Perhaps Perry Como is remembered today as an affable host of periodic television specials and Christmas shows, as a middle-aged man in a leisure suit singing duets with some hottie of the moment. That impression would be just fine with Mr. C — the shows were wholesome, the entertainment was excellent. But that impression would be extremely limiting, and far too narrow for a vocalist and performer of Perry Como’s caliber.
Probably the most telling evidence of his talent is in the vintage footage of his television performances from the 1950s. They’re readily viewable on Youtube. The performances are so flawless that most appear to be lip-synced, however most were live. Como would lip-sync some promotional shoots, but very rarely lip-synced a performance. There is video footage of “Papa Loves Mambo” that is so singularly flawless, complete with dancing during the bridge, that it is very difficult to separate the live performance from the hit recording. Be assured, it was live. Perry was simply a perfectionist.
Few people realize that the “Singing Barber” was a little older than the average crooner when his career finally did kick into high gear. He joined Freddy Carlone’s Ohio-based orchestra in 1933 at the age of 21, then later had some success with Ted Weems’ orchestra. After Weems disolved his band in 1942, Como signed with Columbia, but his records stiffed. A year later he signed with RCA and had some modest successes. The minor hits didn’t make much headway, and legend has it that by mid-1944, Como felt that at age 32 his time had passed. He was set to return to Pennsylvania and his barbershop when NBC Radio asked him to host the Chesterfield Supper Club program. Beginning in December of ’44, Perry Como automatically became a household name. A year later, age 33, he had his first massive hit with “Til the End of Time.” This song would become one of the all-time monster chart hits, staying at number one for an incredible ten weeks. It also set a benchmark for the manner in which he liked to record. The session included a 22 piece orchestra, and although the session lasted three hours, the actual recording was done in two takes.
Como was meticulous in his approach to recording. He would experiment with different keys, tempos, and phrasing, but once he landed on a sound that he thought was correct, Perry stayed with it. Even 40 years later, audiences could expect a Perry Como performance to sound virtually unchanged from the recording they knew and loved.
It’s no secret that he was regarded as “casual,” with an easy singing, laid-back style. His onstage presence was antic-free and indeed laid-back, but his vocal performances were anything but casual. Como’s singing was usually letter-perfect, and his ability to hit the right note was so uncanny that he simply made it look easy. It is important to realize that he did not need to amplify his voice significantly to reach difficult notes, and so appeared not to be laboring to do so. Casual? Not at all. His talent made it seem so.
By the early 1950s, Como was in his forties. Just as he had picked up the torch for an aging (but still strong) Bing Crosby, Perry saw new — younger — singers rising quickly to take his place. Frankie Laine and Johnnie Ray for example. Eddie Fisher was another. Fisher’s appeal was so strong so quickly, Perry didn’t hesitate in recording a few duets with the rising star. “Watermelon Weather” was a solid hit from this collaboration. Although Como marveled at Fisher’s incredible voice and undeniable talent, he couldn’t understand the young star’s inability (or perhaps unwillingness) to get his timing right. In retrospect, it was probably just a disagreement over styling, but Perry claimed that Eddie didn’t hit the beat correctly. Fisher supposedly tried to do it Como’s way, but didn’t get it. Either way, the duets were certainly good, even if they didn’t meet Mr. C’s strict standards.
Although history talks about Como’s “slump” in the mid 1950s, it was hardly that. The hits kept on coming, although not to the heights he achieved in the 1940s. Still, the Perry Como sound was everywhere. He generally managed to have something on top-40 radio, but with more and more competition, songs like “Juke Box Baby” or “Tina Marie” couldn’t hit the #1 position, although “Hot Diggity” and “Round and Round” would top the charts. Finally, at the age of 46, Como’s career reached its zenith in 1958 with the double sided smash hits “Catch a Falling Star” (#1) and “Magic Moments” (#4). This record was the first certified by RCA as a million-seller, and helped Como garner the first Grammy for Male Vocalist of the Year. Considering this was the era of Elvis and the explosion of rock and roll, it’s a rather impressive showing. Interestingly enough, Como quickly cooled to the idea of gold records, and it is said that he wouldn’t permit RCA to announce sales figures or award future golds.
By the mid 1960s the rich New York RCA orchestrations simply weren’t selling. Perry took a couple years off, and in 1965 was sent to Nashville where he was scheduled to work with Chet Atkins and Cam Mullins handling production and arrangements. Rather than handing out carefully arranged charts, the Nashville musicians were given basic parts with the understanding that they would work those parts in a combination of improvisation and additional takes. Como, ever the perfectionist, couldn’t comprehend this type of arrangement but set to work anyway. It didn’t take long for the hits to resume; recordings like “Seattle” and “It’s Impossible” proved that Perry meshed well with the “new” method of making records. “Seattle” didn’t chart very high, but supposedly did achieve gold record status — again, unawarded.
By the 1980s his voice had faded considerably, but his ear and his perfectionist approach hadn’t faded a bit. In 1987 Perry went to Evergreen Studios in California where he teamed with old friend Nick Perito to record an album titled Perry Como Today. Although the results were welcomed by fans, it is rumoured that Mr. C was not at all happy with his perfomance, was frustrated by certain things during the recording, and walked out on the project. We don’t know for sure if this is true or not, but Perry was ever the perfectionist. Based on some of the lackluster melodies on the record, it makes sense. That being said, one recording on the album does stand out considerably: Perry’s version of “Wind Beneath My Wings” at age 75 is incredibly moving…definitely a “magic moment.”