Jo Stafford, Wistful Voice of WWII Era, Dies at 90

July 19, 2008

By STEPHEN HOLDEN

Jo Stafford, the wistful singing voice of the American home front during World War II and the Korean War, died on Wednesday at her home in Century City, Calif. She was 90.

The cause of death was congestive heart failure, her son, Tim Weston, said Friday.

A favorite of American servicemen, Ms. Stafford earned the nickname G.I. Jo for her recordings in which her pure, nearly vibrato-less voice, with perfect intonation, conveyed steadfast devotion and reassurance with delicate understatement.

She was the vocal embodiment of every serviceman’s dream girl faithfully tending the home fires while he was overseas. First as a member of the Pied Pipers, who sang with Tommy Dorsey and accompanied the young Frank Sinatra, and later as a soloist, Ms. Stafford enjoyed a stream of hits from the late 1930s to the mid-1950s. Her biggest hit, “You Belong to Me,” in 1952, sold two million copies.

Ms. Stafford sang everything from folk songs to novelties to hymns. Her gift for hilarious musical parody was first revealed in the 1947 novelty sensation “Temptation” (“Tim-Tayshun”), a hillbilly spoof recorded under the name of Cinderella G. Stump with Red Ingle and the Natural Seven. It reached No. 1 on the music charts.

A decade later, a party act with which she and her husband, the arranger and conductor Paul Weston, had amused their friends became a secondary comedy career, in which they impersonated Jonathan and Darlene Edwards, an excruciatingly bad New Jersey lounge act “presented by Jo Stafford and Paul Weston.”

While Mr. Weston played the wrong chords and fudged the rhythm, Ms. Stafford sang a half-tone sharp. Mr. Stafford won her only Grammy, for best comedy album (“Jonathan and Darlene Edwards in Paris”), in 1961. The Edwardses records, the last of which was a hilariously inept 1977 single of “Stayin’ Alive,” with their version of “I Am Woman” on the flip side, rank as classic pop spoofs alongside those of Spike Jones and Weird Al Yankovic.

But it was as a balladeer interpreting standards like “I’ll Be Seeing You,” “Haunted Heart,” “All the Things You Are” and “The Nearness of You” that Ms. Stafford distilled as pure a vocal essence of romantic nostalgia as any pop singer of the 1940s and ’50s.

Jo Elizabeth Stafford was born on Nov. 12, 1917, in Coalinga, Calif., near Fresno and brought up in Long Beach. As a child she studied voice and hoped to become an opera singer, but because of hard times decided to join her older sisters Christine and Pauline in a country-and-western singing group, the Stafford Sisters, who performed on the radio in Los Angeles.

After the Stafford Sisters broke up, Ms. Stafford, with seven male singers from two other groups, formed the Pied Pipers, an octet that caught the attention of Mr. Weston and Axel Stordahl, arrangers for the Dorsey band. Reduced to a quartet, the group joined Dorsey and quickly gained fame as the backup singers for Sinatra.

In 1940, the No. 1 hit “I’ll Never Smile Again” established the creamy Dorsey-Sinatra-Pied Pipers sound.

Ms. Stafford recorded her first solo record with Dorsey, “Little Man With a Candy Cigar,” in 1942. Her first husband, John Huddleston, whom she later divorced, was a singer in the group.

Two years later, she left the band to sign with Capitol Records, the new label established by Johnny Mercer. Along with Margaret Whiting and Peggy Lee, Ms. Stafford became one of Capitol’s three female pop mainstays. Mr. Weston became Capitol’s musical director and Ms. Stafford’s arranger and conductor. They married in 1952. Weston died in 1996.

Besides their son, Tim, of Topanga, Calif., Ms. Stafford is survived by their daughter, Amy Wells of Calabasas, Calif.; a younger sister, Betty Jane; and four grandchildren.

During the early Capitol years, Ms. Stafford’s U.S.O. tours and V-Discs (recordings specially made for servicemen) earned her the nickname G.I. Jo. In 1945, “Candy,” in which she and Pied Pipers accompanied Mr. Mercer, went to No. 1.

From the mid- ’40s on, Ms. Stafford was a major radio star, who sometimes used her show, “The Chesterfield Supper Club,” to acquaint the public with Southern Appalachian folk music. She recorded a groundbreaking album, “Jo Stafford Sings American Folk Songs” and followed it with “Songs of Scotland.”

The folk-pop singer Judy Collins has credited Ms. Stafford’s version of “Barbara Allen” as an important inspiration for her early folk career. In the late 1940s and early ’50s, Ms. Stafford and Gordon McRae teamed for a series of hit duets, including “My Darling, My Darling,” from the Broadway musical “Where’s Charley?” and the devotional song “Whispering Hope.” When Mr. Weston left Capitol Records for Columbia, Ms. Stafford followed him.

Her Columbia albums, like “Swingin’ Down Broadway,” “Ski Trails,” “Ballad of the Blues” and “Jo + Jazz” (with the arranger Johnny Mandel) foreshadowed the modern concept album. Her biggest hits for the label included “Make Love to Me,” a pop version of Hank Williams’s “Jambalaya,” and “Shrimp Boats.”

On several hits she was teamed with Frankie Laine, the most popular of which was their duet of another Williams song, “Hey, Good Lookin’.” After a falling out with Columbia in the late 1950s, Ms. Stafford returned to Capitol, then joined Sinatra’s label Reprise.

In 1966, Ms. Stafford went into semiretirement, and after “Stayin’ Alive,” she retired completely. She re-appeared once, in 1990, at an event honoring Sinatra. Many of her hits have been reissued on Corinthian Records, a record company Mr. Weston founded as a religious label.

Many years after her retirement, Ms. Stafford looked back happily on her musical life with Weston. “Our talents — his and mine — fit the music of the time,” she said. “And the music fit us. We were very fortunate, because if both of us were starting out today, we’d starve to death!”

New York Times


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