So reflected Perry Como on an astounding career in which the onetime haircutter from Canonsburg, Pennsylvania sold more than 100 million records, charted 131 singles in the United States, fourteen No. 1s, and seventeen Gold records – including the very first single to receive that certification, 1958’s “Catch a Falling Star.” He hosted more than 1,000 television programs, earned five Emmys, a Grammy, and a Kennedy Center Honor. What was the secret to Mr. C’s appeal and his amazing longevity over an illustrious seven-decade career? The answers are within the grooves of the 1981 RCA release of Perry Como’s Live on Tour. The singer’s second live LP for RCA, it has recently made its CD debut from Real Gone Music (RGM-0340).
Recorded in July 1980 at Chicago’s 1,600-seat in-the-round Mill Run Theatre and produced by nine-time Grammy winner Mike Berniker (producer of Barbra Streisand’s first three LPs and numerous cast recordings), Live on Tour preserves a homecoming show for Como; he began his career singing with The Ted Weems Orchestra at the Windy City’s historic Palmer House in 1936. The album begins with an overture worthy of a Broadway musical under the baton of Nick Perito, Como’s conductor for a thirty-year period between 1964 and the crooner’s retirement in 1994. Perito wasn’t the only close associate of Como’s on hand. The lush choral arrangements were, as ever, handled by “the other” Ray Charles, who spent 35 years at Como’s side. (Before his recent passing at the age of 96, Charles kindly contributed his memories to my liner notes for Real Gone’s upcoming reissue of Como’s 1968 album Look to Your Heart. Though the booklet went to press before his death, my work on it is dedicated to his memory.)
Though the overture was appropriately grand for the veteran artist, Como brought intimacy to a performance no matter the size of the room. Live on Tour showcases his voice – filled with warmth, expressiveness and his trademark nonchalance – on a variety of material from his earliest days to the present. His opening of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart’s standard “Where or When” finds him skillfully adjusting its famous melody to the contours of his voice with effortlessness and grace. But Como let his audiences know early on that his program wasn’t to be strictly a nostalgia show. He found room for just the right amount of modernization, performing contemporary songs and subtly updating the arrangements for songs such as Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed’s 1933 “Temptation.”
Nick Perito brings zing to his arrangement of Neil Diamond’s “Beautiful Noise” which has the lightness and charm of a classic Como record; the rich choral vocals nostalgically recall the sound of the 1950s rather than the 1970s. The Diamond tune – the title track of his 1976 album produced by The Band’s Robbie Robertson – is followed in the set by Randy Goodrum’s “You Needed Me,” a No. 1 for Anne Murray in 1978. Like “Beautiful Noise,” no studio counterpart of “You Needed Me” was released, making these performances all the more valuable.
But whether singing standards or rock-era songs, Como’s easygoing rapport with the audience is in evidence here. The Chicago crowd’s affection for the singer is captured on a “Happy Anniversary” sing-along to mark Perry’s 47 years with Roselle Como. (They would be married for 65 years, until her death in 1998.) A lengthy medley pays tribute to Bing Crosby and by extension, to the Great American Songbook itself – with songs from Irving Berlin, Johnny Burke, Hoagy Carmichael, Johnny Mercer, Harold Arlen and others. Bing was, of course, an influence on virtually every artist who ever stood in front of a microphone, but Como was one of his most successful disciples. “He set the style for all of us who sing popular music,” Como tells the audience. “If it hadn’t been for Bing, I probably would still be cutting hair somewhere.” The medley takes up about ten minutes of a seventeen-minute track, happily capturing Como’s banter with the house.
His playful side also comes out on a loose sing-along of “Oh Marie” and on the endearingly self-deprecating “special material” track written by Perito and Charles, “If I Could Almost Read Your Mind.” A Como concert favorite, it gave Perry a chance to poke a little fun at himself: “He hasn’t lost his hair/But he could stand a little dye…” or “I bet you’d like to know/If I’ll stay awake through the entire show…” (“If I Could…” is one of three songs that also appears on Como’s first live LP, 1970’s In Person at the International Hotel. “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and “You Are Never Far Away,” rendered here as a brief instrumental theme, are the other two songs.)
Naturally, Como couldn’t include all of those 131 chart hits – or even the 14 chart-toppers! Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s ebullient “Magic Moments” is a notable omission, but Como reprises a quartet of his classic hits (“Till the End of Time,” “Catch a Falling Star,” “Round and Round” and “Don’t Let the Stars Get in Your Eyes”) in a medley. Como also offers a reminder here of how well he made Don McLean’s “And I Love You So” his own, and is gently reassuring on his beloved “comeback” tune, “It’s Impossible.” Those two tunes were included as part of the encore, along with tender voice-and-piano renditions of Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke’s “It Could Happen to You,” and Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns.” The latter, from Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, got the coveted closing spot in the setlist. Como had evinced an affinity for the composer-lyricist’s work in his later years, and he also recorded beautiful takes of Sondheim’s “Not While I’m Around” from Sweeney Todd and “Goodbye for Now” from the film Reds.
Real Gone’s reissue features a lavishly-illustrated booklet with the original album art as well as numerous rare photos of Como in concert and new liner notes from Matthew Long. Designer Tom Kline has supplied a fine RCA label recreation for the CD itself; Sean Brennan at Sony’s Battery Studios has handled the exemplary remastering. For a lesson in the art of bel canto from one of the all-time great practitioners, look no further than Perry Como Live on Tour.