Como died in his sleep, and one comments, How else? He was if not
the founder of the casual mode, its
preeminent prince, and his reputation was made mostly by that attitude
He treated it, evidently (I am not an expert) as a continuing lullaby,
and dug in his heels against the modern movement that decreed that
only unmusical music is tolerable. One has the temptation, if caught
with such music, to level a shotgun at a booster and require him/her
to narrate what his clomping enthusiasm was all about. What was
the melody he heard? Could he sing it? Write it out? Hum it? No.
The nearest reconstruction he could make would be to find a drum
and cymbal and just beat on them, and maybe, if he is studious in
the imitation, howling; howling not a little, howling a lot.
Perry Como, we read, was kindly treated by the critics, but not
adored. It is judged that he was never, finally, a mega star. He
did sell a hundred million records, and one year he beat out
in the dispositive Billboard magazine's annual poll
Dick Haymes and Frank Sinatra. But the keenest ears were looking
for something more, which had already come along with Bing Crosby,
whom Como aped, and was smashingly there with Ella Fitzgerald and
Frank Sinatra, after he retuned his whole approach to music. In
a fine tribute to Como in the Wall Street Journal, Martha
Bayles quotes Frank Sinatra on himself, a subject that engrossed
him throughout his life. "I decided to experiment a little and come
up with something different. What I finally hit on was more the
bel canto Italian school of singing, without making a point of it.
That meant I had to stay in better shape because I had to sing more."
Como was renowned for his decency, of which I had a tiny
experience. Frank Sinatra, by contrast, was always a Presence, and
expected to be treated as such. Although Perry Como sang into his
eighties (he died age 88), his big years, in the movies and on television,
were behind him by the late Fifties, which is when Elvis Presley
materialized, to swamp the scene until the Beatles more or less
Como's voice was rich and mellifluous and melodies flowed out of
him as though issuing fresh from his throat's imagination. Presley
brought an excitement to singing, in part because rock and roll
was greeted as his invention, but for other reasons not so widely
reflected on: Elvis Presley had the most beautiful singing voice
of any human being on earth.
Presley was (for some fans) primarily a balladeer. "Don't Leave
Me Now" is a love song given distinctiveness by Presley's twangy
enunciations, and sustained by the guitar and rhythm sections designed
perfectly to complement the balladeer, filled out towards the songs'
ends, as with so much of Presley, with what one conveniently calls
the heavenly choir, which wafts him home but never overwhelms the
country lilt Presley gives his music.
One supposes that there are biographies out there about Como because
there are biographies out there about everybody. But nothing on
the scale of Sinatra's or Elvis's. Como would surely have liked
it that way. He consented to spotlights beamed on him only as necessary
to perform for his audiences, in night clubs or on television. Otherwise
he was happiest serving merely as a presence in the room. Elvis
was capable of strong, even overwhelming attachments, though he
dealt in serial women. By contrast Como was married for 65 years,
and his wife died before him. It was only with some reluctance that
he agreed to abandon the barbershop he had started up as a teenager,
in order to pursue his career as an entertainer. He tended to close
his programs with a song that, as often as not, mentioned God, whom
he sought to serve, and from all reports succeeded in doing so.
I experienced his personal grace. The scene: an Eastern Airlines
Flight to Niagara, New York. I would deliver the commencement address
at Niagara College and receive, with others, an honorary degree.
My proud mother, age 78, accompanied me and was dismayed in mid-flight
when the top button on her suit fell off, leaving the jacket's neckline
at an elevation lower than her modesty required. I asked the stewardess
if she could come up with a safety pin. From across the aisle a
gentleman also bound to Niagara for an honorary degree leaned over
and said, "Ma'm, why don't you try this?" And proffered my mother
a two-inch-long pearl and diamond brooch. "You can give it back
to me," Perry Como smiled, "after the ceremony."
But when that moment came, he said to her: "I don't want it back.
It looks so nice on you." Thirty-five years later, I seek to return