By J.D. Reed
May 28, 2001 12:00 PM

On the afternoon of May 12, just six days before his 89th birthday, Perry Como fell asleep in an easy chair in the master bedroom of his three-story hillside home in Florida’s Jupiter Inlet Colony. The singer, who had been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease for some years, never woke up. “He just passed away,” says a close friend. “It was very gentle, very quiet.”

That was as it should have been, for Como had built a legend on his cozy, comforting persona. Rising to fame in the early ’40s as a crooner, he sold more than 100 million records, including 36 albums and 160 charted singles, and from 1948 to 1963, wearing his trademark cardigan sweaters, he starred on prime-time TV as host of The Perry Como Show. In the tense days of the Korean War and the bitter Cold War that followed, audiences found Como’s family-oriented fare deeply reassuring. One of his most ardent fans was singer Pat Boone, who got his first TV shot on Como’s show. “We’ll have that velvet voice as long as we live,” says Boone. “There’ll never be another like it.”

Como’s genuine unpretentiousness reflected his humble beginnings. The seventh of 13 children of Italian immigrants, Pierino Como was raised in blue-collar Canonsburg in southwestern Pennsylvania. At age 10 he landed an after-school job in a barber shop and by 16 had taken over the business. He liked to sing as he snipped and in 1932 auditioned as a vocalist with the Freddie Carlone Orchestra. He clicked and soon began touring the Midwest with big bands.

Como’s recording career took off with such romantic ballads as “Some Enchanted Evening.” But he sang whatever the staff at his label RCA put in front of him. In later years, he hit the charts with novelty numbers like “Papa Loves Mambo” and “Hot Diggity.” Although Como despised the material, he performed it with his customary charm. “I’d get up there and sing ‘hubba-hubba-hubba, hello Jack,’ ” he told AP in 1994, “and everybody would scream and I would go back and vomit.”

Como was equally winning as a TV emcee. With guests as stellar as John Wayne and Milton Berle, he vied for a time on Saturdays with Jackie Gleason. “If we topped in the ratings one week,” Como once told a reporter, “I’d call him and say, ‘We beat you, fatso.’ If he won, he’d call me and say, ‘Gotcha, silver throat.’ ” Como weathered the vicissitudes of live television—misplaced cue cards, toppling scenery—with aplomb and picked up several Emmys during his show’s 15-year run. “I learned [from him] that the best thing you can do is to keep relaxed,” recalls early guest Tony Bennett. “He was the only sane singer in the world, including myself.”

Essential to Como’s sanity was his 65-year marriage to the former Roselle Belline. They raised a trio of children: Ronald, now 60 and a retired corporate labor-relations specialist in South Bend, Ind., followed by David, 55, a San Francisco investment counselor, and daughter Terri, 54, a Jupiter, Fla., private investor. (The Comos had 13 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.) “I worked with the world’s greatest talents,” he told Good Housekeeping in 1991, “and then I went home to the world’s greatest woman.”

After his weekly show ended in 1963, Como hosted a string of TV specials. It was hard for many Americans to imagine the holidays without his Christmas shows, but in 1994 he left the stage for good. Como spent his last years fishing and golfing. “He never bragged,” recalls a pal, golf pro Harry Pezzullo. “If you didn’t feel good, he would make you feel good.” But Como grew despondent after Roselle’s death of a heart attack in 1998, at 84. “It was downhill from there,” says neighbor Robert Snyder. The singer’s Alzheimer’s worsened to the point that he was often unable to recognize friends. Still, as long as he was able, Como crooned. At a local golf club just two years ago, he belted out “When You’re Smiling.” “Ninety percent of the people were crying,” recalls Pezzullo. “It was the last time he ever sang.”

J.D. Reed

Jeanne DeQuine in Miami and Don Sider in West Palm Beach