Tue | Nov 12, 2019

The Music Diaries | Como The Singing Barber among longest serving entertainers

Published:Sunday | November 6, 2016 | 12:00 AMRoy Black
Perry Como, the singing barber.

The success of the Jamaican barber Shawn Powis in the award-winning documentary, The Fade, rekindles memories of Pierino Roland Como, better known as Perry Como, one of the earliest and smoothest romantic crooners, whose exploits as the singing barber elevated him to the highest echelons of international music.

Like Powis, Como was very passionate about his tonsorial career and would oftentimes burst out into singing while he gave his customers a haircut or a shave. As a young barber, Como certainly didn't see himself becoming a singing star as, at first, he sang merely for his own self-satisfaction, then it turned out into 'something extra' for his customers - the action apparently pulling customers into his clientele. What Como didn't realise, was that he had a good voice and sooner or later, someone was going to pull him into the spotlight.

From the very day he was born in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania on May 18, 1912, Como had the legendary marks of good luck all over him. He was the seventh son of a seventh son. He was born in the month of May and also died in the month of May, the date of his demise coming six days short of his 89th birthday, on May 12, 2001.

The first American-born child for his parents (who both emigrated to the U.S.A in 1910 from Italy), Como did not begin speaking English until he entered school, as he grew up hearing Italian being spoken in his household. He quickly learnt English and soon began fooling around with an old piano at home.

Como's early musical inclinations encouraged his father to give him music lessons, although no consideration was given to voice training. He also began to exhibit a deep interest and love for doing haircuts and first practiced on his father. By age 11, Como was helping to make ends meet within a struggling family, by sweeping the floor in a barber shop. It wasn't long before he learnt the trade and began working at it, before and after school. By age 21, Como owned his own barber shop and was sure he wanted to make the tonsorial trade his career. But music was always waiting on the horizon for him and as long as the singing barber continued to entertain his customers, there's always the real possibility of him bursting on the music scene.

It happened when one of Como's impressed customers brought him to the attention of bandleader Freddy Carlone in 1933. An audition was arranged and Como agreed to do it, more as a concession to satisfy his friends than out of a desire to get into show business. His acceptance as a vocalist with the band, meant that Como would be divorced from what he loved most. It was a hard decision for the young barber, especially at a time when the shop was raking in $125 a week. His parents helped him to make that decision by convincing him that he could always continue where he left off, should the music business fail.

During the 1930s and early 1940s, bands were the order of the day, as they represented the only real opportunity for vocalist to showcase their talents and ultimately to get into the recording studio.

Como made the best of it and gradually built an appreciable following in Cleveland and its environs. His next move to the Ted Weems band in 1936, was a major step for him. Apart from offering a whopping $50 per week, Weems band offered the type of exposure that began to push Como irreversibly to the top. When the band broke up in 1942, Como became concerned about his future and again began to entertain thoughts of returning to what he loved most - barbering. But with favourable offers continuing to pour in from booking agents, managers and band leaders, Como finally relented.

His stint with Weens' band precipitated his radio debut, which led to the name Perry Como first appearing on record labels. Initially he had a few undistinguished recording for the Decca record label between 1935 and 1943, before doing his first single - Goodbye Sue, for the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) record label in 1943, the very year he signed a recording and radio show contract with the label. It was indeed his big break.

Two years later he had his first number one hit and first million-seller, Till The End Of Time, making him the first artiste to break the million-selling mark.

Recorded July 2, 1945, the recording reached the Billboard charts the following month, spending 17 weeks on the charts and peaking at the number one spot. Other hits followed, like Magic Moments, Prison Of Love, A Nightingale Sang In Berkley Square, Catch a Falling Star and Don't Let The Stars Get In Your Eyes. Those who were around in the 1950s, may well be inclined to indulge in some moments of nostalgia, as the romantic crooner expresses his deep obsession with stars:

"Don't let the stars get in your eyes

Don't let the moon break your heart

Love blooms at night

In daylight it dies

Don't let the stars get in your eyes".

The 1952 recording was a number one hit on the U.S., Billboard charts. Catch a Falling Star (1957) was also number one and won a Grammy in 1958 for the best male vocal performance.

Magic Moments, with its whistling introduction, peaked at number four in the U.S., and climbed to number one on the U.K., singles chart. A great many of his subsequent recordings sold more than a million copies each.

Perry also had several co-starring roles between 1944 and 1948 in the movies - Something For The Boys, Doll Face and If I'm Lucky - while his popular Perry Como Show, drew millions of listeners.

A scrutiny of his record catalogue, reveal no less than 400 recordings in a 60-year career, 50 of which were spent with RCA; one Grammy award; 27 gold records and sales in excess of 100 million. Como's career stretched way into the 1990s, making him, perhaps the longest serving entertainer of all times.