A musician friend once mentioned that he’d heard someone describe Perry Como’s voice as sounding “like mashed potatoes.” Neither of us quite understood the analogy, but I think it might have had to do with mashed potatoes being comfort food. They’re homey, not fancy. And Como had a relaxed, comforting singing style and an informal approach to his performances.
That easy-going style grew naturally out of Como’s beginnings as a performer: he sang to the customers in the Canonsburg, Pennsylvania barber shop where he worked as a teenager. His break came in 1933, when he joined Freddy Carlone’s big band. He moved to the Ted Weems orchestra 3 years later. When that group broke up in 1942, CBS gave Como a 15-minute radio show, which led to a recording contract with RCA Victor. His first hit was “Till the End of Time,” a 1945 song based on a Chopin polonaise.
Como moved to television in 1948 and by 1955 had his own weekly, hour-long musical variety show. The Perry Como Show always included two popular segments. First, “We Get Letters,” during which Como sang a listener request. (The song used to introduce that part of the program, “Letters, We Get Letters,” turned up later on The Late Show with David Letterman as the theme for his “mailbag” segment.)
For the “Sing to Me Mr. C” portion of the show, Como—usually wearing a cardigan sweater—walked onto a set containing only a stool, a music stand, and a microphone. He sat down and deftly delivered his version of a standard, making it look effortless. Fellow crooner Bing Crosby once said that “Mr. C” could have stood for “Mr. Casual.”
Beginning in 1959, Como hosted another tv variety show, the Kraft Music Hall, that aired until 1967.
I’ve been surprised to find that Perry Como songs don’t interest my senior audiences much. Maybe that’s because his career really took off in the 1950s, a decade that, in general, doesn’t appeal to them musically. Or maybe the songs need Como’s voice to work well, not a piano alone. Still, I occasionally play one of his hits: “Dear Hearts and Gentle People,” “Magic Moments,” “Dreamer’s Holiday.” Other 1950s successes featured what some describe as Como’s “vocal acrobatics”: “Don’t Let the Stars Get in Your Eyes,” “Round and Round,” and the novelty song “Hot Diggity Dog Ziggity Boom.” I usually steer away from those.
Como helped launch the careers of some budding songwriters. For example, “Catch a Falling Star” (1958) was an early effort of Paul Vance and Lee Pockriss, who struck gold in 1960 with “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.”
Warm personality, good looks, nice voice—Como had it all. I will spare you a video of “Hot Diggity,” and instead offer the song that brought Como out of semi-retirement in 1971: “It’s Impossible.”
As comforting as a bowl of buttered mashed potatoes.
Copyright © 2015 by Paulette Bochnig Sharkey
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