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The Casual Intimacy of Mr. C, Perry Como
Why Como's 'Look to Your Heart' is among the best ballad albums of all time
Welcome music lovers to a new edition of ‘Listening Sessions.’
My essay this time around spotlights one of the great ballad albums that probably few know about (if I were better with my timing, this would have come out before Valentine’s Day, but a good ballad album is something for all seasons).
Look to Your Heart was released by Perry Como in 1968 and is a record of profound stillness and emotion. It highlights Como’s gift of intimate singing and how he did so much by often appearing to do so little.
Perry Como is a singer that has largely receded into the background. In his heyday, his popularity rivaled that of Frank Sinatra and Nat Cole, and yet today, he is often only heard around the holiday season. The best of his music deserves a wider hearing, in my opinion. I hope you enjoy my essay.
Speaking of music that deserves more attention, my next essay will spotlight one of the great singer-songwriters of the seventies, Wendy Waldman, whose albums during that decade were unjustly ignored. Next month, I plan to write about two recent reissues of touchstone music: the Beatles’ Revolver and the Beach Boys’ Sail on Sailor, a boxset of their 1972 recordings.
Until next time, may good listening be with all you!
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“Old things make way for new things
but we still cling to the true things.
We will always be ruled by the heart.”
- from ‘In The Crazy Times,’ written by Sylvia Dee & Sidney Lippman
In 1981, the Canadian sketch comedy show SCTV featured a skit for Perry Como: Still Alive, a supposed new concert revue featuring the singer, played by Eugene Levy, in a state of repose far beyond relaxation—a shade above catatonic may be the right descriptor here. He starts by sitting in a chair turned backwards, head propped up by both hands singing, of all things, ‘Fame.’ He ends up lying face down on the stage, microphone resting on the floor next to them for the grand finale ‘What I Did for Love.’ It’s all a riff on Como’s personification of relaxation—an almost existential calmness (Bing Crosby once quipped that Como was “the man who invented casual”)—the idea that if Frank Sinatra sang songs for swinging lovers, Como sang them for the somnambulant crowd.
An interview of Como from 1960 published in the Saturday Evening Post is almost exclusively preoccupied with sussing out if he had a boiling point even a degree above zero as if it was the only point of interest about him. It wasn't. Not by a long shot. Perry Como is a singer where it’s easy to miss the plot of his music when he's thought of at all these days.
Think of December, when his recording of ‘(There’s No Place Like) Home for the Holidays’ blankets the radio waves. Como is here strictly a Yuletide crooner. Think of the novelty records that he recorded in the forties into the fifties—often inexplicable things like ‘Hot Diggity (Dog Ziggity Zoom),’ ‘A Hubba-Hubba-Hubba (Dig You Later)’ or ‘Papa Loves Mambo’ (that one has a certain nostalgic charm capturing the innocence of the mambo craze of the mid fifties). Como is here but a relic of square post-war America. Think of his reputation for relaxation. Here, Como is reduced to an artist who sleepwalked through a song, mind focused on getting it over with in order to hit the links. No cache seemingly remains attached to him as it does with many of his peers: Sinatra and Crosby, Ella, Billie and Sarah, Tony Bennett and Mel Tormé, Peggy Lee and Nat Cole and innumerable others.
As you read this, Valentine’s Day has just passed—the loving season, of roses and chocolates, of boxes and bouquets, of candlelight and dim the lights, an occasion in which music is often intrinsic to the mood being set, a moment for the ballad album to shine and there are many to choose from, no matter the type of music one is predisposed, and it’s here where Perry Como’s artistry is most properly situated.
Consider this paragraph:
“Few singers in the history of popular music have reached the pinnacle [Como] has. The public loves him. Even the profession loves him. In my ten years in the music business, first as a critic and then as a songwriter, I have never heard a word spoken against this man. In a business shot through with jealousy, gossip, intrigue and animosities, both petty and major, this is remarkable.”
It’s part of an appreciation that music critic, lyricist, author and all-around tastemaker Gene Lees wrote for the back cover of an album Como recorded in 1968. By that time, Como had gone from being a crooner whose popularity almost matched Sinatra’s to a television institution to elder statesman. He was an avatar for middle-of-the-road America: safe, respectable, more than a little vanilla. He was Mr. C. And yet, again, these generalities to situate Como in the larger context of American culture don't tell the story.
Lees’ pronouncement of Como’s greatness provides a clue. The album for which it was written, Look to Your Heart, gifts the key.
In noting its reissue on CD in 2015, jazz writer Marc Myers cited its “addictive gentleness.” Quite simply, it is one of the finest ballad albums ever recorded. At a time when pop singers were abandoning the Great American Songbook for contemporary pop and rock material that could be wrangled into being adapted for big band or string orchestra or sometimes both, Look to Your Heart stands out in eschewing that trend (though Como would shortly afterwards hop aboard). It digs deep to find the best of the last gasps of popular songwriting when it could still reasonably claim some portion of the zeitgeist and songs that had not been, and still have not been, interpreted to the point where every last gasp of originality has been squeezed out of them. With arranger Nick Perito, with whom Como worked for decades, Como fashions an album-length statement that still lurks in the shadows.
