Friday, July 18, 2008

R.I.P.: Jo Stafford

Jo Stafford, 90; Singer, Recording Artist Entertained GIs During World War II
by Don Heckman
Los Angeles Times, July 18, 2008

Jo Stafford, a singer who was a favorite of GIs during World War II and whose recordings made the pop music charts dozens of times in the 1950s, died Sunday of congestive heart failure at her home in Century City. She was 90.

According to her son, Tim Weston, she had been in ill health since October and had been hospitalized several times since 2002.

Stafford had a long career but enjoyed most of her success from the late 1930s to the early '60s. Her skills were apparent from the beginning, when she sang as a teenager in a vocal trio with her two older sisters, Pauline and Christine.

"Mom graduated from high school on a Friday and was doing soundtracks at RKO on Monday," her son said.

Qualities that were present at that time became the foundation of her vocal style: her impressive technical skills, flawless intonation and cool but expressive tone. Whether Stafford was singing romantic numbers such as "You Belong to Me" -- a No. 1 hit in 1952 -- or making duets with Frankie Laine on the lighthearted, comedic "Hambone" (a No. 5 hit the same year), her performances were superb displays of crystal-clear musicality combined with an insightful understanding of lyrics.

Those skills were particularly useful early in her career, first when she was singing lead in the trio with her sisters, then during her work with the Pied Pipers. Initially an octet, with seven male singers and Stafford, it was pared to a quartet when the group began working with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra in 1939. Stafford's impeccable lead voice can be heard in the backing for Frank Sinatra's No. 1 hit "I'll Never Smile Again," as well as the Connie Haines hit "Oh Look at Me Now."

Stafford's solo career began with an inextricable link to the war. A favorite of American soldiers, she was told by a veteran of the Pacific that "the Japanese used to play your records on loudspeakers across from our foxholes so that we'd get homesick and surrender." Not surprisingly, servicemen affectionately referred to her as "GI Jo."

Stafford and her second husband, pianist/composer Paul Weston, were viewed by most of their contemporaries as musical class acts who brought clarity, focus and sophistication to the most lighthearted pop music. Which made their transformation into Jonathan and Darlene Edwards -- a duo that was the surprising last highlight of Stafford's career -- such a remarkable accomplishment.

The premise was simple enough: They would do imitations of a minimally skilled duet of singer and piano player -- the sort who can frequently be heard in no-cover-charge cocktail lounges everywhere. But as interpreted by Stafford's pliable voice, the songs came out just a little sharp in one spot, a bit flat in another, with the rhythm slipping from beat to beat.

Did Stafford find it difficult to sing in such ear-jarring fashion? "Well, Jo Stafford might have found it difficult," she told the Chicago Tribune in 1988, "but Darlene had no problem at all."

It worked so well, in fact, that the duo's recording of "Jonathan and Darlene Edwards in Paris" won the Grammy for Best Comedy Album of 1960. It was the only Grammy that Stafford would win.

Jo Elizabeth Stafford was born Nov. 12, 1917, in the San Joaquin Valley town of Coalinga. Her parents, Grover Cleveland Stafford and Anna York Stafford, moved the family to Long Beach, where she graduated from high school after having five years of classical voice training. Besides her singing, she was, according to her son, a very good pianist.

After working for the Dorsey Orchestra from 1939 to 1942, Stafford began her solo career as one of the first acts on the new Capitol Records label. She moved to Columbia Records in 1950 and back to Capitol in 1961. Although she was active for a relatively brief time as a solo artist, she sold more than 25 million records.

Once she had decided to end her singing career in the mid-1960s, however, Stafford seemed little tempted to return. Asked at the time whether she might consider the sort of comeback that had worked for such contemporaries as Rosemary Clooney and Patti Page, her response was to the point. She no longer sang, she said, "for the same reason that Lana Turner is not posing in bathing suits anymore."

Stafford did make a few appearances after the 1960s, among them a revival of Jonathan and Darlene Edwards in the late '70s for which she sang inimitable lounge versions of the Bee Gees' "Stayin' Alive" and Helen Reddy's "I Am Woman."

Stafford's first marriage -- to Pied Pipers singer John Huddleston -- ended in divorce. She married Weston in 1952; they had two children, Tim, a musician and record producer, and Amy, a singer. Her husband died in 1996.

She is survived by her children; four grandchildren; and her younger sister, Betty Jane.

