Since I’ve given a general overview of Perry Como’s life and work on the full album post I did years ago, I figured we’d use the month of April to really dig into some of the details of his life. Starting with his early years here, we’ll dig into his career, musical style and more every weekend this month.
Perry Como was born in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania. He was the seventh of the 13 children of Pietro Como and Lucia Travaglini, who both emigrated to the US in 1910 from Palena, Italy. Perry was the first of their children born in the United States. He did not begin speaking English until he entered school, since the Comos spoke Italian at home.
The family had a second-hand organ Pietro had bought for $3; as soon as Perry was able to toddle, he would head to the instrument, pump the bellows, and play music he had heard by ear. His father, a mill hand and an amateur baritone, had all his children attend music lessons even if he could barely afford them.
Young Como started helping his family at age 10, working before and after school in a barber shop for 50¢ a week. By age 13, he had graduated to having his own chair, although he stood on a box to tend to his customers. It was also around this time that young Como lost his week’s wages in a dice game. Filled with shame, he locked himself in his room and did not come out until hunger got the better of him. He managed to tell his father what had happened to the money his family depended on. His father told him he was entitled to make a mistake and that he hoped his son would never do anything worse than this.
When Perry was 14, his father became unable to work because of a severe heart condition. Como and his brothers became the support of the household. Despite his musical ability, Como’s primary ambition was to become the best barber in Canonsburg. Practicing on his father, young Como mastered the skills well enough to have his own shop at age 14.
One of Como’s regular customers at the barber shop owned a Greek coffee house that included a barber shop area, and asked the young barber whether he would like to take over that portion of his shop. His customers worked mainly at the nearby steel mills. They were well-paid, did not mind spending money on themselves and enjoyed Como’s song renditions. Perry did especially well when one of his customers would marry. Como sang romantic songs while busying himself with the groom as the other two barbers worked with the rest of the groom’s party. He became so popular as a “wedding barber” in the Greek community that he was asked to provide his services in Pittsburgh and Ohio.
Long Life, Lots of Happiness
On an unrelated note, this upcoming July, I’m rappelling a building in Boston to raise funds for the Special Olympics. Please check out my Over the Edge fundraising page HERE and consider donating today. Thanks!!