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Published: Sunday, 5/13/2001

Perry Como: Baritone barber was TV pioneer on variety shows


JUPITER INLET BEACH COLONY, Fla. - Perry Como, the crooning baritone barber famous for his relaxed vocals, cardigan sweaters, and television Christmas specials, died yesterday after a lengthy illness. He was 88.

The charming Italian-American whose name became synonymous with mellow performed through seven decades, starting in the 1930s. His idol, the late singer Bing Crosby, once called Mr. Como "the man who invented casual."

Mr. Como left his job as a steel town barber to sing with big bands in the 1930s, and his songs were a mainstay of radio and jukeboxes in the late 1940s. He helped pioneer variety shows on the new medium of television in the 1950s and performed on television specials over the last four decades. His music remained popular in recent years on easy-listening radio.

In 1945, Mr. Como had his first million-selling hit, "Till the End of Time." It was among many songs including "Prisoner of Love" that topped the charts. He competed with Frank Sinatra and Mr. Crosby to be the era's top crooner.

During the Depression, Mr. Como sang at Lake Erie resorts to tide him over when barbering got slow.

He appeared in Toledo several times during his years with the Ted Weems orchestra. But Elmo Tanner - the whistler on the band's theme, "Heartaches" - and saxophonist Red Ingles, a Toledo native who later gained fame with Spike Jones - "were the whole show," Mr. Como told The Blade in 1985. "I just sang."

While Mr. Como emulated Mr. Crosby in his early years, some of his best-known numbers were light novelty songs like "Hot Diggity" and "Papa Loves Mambo." He made a brief foray into wartime movie musicals in Hollywood but decided to pursue a career in radio.

Mr. Como often said he far preferred singing romantic ballads to some of the lightweight numbers, but the novelty songs were a frequent audience request.

"They get tired of hearing 'Melancholy Baby' and those mushy things," he said in a 1994 interview. "But those are the songs that, as a singer, you love to sing."

Mr. Como returned to Toledo in 1985 for a concert at what is now Savage Hall on the University of Toledo campus.

Two years later, a 26-piece orchestra and six female backup singers accompanied him during a show at the Stranahan Theater at the Masonic Complex.

Some music experts say Mr. Como, with his naturally melodic baritone voice, might have carved a deeper niche if he had taken firmer control of his material.

Mr. Como made his television debut in 1948 on NBC's The Chesterfield Supper Club and in 1950 he switched to CBS for The Perry Como Show, which ran for five years. Mr. Como then returned to NBC for a variety show that ran for eight years, first on Saturday nights opposite Jackie Gleason, then on Tuesday night.

In 1963, he gave up the regular television show and began doing occasional specials. Rock 'n' roll had crowded out the crooners who once charmed hordes of screaming bobby-soxers.

His career had a resurgence in the 1970s with songs like "It's Impossible," "And I Love You So," and several best-selling Christmas albums.

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