The Kennedy Center

Perry Como


Perry Como
(singer, born May 18, 1912, Canonsburg, Pennsylvania; died May 12, 2001)

When he was an 11-year-old apprentice sweeping floors and stropping razors in Steve Fragapane's three-chair barber shop in the small mining town of Canonsburg, PA, he dreamed of cutting hair. Several years later, as owner of his own shop, he began to think he would like to sing like a young newcomer to the musical scene called Bing Crosby. He contented himself with serenading his customers with this new style of delivery as he cut their hair and shaved their whiskers until, at the urging of a friend, he traveled to Lorain, Ohio, to audition as a vocalist with Freddy Carlone's dance band. That trip launched him on his way to a star.

Born Pierino Ronald Como, Perry was the seventh son of a seventh son in a family of 13 children, and he started helping out in the local barber shop to earn extra money for the family at the age of 10. At 14, with no professional barber school training, he had his own shop with two barbers working for him. He worked there after school well into the nights. Young Como was also playing the Sousaphone in the town marching band.

It was in 1933 that he got the job with Freddy Carlone. It was also the year he married his childhood sweetheart Roselle Belline. When he found out that singing with the Carlone band would pay $28 a week, he almost declined the offer since he was making more than four times that amount cutting hair. He took the plunge with what he later termed as "more than a few misgivings."

Como toured with the band for three years through Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio until one night in a gambling casino in Warren, Ohio, he struck luck--on stage, not at the tables. Band leader Ted Weems happened to be there.

"Ted played the 'double o' in roulette and it came in," Como recalled later. "Then he came downstairs where were working and he heard me sing. Art Jarrett has just left him, so he offered me the job."

With the change came a jump in salary to $50 a week, and for the next six years, Como's life was a series of one-night stands across the country, with a few radio shows and record dates thrown in.

Como almost went back to cutting hair in December 1943 when Ted Weems entered the armed forces to serve in World War II and the orchestra disbanded. He was negotiating a lease for the barber shop in Canonsburg when he got an offer from CBS to star in his own radio show.

That same year, established with his wife and three-year-old son and 15-minute nightly radio show in New York, he landed engagements at the Copacabana and Versaille nightclubs and the Paramount and Strand Theaters. He also signed a recording contract with RCA Victor.

His first single was "Goodbye Sue," but it was not until two years later that he had his first million-seller, "Till the End of Time." His subsequent hits included "Hubba-Hubba-Hubba," "Because," "Temptation," "Prisoner of Love," "Wanted," "Don't Let the Stars Get in Your Eyes," "Papa Loves Mambo," "Hot Diggity," "Round and Round," "Catch a Falling Star" (for which he won the first Grammy in 1958 as Best Male Singer), "It's Impossible," and his theme,"Dream Along with Me (I'm on My Way to a Star)." By 1946, he ranked number three in the nation (right after Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra) in a Downbeat poll.

Although he appeared in several motion pictures during the 1940s, Something for the Boys, Doll Face, and If I'm Lucky (all co-starring Vivian Blaine and Carmen Miranda) and Words and Music, it was with his recordings, radio, and television that he made his impact.

He made the transfer to television in 1948 as host of "The Chesterfield Supper Club" a 15-minute, three-nights-a week show he had been doing on radio for four years. From 1950 to 1955, his 15-minute "The Perry Como Show" was broadcast on CBS. From 1955 to 1959, an expanded version with the same title appeared on NBC. From then until 1963, his weekly television show was "The Kraft Music Hall." At that point, he quit "the weekly grind" and opted for occasional specials taped from various parts of the world. He won Emmy Awards in 1954, 1955, 1956, and 1958-59. In 1956, he also won a Christopher Award and was named Variety Club's Personality of the year.

In addition to the occasional special, Como has, in recent years, headlined in person concerts in Las Vegas and in arenas ranging from Westbury, Long Island to Australia. His crooning style of ballad singing has enabled generations to "dream along" with him and believe for a while that they, too, were on their way "to a star."

Image for Perry Como