me like I was a friend, and then they'd realize at the last minute they'd never met me." He applied the same philosophy to his music. On the early records, he hit the neo-operatic notes, but they soon disappeared, not because he couldn't hit them anymore, but because he stopped singing at people and started singing to them. The goofy singles underscored the fact that he didn't take himself too seriously. He didn't become greedy and demand a share of the music publishing or insist that songs be drawn from his publishing companies. While Elvis was nodding out in the corner of Perry's dressing room, he might have asked Perry about that. There are still plenty of lessons to be learned from Perry Como.
Toward the end, Perry's memory wasn't so good. If you could supply names, he'd keep the story going; if not, he'd shrug and fall quiet. It was, he kept saying, a long time ago. And it was. Asked about life with Roselle at home in Jupiter, Florida, he said, "We stare. We stare a lot. At one another, at the ocean. At space. At night when we sit on the sofa, she stares at me. I stare at her." Roselle died in August 1998, just weeks after their sixty-fifth anniversary. Perry sat alone on the sofa until May 2001.
Colin Escott Nashville, December 2005
Telephone: (902) 542-5226