Perry Como Born: May 18,1912-Died: May 12,2001 Part Three
Arriving in Chicago for performances in 1947, Como is met by his young fans, who get a trim along with a song.
The Comos’ first child, Ronnie, was born in 1940 while the Weems band was working in Chicago. Como left the performance to be at his wife’s side even though he was threatened with dismissal if he did so. Though Perry was now making $250 a week and travel expenses for the family were no problem, young Ronnie could not become used to a normal routine when they were able to stay in one place for a period of time. The radio program Beat the Band did not always originate from Chicago, but was often done from locations such as Milwaukee, Denver and St. Louis, as the band continued to play road engagements while part of the radio show cast. The Comos decided road life was no place to try raising a child, and Roselle and the baby went back to Canonsburg.
In late 1942, Como made the decision to quit the Weems band, even if it meant giving up singing. He returned to Canonsburg, his family, and his trade, tired of life on the road without his wife and young son. Como received an offer to become a Frank Sinatra imitator, but chose to keep his own style. While Perry was negotiating for a store lease to re-open a barber shop, he received a call from Tommy Rockwell at General Artists Corporation, who also represented Ted Weems. Como fielded many other calls that also brought offers; what was different was that he liked and trusted Rockwell, who was offering him his own sustaining (non-sponsored) Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) radio show and to get him a recording contract. The offers were also appealing because it meant staying in New York with no more road tours. As Perry pondered the job offer, Roselle told him, “You can always get another barber shop if it doesn’t work out!” Until the radio show and recording contract offers, he did not really view singing as his career, believing the years with Carlone and Weems had been enjoyable, but now it was time to get back to work. Como said in an 1983 interview, “I thought I’d have my fun and I’d go home to work.”
Perry went on the air for CBS on March 12, 1943. Rockwell’s next move was to book Como into the renowned Copacabana Night Club for two weeks beginning on June 10, 1943. One week later he signed his first RCA Victor contract and three days after that cut his first record for the company, “Goodbye, Sue”. It was the beginning of a 44-year professional relationship. He became a very successful performer in theater and night club engagements; Como’s initial two weeks at the Copacabana in June stretched into August. There were times when Frank Sinatra would ask Como to fill in for him at his Paramount Theater performances. The crooning craze was at its height during this time and the “bobby soxer” and “swooner” teenage girls who were wild about Sinatra added Como to their list, a “swooners” club voting him “Crooner of the Year” in 1943. The line for a Perry Como Paramount performance was three deep and wound around the city block. Como’s popularity also extended to a more mature audience when he played the Versailles and returned to the Copacabana, where the management placed “SRO-Swooning Ruled Out” cards on their tables.
Doug Storer, who was an advertising manager with the Blackman Company at the time, became convinced of Como’s abilities after hearing him on his non-sponsored CBS Radio show. Storer produced a demo radio program recording with Como and the Mitchell Ayres Orchestra which he brought to the advertising agency that handled the Chesterfield Cigarettes account. Initially, the agency liked the format of the show, but wanted someone else as the star, asking Storer to obtain the release of the singer they preferred, so he would be free for their new program. Storer decided to do nothing about getting the singer released from his contract. When he was contacted by the agency some weeks later, saying they were ready to put the program on the air on NBC, Storer bluntly told them the man for their show was the man they had heard on the demo recording. The program was scheduled to make its debut in about a week; the only option was to hire Como for the show. Storer then arranged for Como’s release from his CBS contract. On December 11, 1944, he moved from CBS to NBC for a new radio program, Chesterfield Supper Club.
Como meeting with songwriters’ representatives in the “Supper Club” studio. He met with the “song pluggers” every Wednesday following the West Coast broadcast of Chesterfield Supper Club.
The April 5, 1946, broadcasts of the Chesterfield Supper Club took place 20,000 feet in the air; these were the first known instances of a complete radio show being presented from an airplane. Como, Jo Stafford, the Lloyd Shaffer Orchestra and the entire “Supper Club” crew made the flights for the shows. There were two “Supper Club” broadcast flights that evening: at 6 PM and again at 10 PM for the West Coast broadcast of the show. A total of three flights were made; there was an earlier rehearsal flight for reception purposes. In addition to the instruments for the band, the plane also carried a small piano. Because the stand-held microphones were not very useful on the plane, hand-held mikes were then used, but due to the cabin pressure, they became extremely heavy to hold after a few minutes. This mid-air performance caused the American Federation of Musicians to consider this a new type of engagement and issue a special set of rates for it.
Como in concert
Como had not made a night club appearance in 26 years when he accepted an engagement at the International Hotel in Las Vegas in June 1970, which also resulted in his first “live” album, Perry Como in Person at the International Hotel, Las Vegas. Ray Charles, whose Ray Charles Singers were heard with Como for over 35 years, formed a special edition of the vocal group for his Las Vegas opening. Prior to this he had last appeared at New York’s Copacabana in 1944. Como continued to do periodic engagements in Las Vegas and Lake Tahoe, limiting his night club appearances to Nevada.
Performing live again brought Como a new sense of enjoyment. In May 1974, he embarked on his first concert appearance outside of the United States, a show at the London Palladium for the Variety Club of Great Britain to aid children’s charities. It was here where he discovered what he had been missing when the audience cheered for ten minutes after he walked onstage. At the show’s end, Como sat in a chair, delightedly chatting back and forth with his equally delighted fans. Perry returned to the United Kingdom in November for a Royal Variety Performance to benefit the Entertainment Artistes’ Benevolent Fund with the Queen Mother in attendance. Como was invited to visit Buckingham Palace the day after the show. At first, the invitation did not extend to his associates traveling and working with him, and Como politely declined. When word reached the Palace regarding the reason for Perry’s turning down the invitation, it was then extended to include all in the Como party and Como accepted this invitation. Soon after, he announced his first concert tour that began in the UK in the spring of 1975.
In 1982, Como and Frank Sinatra were invited to entertain Italian President Sandro Pertini at a White House State dinner when he made an official visit. President Pertini enjoyed their performance enough to join them in singing “Santa Lucia”. The pair reprised this routine the next year in California as part of the entertainment for Queen Elizabeth’s Royal visit. Perry was on the program by special request of the Queen.
The year 1984 found Como traveling the US with his 50th Anniversary tour. Having spent most of his professional life in radio or recording studios and on television soundstages, he was enjoying doing live performances. Even after his 80th birthday, Perry continued the concert tours. Gone, however, were the cardigan sweaters which had been a staple of his weekly television shows, and which he had actually hated having to wear. Como now performed in a tuxedo, saying, “It shows respect for the audience.” The return to live appearances also provided Como with an opportunity to have a little fun with his “Mister Nice Guy” image in a song Ray Charles and Nick Perito his closest collaborator since 1963, wrote and composed for him:
It doesn’t take a guy equipped with ESP, to see what’s cookin’ with your curiosity!
Is “Mister Nice Guy” just a press agent’s pitch? his dearest friends say he’s a …
You never thought you’d see me in Las Vegas ‘live’ I haven’t played a “club” since 1885!
It’s spelled out in dollar signs ( you better believe it! ) I can almost read your minds!
–Nick Perito and Ray Charles, “If I Could Almost Read Your Mind”