sold over 100 million records during a career that spanned over half a century. Eleven years after his death, we take a look back at his life and work.
Perry Como, 1956 (Wikimedia Commons/NBC Television)
Some might say Perry Como was born to be special. One of thirteen children, he was the seventh son of a seventh son, thought to be a sign of good luck by traditional Italians. Born in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, he was the first of his siblings born in America and spoke no English until he went to school (Italian was the language used at home). Though his parents were not wealthy – his father worked as a miller – they enrolled all their children in music lessons. As a young boy, Como was also fond of playing a used organ his father had bought for $3.
Como worked from a young age, helping after school in a barbershop from the time he was 10 years old. By the time he was 14, he was already considering opening his own shop in order to help support the family as his father had been forced to stop working due to a heart condition. But Como continued pursuing music on the side, joining the Canonsburg Italian Band under bandleader Stan Vinton (father of Bobby Vinton) as well as acting as a church organist, playing trombone in the town’s brass band and singing at weddings. He was only 17 when he met his future wife, Roselle Beline, to whom he would be married for the rest of his life, a true rarity in show business.
When he was 20 years old, Como moved to Meadville, Pennsylvania to work in his uncle’s hotel barbershop. His big break came in a Cleveland nightclub, where he and his friends would often go for entertainment. Freddy Carlone and his orchestra were performing and invited anyone who thought they could sing to come on stage. Urged by his friends, a reluctant Como took the microphone. Carlone offered him a job that night, but Como was hesitant as it would mean taking a pay cut and hitting the road. To his surprise, his father encouraged him to take the opportunity.
Three years later, Como earned a position with the Ted Weems Orchestra, a nationally recognized Chicago-based act who were regulars on radio shows like The Jack Benny Program. He made his first recording, a novelty song for Decca Records called “You Can’t Pull the Wool Over My Eyes” in 1936, though record executives were cool on his voice, feeling he sounded too much like Bing Crosby.
Como still wasn’t making much money, and with the birth of his first child in 1940 he opted to return to Canonsburg and go back into the barbering business. His retirement from the stage was short-lived though. CBS radio offered him a radio show – one which would allow him to be based in New York instead of touring constantly – and promised they’d help get him a recording contract. His new show aired in March, 1943. That June, he played two weeks straight at the esteemed Copacabana. One week later, RCA Victor signed him, and he would remain there for the next 44 years.
Crooners were hugely popular during the era, and Como became a favorite of bobby-soxers nationwide. His first 14 years with RCA brought him an astounding 42 Top 10 hits, a feat bested only Bing Crosby. He became the first artist to reach 2 million sales of two different records at the same time with “Till the End of Time” and “If I Loved You.”
His popularity over the airwaves landed him a contract for the big screen, and he appeared in several largely forgettable movies for 20th Century Fox (often starring opposite Carmen Miranda and her hat) but found his talents perfectly suited for television, starting as host of NBC’s The Chesterfield Supper Club in 1948. Two years later, he moved to CBS for The Perry Como Show, before taking the show back to NBC where it had its best run, remaining on air for 8 years. He sang requests that came in through the mail, demonstrated his barber skills by giving Kirk Douglas a trim live on-air, and became known for his signature cardigan sweaters. He was often scheduled against his friend Jackie Gleason and the two would engage in good-natured banter over the telephone each week when the ratings came out.
After 1963, he retired from the show, but still appeared on TV in more than 30 holiday and seasonal specials before his last in 1994. He was also a regular on the talk and variety show circuit, appearing on The Bob Hope Show, The Carol Burnett Show, Laugh-In, Sesame Street and a host of others. For his contributions to radio, film and TV, he was honored with no fewer than three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
A committed family man, Como insisted there was nothing particularly interesting about his life. “I've done nothing that I can call exciting. I was a barber. Since then I've been a singer. That's it."
Como died on May 12, 2001 in his sleep, six days shy of his 89th birthday. But the charts weren’t done with him yet – five years after his death, his version of “Jingle Bells” topped the Hot Ring Tones chart.
Not bad for someone who never did anything exciting.
Originally published May 2011