Services will be private. Instead of flowers, donations may be made to the Share Inc charity.
London Telegraph, July 17, 2008

Jo Stafford, who died on Wednesday aged 90, not only had one of the most pure, wide-ranging voices in American popular song -- adored by wartime servicemen, who dubbed her GI Jo -- but also the ability to parody appalling, off-key vocalising under the guises of Darlene Edwards and Cinderella G Stump.

She first came to notice as one of the Pied Pipers group which backed Frank Sinatra on his early recordings with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra in the late 1930s, and she made a decisive retirement in the early 1960s.

Her wartime fame might suggest an American Vera Lynn, but admirers though her possessed of greater range, wit and subtlety.

It was a style neither cool nor jazz, but nor was it bland; and if not exactly seething, she was certainly not merely the girl-next-door in her approach. She could always surprise.

Jo Elizabeth Stafford was born on November 12 1917 at Coalinga, a one-horse town between San Francisco and Los Angeles, to which her father Grover Cleveland Stafford had brought the family from Gainesboro, Tennessee, in the hope of making a fortune from oil.

He managed only to find a series of mediocre jobs which were scarcely to see them through the Depression.

Among them was one at Miss Hall's School, a private finishing-school for girls.

Jo always remembered his being allowed to bring home the school phonograph on Christmas and hear a disc of the old song "Whispering Hope".

Her mother, Anne, had been an adroit performer on the five-string banjo, and the folk music of Tennessee was to remain an influence on Jo's voice and some of her later repertoire.

Meanwhile, at school, she spent five years in classical training, with the notion that she might become an opera singer, but she realised that it would require even more time than that, and there was a living to be earned in the meantime.

She was the third of four sisters, two of them, Pauline and Christine, being 14 and 11 years older than her. With them, she formed a singing group, such sibling ensembles being typical of the time.

The pretty Stafford Sisters were in demand. They appeared on local radio and, five nights a week, put in an hour on the folkie show "The Crockett Family of Kentucky".

By contrast, they provided the voices of madrigal singers in the 1937 Astaire-Rogers picture "A Damsel in Distress". Jo sang back-up for Alice Faye, and there was a distinct turning point in 1938 when Twentieth-Century Fox was making the film "Alexander's Ragtime Band". Various vocal groups were drafted in and were left to hang around much of the time.

Among them were two groups, The Four Esquires and (also all-male) a trio, The Rhythm Kings. With Jo, they became the eight-piece Pied Pipers.

As chance would also have it, two of The King Sisters, Yvonne and Alyce, each had a boyfriend who worked for Tommy Dorsey and were visiting LA.

These were Paul Weston and Axel Stordahl. When the Pied Pipers arrived at the party given for Weston and Stordahl, they made straight for the refrigerator and ate all the food, even the ketchup: so poor were they that they had eaten little for days.

Also typical of the time was that they thought nothing of piling into an automobile and driving across the continent to New York when it was clear that Dorsey would audition them for his radio show.

They performed on several shows, but were then turfed out when the English sponsor chanced to visit and was affronted by their casual attitude towards lyrics, which he thought would endanger his product.

The group subsisted for six months in the city, then realised that the game was up and headed back to the West Coast, where the men had to take other jobs.

Just when Jo got home from collecting her first welfare cheque, there was a message to call Chicago and reverse the charges. It was Dorsey again. He could not accommodate eight singers, but wanted a quartet.

The Pied Pipers left for Chicago in December 1939, just as Weston was leaving the orchestra to work with Dinah Shore and Sinatra was arriving from Harry James's band.

Dorsey was a volatile character -- everybody was sacked or resigned at some time, usually for a few hours -- and his orchestra was sometimes played down by critics as a routine outfit; which was to be blind to its great charm and the way in which it was adapted to the various permutations of vocalists. The young Sinatra, for one, recognised this and -- whatever the bitterness of his falling out with a mercenary Dorsey -- would always testify as much.

The first song on which the Pied Pipers appeared with him was the No 1 hit "I'll Never Smile Again". Perhaps the best-known of the songs upon which the Pied Pipers performed was "Oh Look At Me Now", which also featured another Dorsey vocalist, Connie Haines. (Sinatra later re-recorded it at a slower pace, and Jo Stafford, too, revisited it in the 1950s, with male background singers.)

Whatever his other shortcomings, such as a volatile friendship with drummer Buddy Rich, Sinatra was devoted to the music. As Jo Stafford recalled, "most solo singers usually don't fit too well into a group, but Frank never stopped working at it and, of course, as you know, he blended beautifully with us".

