Guideposts Classics: Perry Como on Faith, Family and Prayer

In this story from December 1953, crooner Perry Como reveals how important faith was to his life and his career.

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Posted in , May 16, 2013

Perry Como

My father was a mill hand, and during the last 15 years of his life he was a hopeless invalid. Always vigorous and active he suddenly became sick, and could not work. It was his heart.

A little group of friends would come to visit him every evening. Plain people. This is Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, a mill and mining town. These men, with the lined faces, and bent backs, and gnarled hands, who worked every day from sunup to sundown, were brought together by my father’s illness.

Before, they had spent their free hours in noisy play, freeing themselves from the monotonous drudgery of the mill and mine. Now, sitting there, clustered around my father, they all asked themselves: Who are we? Where do we come from?

They all had heard of God. They all believed. But they didn’t work at it. They never really listened hard. Now they came within earshot of Him. There was a new light in all their faces, including my father’s. It shone when he said: “Become poor in spirit and share the light with me.”

At the time I didn’t understand all this. I was 14. But I knew that my father was showing me how to believe in many ways. His last 15 years were years of pain, but they were the happiest years of his life.

They couldn’t have been made so happy because of what he owned. Pop never made more than $175 a month. But he raised 13 kids, and not one of them a black sheep. We all worked. It was natural for me to start at the age of 11 in a barber shop.

Before school I opened the shop and lit the stoves. After school I swept the hair off the floors, polished the mirrors, and the owner taught me how to cut hair. My pay was 50¢ a week. My ambition then was to be the best barber between Canonsburg and Cleveland.

When I was 14, my father set me up in my own shop. If things got slow, I’d pick up my guitar and sing. You put someone with Italian blood down in the bleak mine country, and his only defense against the bleakness is to sing. The singing was also a reflection of the joy that came from a happy home.

By the time I was 20, I was making a big fat $40 a week. My mother and father thought that was the height of prosperity. To Pop, prosperity meant “enough to remind you to be thankful.” My mother even predicted that some day I’d be making $60 a week.

Later, much later, my father never could understand what they call success in the singing business. He was always puzzled by how a man standing in front of a microphone could earn a lot of money.

The first time he heard me sing was in a theatre where I was appearing. After the show I rushed to him, asking silently for his approval.

“Bravo,” was all he said.

At first I was hurt. But when Pop added: “The audience ... do all your audiences cheer you so loud and crazy?” I realized what he meant: applause every day keeps feeding your vanity and pride and greed. And that’s no way to become poor in spirit.

Besides, to people like Pop, singers meant Caruso, Martinelli, Scotti. And you know, maybe they’re right.

Anyway, I wouldn’t have had my father different.

And my mother, she’s still teaching me how to be poor in spirit. I’d like her to come and stay with me and my wife Roselle and our three kids. But she won’t. At her house in Canonsburg, with all her grandchildren, it’s like a big party all the time. She sits on the porch and everybody who comes by says hello.

Up here in New York nobody says hello in quite the same way. She’s probably right. To people like Mom, a little conversation with a friend is more important than running around for big things.

Roselle and I and the kids get down to see her every month, and Mom still can’t figure out what I do for a living. When we bring her a gift, and it’s a little expensive, she looks at me suspiciously, and asks: “Where did you get the money?”

I wouldn’t have her different either.

Sure, I got the things money can buy now. But the things money can’t buy my mother and my father gave me.

My wife Roselle gives them to me too. She’s as blonde and pretty as the day I married her 20 years ago. A year after we were married, we went off for a week’s vacation to Cleveland, and there Roselle talked me into singing for a band leader named Fred Carlone.

He offered me $25 a week. That was the end of my making an honest living. But it began seven years of one-night stands, climbing on and off buses, living in flea bag hotels. Three years with Carlone, and four with another band leader named Ted Weems.

Roselle traveled with me. It was like the foreign legion. We couldn’t get out. No, I take that back. Going from $25 to $125 a week was a lot of money. I didn’t want to get out—until our son Ronnie was on the way.

We went back home, and I was all ready to open a barber shop when I got a phone call from New York. Columbia Broadcasting offered me $76 a week on a sustaining show of my own. I hesitated. But Roselle said: “Honey, you can always open up a barber shop.” I went to New York.

It was the time of the Frank Sinatra bonfire. Anyone with some hair, a set of his own teeth, and a voice that could stay in key had plenty of chances. They gave me the jackpot; theatres, night clubs, records; Then they signed me to a big radio show; and I even got a movie contract. All within a few months. And now television.

It was crazy, but it was the singing business. A barber can work from 8:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. to make $50 a week—maybe. An engineer, a scientist, a doctor, a writer, they sweat and study long and hard before they can even start earning a buck. But in this business a guy makes one record and gets $50,000.

Somewhere along the line Someone sure put His hand on my head. I keep trying to deserve it.

We’ve got reason to be thankful, Roselle and I. But we never talk about it. That kind of gratitude isn’t for conversation. Faith is a word for doing, not talking.

We have three kids, Ronnie is 14. We adopted two more: David, who’s seven, and Terri, our daughter, who’s six. We got David when he was four, and Terri when she was six months old.

They all have an equal place in our hearts. They all reflect our own beliefs. But the way children believe, it’s like an inner beauty that shines right through to the outside.

I see it when I know they’ll all be home waiting for me to get there.

I see it when they all put their arms around me and kiss me goodnight, with the complete assurance that they’re loved and wanted.

I see it when Ronnie takes the four and a half dollars he saved and asks his mother to match it so he can buy a rod and reel for his brother and take Davey fishing.

I see it every Sunday when we all march off to church together, including the maid.

And I see it shining when we sit down at the table. The kids won’t start eating unless Grace is said. Who do you think says Grace? The two small ones, Davey and Terri.

When they mumble, Ronnie, the sergeant, says: “Say the words so we can all understand them.” And he gets them to say them over and over until they do it right.

And I see it when they say their prayers before they climb into bed every night.

I pray just like my kids do. Were my prayers ever answered? If you believe, anything you think, do, or have is an answer to prayer. If you believe, you know that without anybody having to tell it to you. Then your heart’s at peace.

If your heart’s at peace, everything else is. If it isn’t, everything else is wrong. That’s the way it always is.

Everything that’s ever happened to me has been the result of faith. The faith I found in my father’s house, and now find in my own house, and in my world. Sure, there are different beliefs, but as long as men believe, they believe basically the same thing. The lyrics may be different, but the music is always the same.

I know now that with his illness and poverty, my father had wealth beyond money. His heritage to his children was greater than any fortune.

That’s the only heritage a man can give his children while he’s alive.

It’s the only one that becomes more precious after his death.

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