The Crooner

Posted: May 20, 2001 12:00 AM
Perry Como died in his sleep, and one comments, How else? He was, if not the founder of the casual mode, its pre-eminent prince, and his reputation was made mostly by that attitude toward music. 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 by 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, howl -- howling not a little, but a lot.

Perry Como, we read, was kindly treated by the critics but not adored. It is judged that he was never, finally, a megastar. He did sell a 100 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. Frank Sinatra, by contrast, was always a Presence, and expected to be treated as such. Although Perry Como sang into his 80s (he died age 88), his big years, in the movies and on television, were behind him by the late '50s, which is when Elvis Presley materialized, to swamp the scene until the Beatles more or less took over.

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 'n' 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 toward the song's end, 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'. Como would surely have liked it that way. He consented to spotlights beamed on him only as necessary to perform for his audiences, in nightclubs 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 teen-ager, 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, N.Y. 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 midflight 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'am, why don't you try this?" He proffered my mother a 2-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 the courtesy.