She herself had an eye for a song and, self-deprecatingly, asked Dorsey whether she might have a solo with "Little Man With A Candy Cigar". He not only agreed, but brought her forward on other, better songs such as "Embraceable You".

The orchestra featured in a few forgettable movies, and by March 1942, Sinatra had gone solo. A few months later, the songwriter Johnny Mercer was able to fulfil his ambition of starting a record company, Capitol, on the West Coast.

Mercer was keen to get Jo Stafford, and she hungered for a return to California. The label also featured Peggy Lee and Margaret Whiting; as songs came up, the company decided which singer was best suited to them. "It was all completely music-oriented," she recalled, "a lot of fun."

During the decade, Jo had 38 songs in the Top Twenty, among them "The Trolley Song" and "My Darling, My Darling" -- and was held in particular esteem by servicemen for whom, like Sinatra, she made numerous recordings on the V-Discs distributed only within the armed forces.
Her first No 1, in the middle of 1947, was, however, not under her own name. She had been walking across the Capitol studio when she heard the musician Country Washburn, who was working on a parody of Perry Como's hit "Temptation".

The singer had not turned up, so, there and then, Jo Stafford volunteered to sing: with her voice speeded up, the result was "Tim-tayshun" and the alias of Cinderella G Stump, to which the label would not at first allow her to own up. Moreover, she had done it for fun; and for scale: she refused royalties, to her agent's dismay.

She made various radio series, and, while doing so, realised that she did not care to live in New York. She returned to California, whence she continued to broadcast "The Chesterfield Supper Club".

As well as Broadway standards, she was always keen to give time to America's folk heritage. She recorded albums of these songs, with strings, and also duets of devotional songs with Gordon MacRae, such as the 19th-century "Whispering Hope", which reached No 4 in 1949.

She made regular appearances on the Voice of America radio station (and was as much a voice during the Korean war as she had been in the Second).

When Paul Weston left for Columbia Records in the early 1950s, she followed him, and they were married in 1952, at which time she became a Catholic.

She developed theme LPs, and continued to have such hits as "You Belong To Me" which, though recorded only to fill up time at the end of a session, sold two million copies. Other hits were an adaptation of an old blues as "Make Love To Me", Weston's "Shrimps Boats", a version of Hank Williams's "Jambalaya", and "All The Things You Are".

Columbia's director Mitch Miller was notorious for novelty notions, most gruesomely pairing Frank Sinatra with a dog on "Mama Will Bark". Jo Stafford got off relatively lightly with eight hits with Frankie Laine (among them, "In the Cool, Cool of the Evening" and "Hey, Good Lookin'") and one with Liberace ("Indiscretion"). She had a show on the label's television affilliate, CBS.

She had sold 25 million discs for the label, but with the advent of Elvis Presley in 1956, the music market changed. She now concentrated on albums, her range suggested by "Jo + Jazz", "Swingin' Down Broadway", "Ballad of the Blues", some discs of religious music, and a collection of Scottish tunes. At the same time, another guise presented itself.

At a Columbia sales-convention in Florida, Weston played the piano in parody of a particularly atrocious supper-club performer, just as the session-musicians used to do if there were any time left over at the end of recordings.

The audience, including Dean Martin's wife, Jeanne, was delighted. Jo Stafford was persuaded to produce several cringeworthy collections with her husband, just off-key enough to be plausible, under the names Jonathan and Darlene Edwards. They acquired a cult following.

Weston then fell out with Columbia, and the pair returned to Capitol. The summer of 1961 was spent in England, where they made a dozen shows for ATV.

By now they had two children and, little by little, Jo Stafford withdrew from the industry.

She made albums on various labels, and some more devotional sides with Gordon MacRae, but would not make any night-club appearances.

She gave much time to charities for handicapped children and singers, and said that she no longer sang "for the same reason that Lana Turner is not posing in bathing-suits any more". She resisted approaches by the Californian label Concord.

Jo Stafford had made over 600 recordings, and she and Paul were able to claim the masters of those from Columbia and issue them on their own Corinthian label.

Not that she was completely finished, record-wise: she not only recorded a duet of "Whispering Hope" with her daughter but returned to the microphone as Darlene Edwards, in 1979, for devastating takes on Helen Reddy's "I Am Woman" and -- bizarrely -- The Bee Gees' "Stayin' Alive". She made one last appearance in 1982 -- on the same bill as Sinatra.

She had always replied to servicemen who wrote to her, and was an authority on the war. Weston died in 1996; Jo Stafford is survived by her children, Tim, a guitarist and record producer, and Amy, a singer.

No comments: