GIs' favourite who sang with Sinatra
Published 27/07/2008 | 00:00
JO Stafford, who has died, 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 with the Pied Pipers while backing Frank Sinatra on his early recordings with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra in the late Thirties, and she made a decisive retirement in the early Sixties.
Her wartime fame might suggest an American Vera Lynn, but admirers thought she possessed greater range, wit and subtlety. 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 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. Her mother, Anne, had been an adroit performer on the five-string banjo and the folk music of Tennessee remained an influence for Jo.
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, and the pretty Stafford Sisters were in demand.
They appeared on local radio and, five nights a week, put in an hour on the folk show The Crockett Family of Kentucky. By contrast, they sang in the 1937 Astaire-Rogers picture A Damsel in Distress. 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 among them were two groups, The Four Esquires and 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 each had a boyfriend who worked for Tommy Dorsey and were visiting LA. They performed on several shows for him in New York but were then turfed out when the English sponsor became disillusioned with their casual attitudes and felt they might 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. 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 Paul Weston was leaving the orchestra to work with Dinah Shore, and Sinatra was arriving from Harry James's band.
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. After working with Sinatra, Stafford recalled he was devoted to the music: "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 said.
A few months later, the songwriter Johnny Mercer set up the Capitol record label, on the west coast and he signed Stafford. Her first No 1 came in the middle of 1947, but was 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, Stafford volunteered to sing: with her voice speeded up, the result was Tim-tayshun under 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; she refused royalties, to her agent's dismay.
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 McRae, such as the 19th-Century Whispering Hope, which reached No 4 in 1949.
When Paul Weston left for Columbia Records in the early Fifties, she followed him, and they were married in 1952, at which time she became a Catholic. She also sold 25 million discs for Columbia.
Weston died in 1996; Jo Stafford is survived by her children, Tim, a guitarist and record producer, and Amy, a singer.