It is a great pity that Perry Como will die twice– first when he left this Earth, and again when the last generation to remember him departs as well.
Perry Como had the same problem as the members and teammates of the Big Red Machine: He was great in an era and amongst colleagues who were otherworldly-great. Generational awesomeness held all the rarity and of wonder a peanut butter sandwich. He was a crooner in the time of Sinatra, Martin, and Crosby, and that’s all I have to say about that.
It’s December, and thanks to his string of Christmas specials, we have now entered into the season of Como. But here he is again in the shadow of Crosby and Sinatra, whose “White Christmas” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” always return to the charts this time of year, seven decades after the fact; Como saunters through the background in department store soundtracks. He is already fading from regular rotation as Mariah Carey and synchronized light displays flow forward.
There’s a line in some romcom in which an elderly Italian gentleman, during a heated argument with other elderly Italian gentlemen, refers to Como as “a pimple on Dean Martin’s (posterior.)” Judging by raw talent, I’ll hear the argument. Martin’s voice was richer. But Dean Martin, bless him, was a living work of Baroque art, with the vibrato and the roasting and the German accent in his version of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Crosby was a light so blinding that it’s almost impossible to know where he ended and the rest of the entertainment industry began. And Sinatra was… Sinatra.
Perry Como’s voice was thinner and sandier than his colleagues’, lacking the clarity and innovation of a Bing Crosby, and he didn’t have much room in the high registers. He hosted a television show, but in comparison to these incandescents, he wasn’t much of a showman. He sang straight-on, a terrific member of the choir, very much still the barber providing free musical entertainment to the customers at he shop he worked from the age of 10.
If you are my age and younger, you might not have even heard of Perry Como, who once delivered a command performance for Queen Elizabeth II. Maybe that’s because he was indeed overshadowed by the embarrassment of cultural riches who were the performers of his age. But I think it’s mainly because Perry Como behaved himself.
He was married to the same woman for 65 years, and refused to include any elements in his television show that he considered in poor taste. He was separated from his wife only by her death, and treasured his Catholic faith so authentically that he refused to perform “Ave Maria” during live performances, feeling it was inappropriate for a concert setting. His favorite running joke was his own inability to remember lyrics. Perry Como didn’t just decline to sit on an ice throne built of the frozen tears of his enemies… he pretty much didn’t have enemies.
He was genuine friends with Hollywood stars and athletes, singers and politicians, but kept his family firmly separate from his celebrity. He somehow avoided the rolling wrecks that were the personal lives of his peers; while Frank Sinatra was divorcing Ava Gardner and marrying the much-younger Mia Farrow, Como insisted upon staying by his wife’s side as she gave birth to their children, even as his then-boss threatened him that he might not have a singing job when he returned.
This makes for a great man, but not great newspaper copy. His Instagram numbers would have been dismal compared to the Rat Pack’s. But– and this is the thing–Perry Como was perfectly fine with that.
Como was content to provide harmony when necessary, generous to others who where up and coming, humbly secure in his talent and happy to hand it right back. When Dean Martin appeared on his show, Dean Martin got a solo even in the midst of a duet.
This clip commands a smile all the way from the early Johnson administration. Como is perfectly happy to take the harmony so as to burnish his guest’s already tremendous spotlight.
In this sense, Como was the consummate teammate, even as he charted a solo career. He did his part and got out of the way. He carried the professional weight to demand more airtime, shinier toys, and wide tolerance of bratty behavior.
But he didn’t.
Consider this conduct in light of late 2021. Our great sports stars are well aware that they are great sport stars, and often from an early age. They quickly discern that their rare abilities, even when combined with hard work, earns them a certain amount of social elbow room.
For all the hometown boy pressure he endured, Joe Nuxhall, who played well before free agency, worked in a tire shop in the off-season. Now, money and influence quickly separates them from those of us bagging our own groceries on a Tuesday afternoon. And so we tolerate a silently agreed-upon level of simultaneous obnoxiousness and public moralizing from our athletes as long as they cover the spread. Rare is the supernova who is not only great, but who resists the temptation to cling to his greatness.
This is to be expected in a deeply fallen world, one in which we are weary of constant disappointment from any person and every institution we are so foolish as to implicitly trust. But it also blots out the labors of the utility players and the grinders, the supremely average and the lamentably steady, the really good and the almost-great. These are the men whose jerseys might not sell as quickly, but who are indispensable nonetheless.
Who’s your favorite Perry Como of the Reds? If it takes a moment for you to think of one, that’s understandable.
They’re used to it.