Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Mr. C's Formative Years: Perry Como with Ted Weems, 1936-41

In his heyday of the 1940s and '50s, particularly after he became a mainstay on the new medium of television, Perry Como became known for his relaxed, soothing approach to the vocal art. No wonder that one of his LPs was titled So Smooth, since Como was simply one of the smoothest singer who ever stood before a microphone. He was one of many Italian-Americans who found fame and fortune thanks to their crooning abilities, others being Russ Columbo, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Vic Damone, to cite just a few. Yet Como's style has a great deal more in common with Bing Crosby than it does with Sinatra, and in fact, his recording career began three years after that of Young Blue Eyes. In 1936, Como, who had been born in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, in 1912, had been singing for a while with an orchestra led by local musician Freddie Carlone, although he never made any records with that outfit. Therefore, when Ted Weems came calling, it only made sense that Como would accept a featured vocalist spot with the more popular band.

Bandleader Ted Weems
Weems, also a Pennsylvanian, had been fronting a band professionally for over a decade and was based in Chicago. Moreover, he was looking for a "boy singer," as male vocalists were often called in those days. Como was the perfect fit, especially for singing the slower, more romantic ballads, and so he was featured with the orchestra both on radio and on records. The Weems band had a Decca recording contract, and in a span of five years, Como cut two dozen sides, none of which charted, though "I Wonder Who's Kissing Her Now" would become a million seller when it was reissued in 1947, by which time Como was already an established star. Back in 1999, Jasmine Records, of England, collected Como's recordings with Weems on a CD appropriately titled Class Will Tell. And class is definitely something that the Weems band had plenty of, no doubt. In the liner notes, Michael Dunnington echoes Mr. C's complaints that "the good songs went to the other members of the band, and he got the ones that nobody else wanted." However, even the most cursory listen to this CD reveals that this is not always so. Though not all the songs are winners—what big band vocalist of the era can claim such a thing anyway?—there are some lovely songs here, including "Lazy Weather," "Class Will Tell," "You Can't Pull the Wool over My Eyes," and "In My Little Red Book," this last one also recorded by Guy Lombardo and country singer T. Texas Tyler.

The Weems orchestra was a tightly-knit dance band that sounds professional and at times quite exciting, particularly on ensemble passages, since the arrangements do not seem to leave too much room for solos. Vocally, Como shows a noticeable debt to Bing Crosby, especially to the sound we hear on Der Bingle's records of the 1920s and early '30s, when Bing was singing in a higher register and had not yet totally refined his smooth baritone as he would from the '40s on. Como sounds a great deal like Crosby here—which apparently prompted Dave Kapp at Decca to wonder why the label needed another Bing—but as times goes on, he gradually starts to find his own style, as we can hear on "That Old Gang of Mine," "It All Comes Back to Me Now," and "Angeline." Yet even then his style is still heavily influenced by Crosby, something that can also be said of several other singers of his generation, such as Buddy Clark or Dick Haymes. After leaving Weems, Como would go on to bigger and better things, including smash hits like "Till the End of Time" and "Prisoner of Love," to name just two from 1945-46. But the recordings on this Jasmine release are very enjoyable and interesting because they illustrate the formative years of a great crooner.


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