Before Jan Peerce became one of the world's most revered singers, he was Jacob Perelmuth who, as Pinky Pearl, performed at Jewish weddings in New York City.
The man Arthur Toscanini called "his" tenor bisected the realms of dance halls, concert stages, opera houses and musical comedy theaters.
Peerce was as comfortable singing Bach as he was the "Bluebird of Happiness," and at the age of 67 he was delighting Broadway audiences as Tevye in "Fiddler on the Roof."
He attended medical school briefly but dropped out to marry Alice Kalmanowitz, a neighbor.
In 1932 Peerce was discovered by impresario Samuel L. (Roxy) Rothafel who heard him sing "Yours Is My Heart Alone" at the Hotel Astor.
In the nine years between his discovery by Rothafel and his Metropolitan debut in 1941, he sang on local and national radio shows, and appeared regularly at Radio City Music Hall and the Paramount Theater in New York.
Peerce was heard by Toscanini who auditioned him and pronounced: "He has the beautiful voice."
Thus developed an association that began on Feb. 6, 1938, at Carnegie Hall with Beethoven's 9th Symphony and did not end until shortly before the maestro's death in 1957. The pair produced some of the best recorded opera music of the 1940s and '50s.
Peerce came to sing 19 carefully chosen roles at the Met in the next two decades but turned down Toscanini, who wanted him for "Aida." He also rejected "Il Trovatore" and "Siegfried," realizing that the heavier tenor roles could limit a career that was late out of the starting gate.
He sang Pinkerton in "Madama Butterfly," Cavaradossi in "Tosca," the title role in "Faust," Edgar in "Lucia di Lammermoor," Don Alvaro in "La Forza del Destino" and a perennial Don Jose opposite Rise Stevens' "Carmen."
He became America's own tenor—the self-effacing "favorite uncle" who dropped into your hometown regularly to sing. He also toured the world, becoming in 1956 the first American to perform at Moscow's Bolshoi Opera after World War II.
If he never generated the wild acclaim of a Pavarotti or a Caruso, he was the steady, ready-to-sing, faithful-to-the-music performer who almost always filled the concert hall.
His concert appearances were a melding of music from Italy, Germany, America and the Hebraic tradition. "Bluebird of Happiness," which was also the title of his 1976 biography, sold more than a million records. Late in life he became a late-night favorite with appearances on the Johnny Carson and Merv Griffin shows.