Late Como

Music - Richard Cook on the man who created casual

Bing Crosby created microphone singing, Louis Armstrong made it swing, Frank Sinatra made it the stuff of consenting adults. All three of them, though, might have to defer to another as the most enduring singer in pop. Perry Como has outlived all his peers and every fashion in popular singing. He was still performing until quite recently, although, at 86, even those gilded tones must have lost their creaminess now. Crosby himself called Como "the man who invented casual", some compliment from the singer who gave crooning a good name. Mysteriously, though, Como has been neglected in the CD era. His big and enormously successful discography for RCA has been largely consigned to compilations of one sort or another. The latest of them, The Definitive Perry Como Collection (Camden DeLuxe, 49 tracks) surely lives up to its title, even if it does show him at his worst as well as his best.

Como's blamelessness might be the secret of his success. His marriage lasted 65 years. Even when he was a young man, singing with the Ted Weems Orchestra in the 1960s, he seemed avuncular, unflappable. His voice seems very deep, at times ready to rumble around some baritone area, but he was really a well-rounded tenor. He often sang very high notes with the same ease as he found in his bottom register. Listen to "I Know" (1959), a ludicrous piece of cod-opera, yet something given a little distinction by the way Como breezes through the sequence of big lines that crescendo the tune. If there were a moment of histrionics, it would fall apart, but Como's art is never touched by hysteria. "Don't Let The Stars Get In Your Eyes" (1953) was his first big hit on both sides of the Atlantic. It was a song he disliked, and insisted on singing only once, in order to get out of the studio quickly. It's not an easy song to sing. But his one-take rendition is flawless.

He was right, though. It's an indifferent piece of hack songwriting, with a chorus of barking trombones and a platoon of backing singers that bup-bup-by-ah their way through their part. But it was this kind of novelty tune that RCA was giving to Como for his singles, and these were records that succeeded on a huge scale. It is not unfair to look back on this period as the worst years in pop music: the swing era dead, rock not yet dawning, R&B still trying to be born. American singers were being fed the worst kind of nonsense, Sinatra, Crosby and Armstrong included. Alone among these masters, Como treated each song with his placid, dignified commitment. "Chi-Baba Chi-Baba" or the awful "Zing Zing Zoom Zoom" have fortunately been left off this set, but "Hot Diggity (Dog Ziggity Boom)" is, alas, here. When rock did come along, Como ironically scored a big success with the bewildering "Juke Box Baby" (1956), which sounds like a loathsome granddad eyeing up a tryout cheerleader.

Going through Como's albums of the same period tells a different story, and it's a pity that this set only skims off a few tracks from albums such as We Get Letters, Como Swings, So Smooth and A Sentimental Date With Perry Como. What Como did on such records was drop the novelty fluff and sing the best of the American songbook, purveying a grown-up viewpoint that wasn't so far removed from Sinatra's worldly-wise American Man (he was, after all, only a year older than Sinatra). Where Sinatra suggested pain and the getting of wisdom, Como was an everyman who seemed to exude a likeable integrity. His singing was so smooth that a lot of the time he seemed to be lying down, but the effortless style and mellifluous tone are qualities which are peculiarly his: nobody else was ever so intensely relaxed.

Is he due a revival? If genuinely pallid singers such as Andy Williams and Johnny Mathis can have their comeback, there's no reason why the greatest cardigan of them all can't have another day in the sun.

The Definitive Perry Como Collection (Camden DeLuxe) is on general release

This article first appeared in the 10 April 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The long war against democracy