Benny Green notes . . .
In 1975 I had a long conversation with Perry Como, and from what I gathered during that talk, Como would find something faintly absurd about my compiling this note. He cannot really agree that there is anything very interesting about him. He insists that apart from his singing he is a perfectly ordinary fellow, which is rather like saying that apart from his career Napoleon Bonaparte was a perfectly ordinary Frenchman. Como's modesty is utterly genuine; he is not one of those bores who wait to be cajoled into backing modestly into the limelight. In fact, so self-effacing is he that the occasion of our talk, a conversation-cum-interview for a BBC-TV profile, was a landmark in his career. In all his years in show business he had never once agreed to submit to a filmed interview of this kind. The reason he had always given was that he had nothing to say about himself which would not put the viewer to sleep as deeply as if he had been banged on the head with a sandbag. He was only persuaded to change his mind when he say the extraordinary scenes of enthusiasm for his singing and affection for himself which took place at every venue of his British tour.
In the event, of course, Como turned out to be the ideal subject for an interview, the type who makes the interviewer look good, because the answers flow so naturally that even the most stupid questions seem intelligent. Our chat revealed that Como, like all intelligent creative men, retains an abiding affection for his own roots; the programme for which we chatted was called "The Barber Comes to Town", a reference to Como's early days as a tonsorial virtuoso. (Como was running his own clip-joint by the time he was thirteen years old.) He was highly amusing on the subject of his haircutting technique, and justifiably proud of the fact that as a barber he had been a very good one. He also spoke of the beginnings of his singing ambition, and the mild bewilderment of his father, who could not for the life of him work out the economic logic of a situation whereby a young man was happy to get X dollars for singing when he could make 2X dollars for singeing. However, Como's father, who was evidentially as reasonable and as compassionate a man as his son, eventually agreed to let Como take a shot at singing for a living. This was back in the days before the arts of amplification had been worked out, and Como told me that there was one open-air venue where he used to sing through a megaphone; one day the management introduced the new-fangled vocal microphones, but Como , staunchly conservative and perhaps eager to hide his face, insisted on continuing with the megaphone. At last a compromise was reached; Como sang through the megaphone into the microphone. The mind, as they used to say, boggles.
The next part of the story is really quite dramatic considering it comes from a man who thinks there is nothing particularly interesting about him. Como rose into the semi-professional and then the professional world, married and became the father of a child. He then decided that there had been enough singing and that the time had come for a return to the haven of the barbershop. He never liked the idea of a baby being on tour, he liked even less the idea of being without the family on the road, so he calmly decided to throw up singing and go back to his home town. In many biographies of ultimately successful performers this moment would have come through as one of scarlet melodrama, anguished heart-searching, postures of breast-beating self-sacrifice. But the way Como tells it, there was nothing else a sensible, intelligent man could do. And Como actually did it, only becoming a member of the Ted Weems band after a chapter of accidents.
It was with Weems that Como must have put the final polish to an already natural singing voice. One of the most pleasing aspects of Como's singing has always been its complete lack of strain. As he has sometimes said, when he has to sing, he just opens his mouth and out it comes. "I have to lay off the wine and the spaghetti for a few weeks, lose a little weight, you know, like a fighter getting into shape, but the voice is always there if you don't abuse it." For this reason, that to sing is a perfectly natural thing for him to do, Como's voice shows even less signs of age than his face. (There is a photograph in one of the Big Band histories showing Como in the Weems band then and at a reunion now; he looks marginally more handsome in the second photograph. When I asked him how he did it, he laughed and said he didn't know what I was talking about.)
Another aspect of his modesty was his absolute astonishment at the warmth of the welcome he received on his British tour. (Like our TV interview, it was another First; difficult as it is to believe, Como had never in his career done a series of barnstorming concerts before.) He had had to be persuaded to do the tour at all, because he found it hard to believe there was any need for his art over here. When finally he came and the tens of thousands rolled up, giving him gifts and souvenirs, refusing to allow him to leave the stage, imploring him for just one more encore, rising to him like a sporting crowd which has just witnessed the breaking of a world record, he was literally overcome. He told me he had never known anything remotely like it in fifty years of singing for his supper. There had even been a short interlude when the heat of the reception he received at Glasgow induced him to go around with a tam-o'-shanter on his head.
For all these reasons, the contents of this album are a fitting consummation of the heady days of that first British tour. Como actually said to me that that tour was so happy an occasion for him that he was frightened to work anymore for fear of an anti-climax to anything. I do hope I am asked to interview him again sometime. If there is one thing I do enjoy, it is being made to look good.
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Friday, April 07, 2023