Its overall sound design is one of stillness, a suspension of pulse that brings a weightlessness to the music. On the album opener, the title track, there is a neo-classical opening anchored by piano that sets up Como to enter. There’s a hush as he begins. In a running dialogue with the piano, Como sings each word precisely, each phrase offered softly. He ascends to the upper limit of his register to sign “those we…….love” without taking a breath, without breaking the continuity of line even as his voice remains impossibly soft. The performance is of the mood that Sinatra’s Only the Lonely sustains for almost an hour—the comparison is not accidental upon realizing that ‘Look to Your Heart’ was written by Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen who frequently wrote for Sinatra and for whom the song was initially written. Como’s reading of it ends on a perfect grace note with the piano concluding on a chord of benediction and a brittle part for celeste.
On the album, Como’s voice rarely rises above a whisper. The few moments of dramatic bravado are reserved for the swells in the melody of ‘Sunrise, Sunset,’ the melancholic showpiece from Fiddler on the Roof. The phrasing is straightforward, both in terms of Como’s adherence to melody and his avoidance of overt rhythmic or harmonic embellishment. The feeling is unhurried, devoid of melodrama or, to be honest, any drama at all. On the surface, this may all portend a desultory affair—music without life, without any entryway for the listener to interact that isn’t passive. And yet, it’s the very act of stripping the songs to their essence that subverts the expected response to the music.
On ‘Love in a Home,’ from the musical Lil’ Abner and written by Gene de Paul and Johnny Mercer, Como’s approach brings the message of the song to vivid life, both for those who have been blessed by a happy home and for those who yearn for such an abode. And even as Como concentrates on each line, he is still conscious of how each contributes to the overall arc of the song—hear how his voice flutters as he sings the song’s resolution, “you can tell when there’s love in a home.” The feeling is something far beyond sentimentality or saccharine.
It reveals itself multiple times through Look to Your Heart, such as on ‘My Cup Runneth Over,’ a tune from the musical I Do, I Do which was pervasive in the sixties and is now largely and puzzlingly forgotten. The words of this deeply perceptive song about the little moments that bring joy in a marriage take centre stage here, and Como’s warm approach—no pretense, no posing, no irony—makes for a fundamentally truthful performance, providing an opportunity for the emotionalism of the three verses of ‘My Cup Runneth Over’ to bloom, giving life to the thoughts that the listener may be too bashful to articulate.
Hear how he navigates Lerner and Lowe’s ‘How to Handle a Woman,’ to reach the conclusion that the only way to do so is “to love her,” not only turning the question on its head—no man worth his salt should make it his end goal to simply “handle a woman”—but provides the answer as plaintively as possible, summoning a love as deep as it is wide, for better or for worse.
Como has a way of stopping the listener dead in his or her tracks in how he can phrase the simplest of lines. On the somewhat gimmicky ‘The Father of Girls,’ it’s how he stops time when singing “you worry.” On ‘Try to Remember,’ another touchstone of the sixties that has seemingly vanished from the repertoire, it’s the unadorned way in he sings “follow.” If some singers sing in sentences, Como sings in paragraphs here, bringing to the forefront so much by appearing to do so little.
As Lees argues in the liner notes to the album, it was an auditory illusion, the result of Como's meticulous consideration of the song, honing his approach to create an interpretation that was uniquely his own. Of all the singers who were heir to Bing Crosby, Como may be the one who best absorbed and exemplified the lesson of intimacy—the relationship between singer and listener that borders on sacred communion. Aiding that is how for a certain segment of the boomer generation and those it begat, Como’s music has assumed a presence in their lives similar to how the death of Queen Elizabeth II elicited feelings in some that were rooted in how her reign marked our times and how she was associated with loved ones no longer among us.
That sentimental attachment threads its way through ‘In These Crazy Times,’ the song on Look to Your Heart that makes best use of a chorus, the Ray Charles (the easy-listening Ray Charles, to be clear) Singers. After a rubato introduction featuring the Singers that resolves into tempo, Como articulates the song’s timeless maxim: “old things make way for new things, but we still cling to the true things. We will always be ruled by heart” as well as its happy resolution: “how blessed we are with our love.” The overall message may seem, on its surface, hokey, even irresponsible—let’s completely live in our own bubble while the world roils—but perhaps it’s more of a commentary on the emptiness of modernity, its transience, its essential meaningless; the domain of false prophets. Heady things to consider from listening to a Perry Como song to be sure and from listening to a ballad album of supreme excellence no less. But it’s what I feel, or more to the point, it’s what Como makes me feel.
Give a listen to Look to Your Heart, if you haven’t heard it. See if it doesn’t alter your perception of Perry Como, maybe the most casually intimate singer there was.