When music-business conversation turns to the subject of the great singers of popular music, certain names invariably come up: Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Peggy Lee, Billie Holiday. Perry Como is rarely mentioned; and this puzzles me.
Not that Mr. Como has lacked for success. Few singers in the history of popular music have reached the pinnacle he has. The public loves him. Even the profession loves him. In my ten years in the music business, first as a critic and then as a songwriter, I have never heard a word spoken against this man. In a business shot through with jealousy, gossip, intrigue and animosities, both petty and major, this is remarkable.
Despite his immense popularity, Como is rarely given credit for what, once you stop and think of it, he so clearly is: one of the great singers and one of the great artists of our time.
Perhaps the reason people rarely talk about his formidable attributes as a singer is that he makes so little fuss about them. That celebrated ease of his has been too little understood. Ease in any art is the result of mastery over the details of the craft. You get them together to the point where you can forget about how you do things and concentrate on what you are doing. Como got them together so completely that the muscles dont even show. It seems effortless, but a good deal of effort has gone into making it seem so. Como is known to be meticulous about rehearsal of the material for an album. He tries things out in different keys, gives the song thought, makes suggestions, tries it again, and again, until he is satisfied. The hidden work makes him look like Mr. Casual, and too many people are taken in by it but happily so.
I have of necessity given a good deal of thought and study to the art of singing, and Comos work consistently astonishes me. He is a fantastic technician. Listen in this album to the perfection of his intonation, the beauty of the sound he produces, the constant comfortable breath control. And take notice of his high notes. Layman are often impressed by the high note you can hear for five blocks. Professionals know that it is far more difficult to hit a high note quietly. Como lights on a C or D at the top of a tune as softly as a bird on a branch, not even shaking it.
And then theres his phrasing. A number of our best singers phrase well. The usual technique is to rethink the lyrics of a song to see how they would come out if you were saying them, and then approximate in singing the normal speech inflections and rhythms. This often involves altering the melody, but it is a legitimate practice and when done well can be quite striking. But Como is beyond that. He apparently does not find it necessary to change the melodic line in order to infuse a song with emotion. A great jazz trumpeter once told me, "After fifteen years of playing, Ive come to the conclusion that the hardest thing to do is to play melody, play it straight and get feeling into it." Como has been doing this from the beginning.
Stylistically, he comes out of the Bing Crosby-Russ Colombo school. That was all a long time ago. Como has been his own man for many years now. He sounds like nobody else. And nobody sounds like him, either. He is hard to imitate precisely because his work is so free of tricks and gimmicks. There are no mannerisms for another singer to pick up from him. All one can do is try to sing as well and as honestly as Como, and any singer who does that will end up sounding like himself, not Como.
I dont say these things out of friendship or loyalty. I dont even know Perry Como. As a matter of fact, hes probably the only singer in the business I dont know. I saw him once, though. It was evening, and he was standing with a couple of friends or business associates on Sixth Avenue in front of Rockefeller Center laughing at something, his hair grayer than I had expected it would be, his face deeply tanned, a strikingly handsome man with a smile that lit up the street. I wanted to rush up and say something about how much I dug his work. But that would have been uncool. Right? And besides, think how many times hes heard it all before. The stoplight turned green and Perry Como crossed the street in that wintry sunset, and that was that.
So I dont know him from the proverbial hole in the ground.
I just listen to him.
Gene LeesPerry Como with the Ray Charles Singers Arranged and Conducted by Nick Perito Produced by Andy Wiswell RCA Victor LSP-4052 Recorded in Webster Hall, New York City in 1968 Recording Engineer: Bob Simpson
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