Born to immigrant parents in 1912 near Pittsburgh, Pierino “Perry” Como was one of 13 children.
His father, Pietro Como, was a factory worker who cobbled enough money together to buy his young son an organ and baritone horn.
Como wasn’t even a teenager when he started clipping hair at a local barber shop, while crooning to blue collar customers from the neighborhood.
Just a few years later, he had a shop of his own and assumed he’d stick with the barber profession—his family and folks around the block convinced him otherwise.
He started singing with street side musicians, then hit the road with big bands. By the early ’40s, Como was married to Roselle Belline and playing gigs at the Copacabana.
Then, RCA came knocking.
According to the Long Island Press:
In 1943, RCA Victor Records signed him to what would become a 50-year contract. His first hit record, “Long Ago and Far Away,” a radio series, and a string of million-selling recordings followed; he even beat Frank Sinatra to be named second in Billboard magazine’s annual poll. Disc jockeys called him “Mr. Jukebox.”
He perfected ballads like “Till the End of Time” and “It’s Impossible.” The New York Times’ television critic John J. O’Connor compared his personality “to a marvelous hot toddy on a cold and blustery evening.” But audiences also loved his novelty hits like “Hot Diggity,” and “Papa Loves Mambo.”
A pioneer of the musical variety show
Como made the move to TV when NBC initially televised the Chesterfield Supper Club radio program on Dec. 24, 1948. The experimental simulcast was to continue for three more shows, but the first episode had gone so well that NBC decided to extend the televised version through the summer of 1949. “You can’t act on TV. With me, what you see is what you get,” he said at the time.
By 1950, Como moved to CBS and the show’s title was changed to The Perry Como Chesterfield Show. He hosted the informal 15-minute musical variety series several times per week, and by 1952, it was clear that television would replace radio. Gary Giddins, the biographer of Bing Crosby, said in 2001, “(Como) came from this whole generation of crooners—Crosby and Sinatra, but he was the only one of them who figured out TV.”
He moved back to NBC with The Perry Como Show, which featured musical and production numbers, comedy sketches and guest stars. By 1957, it was a top 10 show, thanks to Como’s relatable charm and swooning live performances. The TV shows and specials continued, as did his love for Roselle.
The couple was married for 65 years, until her sudden death at age 84 in 1998.
Como died in his sleep on May 12, 2001, at his home in Jupiter Inlet Colony, Fla., six days before his 89th birthday.
His legacy lives on today.