Perry Como: For the Good Times

The famous American crooner, Perry Como, was known for his mellow and smooth vocals and his natural manner, which immediately put guests at ease. It was said that he had the same laid-back demeanour when shopping at the supermarket, or playing a game of bowls, as he did when performing on-screen.

He was always completely natural and was known as one of the nicest guys in show business, never displaying any false airs and graces, despite selling more than 100 million records and hosting one of NBC TV network’s biggest variety shows, the Chesterfield Supper Club.

The singer, who had Alzheimer’s disease for his final two years, led a fascinating life, including working in a barber’s shop from the age of ten and renting his own barber’s chair when he was just 13, until he became more interested in show business.

Perry Como

 

Early years

Born Pierino Como, in May 1912, in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, he was one of ten children whose parents were of Italian heritage. He showed an interest in music as a toddler, heading for the family’s organ, pumping the bellows and trying to copy music he had heard, playing by ear.

His father Pietro was an amateur baritone singer, who worked as a mill hand and paid for all his children to attend music lessons, even when money was tight. In an interview in later life, Como’s mother, Lucia, said her son loved music so much that he took on jobs to pay for extra lessons, learning to play guitar, trombone and organ – although he never had voice coaching.

As a child, he was a trombone player in the town’s brass band, he sang at weddings and played the organ in church. He worked in Steve Fragapane’s barber shop for 50 cents a week from the age of ten, cutting hair before and after school. He did so well that after three years, he rented his own chair at the shop and was making a living out of it.

When Como was 14, his father had to retire from work due to ill health, so the children became the main breadwinners in the family. Como’s ambition was to become a top barber and he had his own shop by the time he was 14, in 1926. He hired two more barbers to cope with the large volume of work.

He became known as a “wedding barber”, as he would sing while he cut the groom’s hair. He became so popular he was hired for weddings throughout Pittsburgh and Ohio.

 

Singing career

In 1932, at the age of 20, Como moved to Meadville to work in his uncle’s barber shop in the Hotel Conneaut. One night, he and his friends went for a night out in nearby Cleveland, at the Silver Slipper Ballroom.

When band leader Freddy Carlone invited anyone in the audience to get up on stage and sing with his orchestra, Como’s friends persuaded him to do so. Carlone was so amazed by Como’s singing, he offered him a job on the spot. Como accepted and sang with the orchestra for three years.

He then joined Ted Weems’s Orchestra and cut his first record, You Can’t Pull the Wool Over My Eyes, on Decca Records, in 1936. According to a 1937 edition of Life magazine, Como’s crooning was “causing cardiac flutters” and he was likened to Bing Crosby.

He signed for the RCA Victor label in 1943 and recorded exclusively for them for more than 50 years! He was voted Crooner of the Year in 1943 in a poll of teenage girls, while his music was also enjoyed by a more mature audience when he played at venues such as the Copacabana nightclub in New York.

 

Radio, TV and films

In 1943, his good looks and smooth vocals led to his contract with 20th Century Fox studios to make a series of films, including Something for the Boys in 1944, Doll Face in 1945 and If I’m Lucky in 1946.

At the same time, he was forging a new career as a radio presenter. In 1944, he was invited to host a radio programme called the Chesterfield Supper Club. He made revolutionary “supper flights” in 1946, with the show being broadcast from a plane 20,000ft up in the air – something that had never been attempted before.

By 1949, the show was being broadcast both on the radio and on television. It was so popular that in 1950, the name was changed to the Perry Como Chesterfield Show. The variety show was broadcast on Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings, when he invited musical artists to perform live on the show.

In September 1955, he launched a new television show, The Perry Como Show, which focused on easy listening music and featured his own singing, along with many special guest artists.  Como often sang duets with his guests, such as his performance of Maybe in a duet with Eddie Fisher in 1956.

A poll of female readers of Life magazine at the time were asked who their ideal husband would be – Como won hands down! His popularity knew no bounds and as well as being an accomplished television presenter, he continued to be a best-selling recording artist.

The title of his famous song, For the Good Times, in 1973, written by Kris Kristofferson, summed up his life and his charmed career.

 

Later life

The critics said that one reason Como’s success was so enduring was because everything he did was in good taste. If he believed something to be in poor taste, he refused to have it on his television show – and his decision was final.

He continued to present his own TV show until 1994, when he was 82 years old, although he had reduced the number of shows. His final Christmas special was filmed in Dublin and despite having flu, he insisted it should go ahead, later apologising to the audience for what he felt was a below-par performance.

In his personal life, he married local girl Roselle Belline, whom he first met at a picnic when he was 17 years old – she was two years younger. The couple were married for 65 years until Roselle’s death in 1998. They had two sons and a daughter, 13 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

 

Alzheimer’s disease

Following Como’s death, at the age of 88, at his Florida home on 12th May 2001, his family revealed he’d had Alzheimer’s disease for two years. They hadn’t gone public with the diagnosis during his lifetime.

He had reportedly been diagnosed with the condition in 1999 and had attempted to write a will, but his family found it difficult to interpret.

Como’s daughter, Terri, confirmed that her father had Alzheimer’s and was with his caregiver when he died, although prior to his death, the family had spent two “beautiful hours” together, when they shared a “wonderful moment”. Como had shared ice-cream with his great-grandson, Holden, according to a report in the Palm Beach Post newspaper in May 2001.

Alzheimer’s has many symptoms, including memory loss that disrupts daily life and difficulties in planning things or solving problems. People with Alzheimer’s can also find it challenging to complete familiar tasks and are likely to be increasingly confused.

The condition is believed to be caused by the abnormal build-up of proteins in and around brain cells. There is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s, although medication is available that can temporarily alleviate the symptoms.

Kinderkey offers specialised bed solutions for people with Alzheimer’s, including our Stellan complex care system, which improves the safety and comfort of users who are at risk of falling or climbing out of bed.

Please contact us on 01978 820714 or email contact@kinderkeyinternational.co.uk for details of our special needs beds.

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