Started career in '30s, performed through seven decades

JUPITER INLET COLONY, Fla. — Perry Como, the crooning baritone barber famous for his relaxed vocals, cardigan sweaters and television Christmas specials, died Saturday at his home. Some sources listed Como’s age as 88; others said he was 87.

Como’s daughter, Terri Thibadeau, said her father was with his caregiver when he closed his eyes and died while sitting in a chair in his bedroom. He had suffered from Alzheimer’s for about two years, she said.

“We spent two beautiful hours (Friday) with dad, me and my grandson, Holden,” Thibadeau told the Palm Beach Post. “We shared ice cream. It was a wonderful moment for us.”

The charming Italian-American, whose name became synonymous with mellow, performed through seven decades, starting in the 1930s. His idol, the late singer Bing Crosby, once called Como “the man who invented casual.”

Como embarked upon a career as a professional entertainer at 21, eventually leading to a $25 million TV contract and sales of well over 100 million records.

He left his job as a Pennsylvania steel town barber to sing with big bands in the 1930s, and his songs were a mainstay of radio and jukeboxes in the late 1940s.

Loved variety

Although he appeared in a few Hollywood musicals in the 1940s, among them “Something for the Boys” (1944), “Doll Face” (1945), “If I’m Lucky” (1946) and “Words and Music” (1948), it was on television where he really felt at home and achieved enormous popularity. He helped pioneer variety shows in the 1950s and performed on television specials over the last four decades.

In 1945, Como had his first of more than a dozen million-selling hits, “Till the End of Time”; many of his songs, including “Prisoner of Love,” were chart toppers. He competed with Frank Sinatra and Crosby to be the era’s top crooner and was voted best vocalist in a magazine poll in 1953.

While Como emulated Crosby in his early years, some of his best-known numbers were light novelty songs like “Hot Diggity” and “Papa Loves Mambo.” Como often said he preferred singing romantic ballads, but the novelty songs were a frequent audience request.

“They get tired of hearing ‘Melancholy Baby’ and those mushy things,” Como said in a 1994 interview. “But those are the songs that, as a singer, you love to sing.”

Some music experts say Como, with his naturally melodic baritone voice, might have carved a deeper niche had he taken firmer control of his material.

Will Friedwald, author of “Jazz Singing” and an expert of music from Como’s era, once called Como “a marvelous singer” who “seemed to do everything they put in front of him.”

First ‘Supper’

Como made his television debut in 1948 on NBC’s “The Chesterfield Supper Club.” In 1950 he switched to CBS for “The Perry Como Show,” which ran for five years. Como returned to NBC for a variety show that ran for eight years, first on Saturday nights opposite Jackie Gleason, then on Tuesday night.

During the ’50s he won several Emmys for his TV work.

In 1963, he gave up the regular TV show and began doing occasional specials. Rock ‘n’ roll had crowded out the crooners who once charmed hordes of screaming bobby-soxers.

His career saw a resurgence in the 1970s with songs like “It’s Impossible” and “And I Love You So,” as well as several bestselling Christmas albums.

In 1987, President Reagan presented Como with a Kennedy Center award for outstanding achievement in the performing arts.

In 1994, Como put out a three-CD boxed set, including his most popular songs since he started recording in 1943. And his former hit “Catch a Falling Star” — for which Como won a Grammy in 1958 — became familiar to a new generation of fans from the Clint Eastwood/Kevin Costner movie “A Perfect World.”

Como said he occasionally tired of the jokes about his somnambulant style, although he found a skit on the SCTV comedy show particularly amusing. The spot showed a Como impersonator lying on the floor nearly comatose with a microphone in front of his barely moving lips as dancers leaped about him.

Laid back

His casual legend grew from his first pressure-packed appearances on the pioneering medium of live TV — with its crashing scenery, misplaced cue cards and camera confusion.

“I decided the only thing to do was to take it as it came,” he recalled in a 1985 interview. “People wrote in asking how I could be so casual. It all started to grow.”

Pierino Roland Como was born May 18, in 1912 or 1913, in Canonsburg, Pa., the middle offspring of 13 children of Italian immigrants.

At age 11, he went to work sweeping floors after school at a barber shop in the town just south of Pittsburgh. He learned how to cut the hair of coal miners and other workers, and by the age of 14 he had his own barber business earning $150 a week. His pay dropped off during the Depression when he went to work for another barber.

But he got an offer to sing with Freddie Carlone’s band in Cleveland in the early 1930s. He began his rise in show business when he was signed to sing with Ted Weems’ big band in 1936, a relationship that continued for six years.

In 1943, he began what turned into a 50-year contract with RCA-Victor Records with the recording of the song “Goodbye Sue.”

In his later years, Como lived in semi-retirement with his wife Roselle, whom he met at a picnic when he was 16 and married in 1933. They divided their time between the North Carolina mountains and the Palm Beach County town of Jupiter where he played golf, took long, brisk walks and entertained his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Mrs. Como died in August 1998, less than two weeks after she and Como celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary.

Even as he grew older, the graying Como retained a tanned, fit appearance and youthful charm.

In addition to his daughter Therese, Como is survived by two sons; 13 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

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