This story was published in Radio Recall, the journal of the Metropolitan Washington Old-Time Radio Club, published six times per year.
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PERRY’S FIRST MEMOIR DEEPENS APPRECIATION
Perry Como: A Biography and Complete Career Record
by Malcolm Macfarlane and Ken Crossland
Foreword by Michael Feinstein
73 photos, discography, bibliography, index, 310pp. hardcover (7 x 10) 2009
Book Review by Jim Cox © 2010
(From Radio Recall, February 2010)
For those who are resolute Perry Como fans, and their number may be legion, it must have been surprising that perpetually there are lots of biographies about other pop vocalists of the past (Bing, Frank, Dinah, Rosemary, Al, Vaughn, Ginny, Jo, Mel, Rudy) and so little about him. That changed when a couple of Englishmen who’ve studied the genre more than four decades, Malcolm Macfarlane and Ken Crossland, recently completed a narrative filling the void.
The authors bring to life events that impacted a Como we never knew. Initially a promising young Italian-American barber at Canonsburg, Pa., he seemed totally dismissive of his own potential at his start as a singer. Breaking free of the rather obscure existence prescribed for him, Como made his way onto the stage. From modest beginnings in 1933, he performed with bands (Freddie Carlone, Ted Weems) at scores of venues. This led him into radio (and pervasive exposure), recordings, film (his only self-acknowledged disaster), TV (and superstar status), plus limited personal appearances.
Macfarlane and Crossland provide a whole lot more than a mere tracing of the entertainer’s profession. They offer insights into what was behind that handsome, polished exterior belting out so many easy-going tunes. While Como habitually came across as smooth, unfettered, laid-back, he could be intolerant when he felt a situation warranted, lashing out in displeasure. He also had a long memory. When a Decca recording official stabbed him in the back, informing a source one Crosby-sounding singer was plenty, the remark got back to Como. He let it go, for awhile. When the man appeared at a Como recording session 15 years later at RCA, vengeance overcame him. “What the hell is he doing here?” asked an enraged Como. Told the man had recently been added to RCA’s payroll, Como exclaimed into the studio mike: “Hi Dave. Get the hell out of here!” He recounted what prompted his retribution to onlookers. It was a side of Como fawning fans never witnessed.
Another time, in 1944, Como and singer Mary Ashworth co-hosted radio’s Chesterfield Supper Club backed by Ted Steele’s orchestra. NBC provided Martin Block to announce the weeknight quarter-hour (that Martin Block, of Make Believe Ballroom fame). In a behind-the-microphone struggle, Como was determined he,not the instantly recognized announcer, would be the show’s star. He took over the task of introducing and chatting with visiting guest celebs rather than allowing Block that honor, a practice on most similar series. Singers usually sang and seldom spoke. Como’s ambitious attempt to promote his own personality paid off at the expense of falling out with Block. Again, something we never knew.
What we did believe—and the authors confirm—is that Como was a devoted family man, true to one woman, Roselle Bellino, whom he wed in 1933 in Meadville, Pa. He was faithful to her until death unexpectedly took her August 12, 1998. The pair celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary less than two weeks earlier. Following her passing Como “seemed to give up his desire to live.” He was too ill to attend an 87th birthday party Cannonsburg staged for him in 1999 at which a life-size statue was unveiled. He died at Jupiter, Fla., May 12, 2001.
The treatise reveals numerous examples of Como’s own understanding of his simplicity, his desire for privacy, and a largely self-effacing persona. Once he summed up his career to a reporter with: “I was a barber. Since then, I’ve been a singer. That’s it.” It was the Como we heard and saw and gravitated toward and it reaffirms that most people’s suspicions were well-placed.
The only shortcoming here is in some of this volume’s indexing. Look up the word “radio” and all you’ll find is a single reference to “radio broadcast, solo.” Nothing more, as if Como didn’t have but one audio appearance; in fact he starred on the aural airwaves two decades. Unless you know the series on which he appeared (Fibber McGee & Molly, 1936-1938; Beat the Band, 1940-1941; The Perry Como Show, 1943, 1953-1954; Columbia Presents Perry Como, 1944; Chesterfield Supper Club, 1944-1949, 1954-1955; Weekend with Perry, 1970s-1990s) you must guess which might be his in an index referencing other features.
A trio of appendices highlights some of the superlatives in Como’s career but even there, radio—which first projected him to mass appeal—is given short shift. The initial appendix covers his recordings; the second, his TV exposure; the last, his signal achievements year-by-year, birth to death. In the latter the Como aficionado may ferret out all those radio shows in 38 pages of fine print. But that’s too much work. Did the authors fail to provide a section on radio because they, as many contemporaries, don’t view radio as that critical to an entertainer’s success? Where would Como have been without it? Waiting for TV? Who would have bought his records without a way to project them to buyers? While this appendix appears all-inclusive, it’s missing a 1969 interview with Art Ford on NBC’s Monitor in our personal collection. What others may be overlooked?
Despite these blemishes the book is a fabulous introspective that tells us what went on beyond the microphone, the recording studio and the camera. It will enhance readers’ appreciation for a gifted singer who created a following that kept him in the top tier of American vocalists in the mid 20th century. Perry Como: A Biography and Complete Career Record is published by McFarland & Company. The 300-page hardback with a large number of compelling photos may be ordered at $55 from www.mcfarlandpub.com and 800-253-2187. It belongs on the bookshelf of all who would like to know details transpiring in the life of a captivating artist who was for years at the top of his game.