Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music

A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

STAFFORD, Jo

(b 12 November 1920, Coalinga CA; d 16 July 2008, Los Angeles) Pop singer, one of the best of all time, described by lyricist Gene Lees as a highly educated folk singer. Her 'relative pitch' was so good that it may as well have been perfect; she put a song across with honesty and warm vocal colour but without stylistic excess, and was a favourite of American soldiers in WWII, who called her 'G.I. Jo'. Joel Whitburn calculated that on the basis of her weeks in the Billboard charts she was one of the top five recording artists of 1940-55.

She studied classical voice in high school, formed a vocal trio with sisters Pauline and Christine; the trio recorded with the Louis Prima band in 1936. Jo then joined the Pied Pipers vocal octet, who sang like a whole band. The octet appeared on a Tommy Dorsey radio program in 1938, and when Dorsey subsequently called wanting to hire a quartet, the Pipers had not been getting enough work and had slimmed down, Jo said years later, and four of them joined the Dorsey band, backing Frank Sinatra on 'Star Dust', 'I Guess I'll Have To Dream The Rest', no. 1 hits 'I'll Never Smile Again' and 'There Are Such Things' and many others. Jo's first solo record with Dorsey is usually named as 'Little Man With A Candy Cigar' in February 1941, but in the previous month she had made a 12" 78 of 'For You' (song by Harry Warren and Al Dubin) arranged by Sy Oliver: Twelve-inchers rarely made the pop charts and juke box operators did not use them, but this must have been one of the loveliest pop records of the year (with Sinatra's 'Without A Song' on the other side). Jo's other solos with Dorsey included 'Manhattan Serenade' and 'You Took My Love' '41-3, and she sang with Oliver on 'Yes, Indeed!'

The Pipers left Dorsey in late 1942, worked on radio and recorded for Capitol, had a dozen hits 1944-8 including a no. 1 'Dream' '45, but Jo had gone solo in mid-1944 (replaced by June Hutton). Musicians knew that she had great technical skill, but some critics (unbelievably) called her 'cold'; her chart success with her excellent beat and phrasing, helped by ex- Dorsey arranger Paul Weston, was swift. Among nearly 50 hits on Capitol 1944-50 were first-class show songs 'Long Ago And Far Away', 'I Love You', 'No Other Love'; 'Candy' '45 with Johnny Mercer and the Pipers was a no. 1. She was one of the first pop singers to record folk songs, as early as '46; also novelties, playing a hillbilly on a cover of Dorothy Shay's 'Feudin' And Fightin' ', also 'I'm My Own Grandmaw'. Duet hits with Gordon McRae included 'My Darling, My Darling'. 'Whispering Hope' (a song from 1868) sold a million. As Cinderella Stump she recorded 'Timtayshun' '47, a hilarious novelty sending up country music on which she purposely sang slightly out of tune, an impressive technical trick. She married Weston in 1952 and they moved to Columbia, where she had 30 more chart hits 1950-7 including a cover of Hank Williams's 'Hey Good Lookin' ' (a duet with Frankie Laine) and chart-toppers 'You Belong To Me' '51 (co-written by Pee Wee King) and 'Make Love To Me!' '54 ('Tin Roof Blues' from 1923 with new lyrics).

Entertaining friends, Jo sang slightly badly as Darlene Edwards, with Weston on piano as Jonathan Edwards, playing wrong notes and too many beats in the bar. Jonathan claimed that he played better stride piano than Fats Waller; Darlene added, 'Well, actually, a 5/4 bar gives you an extra stride.' Steve Allen advised them to go public with the comedy act. On sessions for The Piano Artisty Of Jonathan Edwards '57, drummer Jack Sperling had to be replaced because he couldn't stop laughing. Applicants for apprenticeships at BBC Scotland were played Jonathan and Darlene tracks, and if they didn't hear anything wrong they were not hired. Weston also told a story about going out with friends to a supper club and being recognised by club's pianist, who began playing slightly badly, like Jonathan; they all thought that was very amusing, but he kept doing it until they realised that that was the way he played all the time...

Jo never craved stardom and did not like performing live; she retired in the '60s (Darlene carried on until Darlene Remembers Duke '82). Her albumss on Capitol included Memory Songs with MacRae, on Columbia Sings Broadway's Best, Ski Trails, Swingin' Down Broadway, Ballad Of The Blues, Jo Plus Jazz; some of these and more (including hits compilations, Jonathan and Darlene and some of Weston's albums) were later reissued on their own Corinthian label. Songs Of Scotland had settings of Robert Burns set to music by Al Rinker. She was one of Lester Young's favourite singers, and was admired by Billie Holiday; when Weston was working with Ella Fitzgerald on her Irving Berlin songbook at Verve, Ella said she was nervous, because 'If I sing off key you'll go home and tell your old lady!'