Jo Stafford, who died Wednesday at 90, was a recording artist and big band vocalist who was among the most adored female singers of her generation, whether crooning a classic or cutting up with hillbilly high jinks.
Between the end of the swing era and the early years of the rock 'n' roll era, Stafford was a constant presence on the pop records charts, landing nearly a hundred hits and selling a reputed 25 million records for Columbia Records alone. In an era of homey, emotional singers, Stafford was known for the cool, sultry sound of her voice, her sublimely understated approach, and her unique capacity for bringing any song an air of mystery. A flagship interpreter of the Great American Songbook, she was also a champion of such adjoining styles as country and folk. She carved out a parallel career in comedy. Her friend and admirer Rosemary Clooney once said, "The voice says it all: beautiful, pure, straightforward, no artifice, matchless intonation, instantly recognizable. Those things describe the woman too."
Raised in a musical household in Long Beach, Calif., Stafford performed from a young age. "When I was still a kid in high school, my sisters Christine and Pauline, who were 11 and 14 years older than I, were in radio as the Stafford Sisters ó a very original name."
The Stafford Sisters recorded commercially for the first time with trumpeter Louis Prima and his orchestra in 1936. Jo Stafford later joined forces with seven male singers to form an octet called The Pied Pipers. Bandleader Tommy Dorsey hired a downsized version of the group as a quartet with Stafford as lead voice and female soloist.
The Pied Pipers' tenure with the Dorsey band (1940-1942) coincided with the trombonist's "discovery" of a remarkable boy singer, Frank Sinatra. The combination of Dorsey, Sinatra, and the Pied Pipers led to a series of hits, including "I'll Never Smile Again," that marked the beginning of a long stay on the pop charts for both Stafford and Sinatra.
When the Pied Pipers left Tommy Dorsey at the end of 1942, Johnny Mercer signed them to his new Capitol label. Stafford soon went solo and became a top seller on Capitol. Her biggest for the label was "Some Enchanted Evening."
In 1950, Stafford and her second husband, arranger-conductor Paul Weston, switched allegiances to Columbia Records in 1950, where she had a crossover country-inspired hit with "Tennessee Waltz." Folk forms inspired some of her best work, including "American Folk Songs" and "Songs of Scotland." She also had hits with Weston's folk-styled "Shrimp Boats" and several numbers by Hank Williams, including "If You've Got The Money, I've Got The Time," "Hey Good Lookin'," and "Jumbalaya." Her single biggest chart hit was the 1954 "You Belong To Me."
In 1947, she recorded as "Cinderella G. Stump," singing a countrified parody of the old torch tango "Temptation" as (sung "Tim-Tay-Shun") ó a hit and a favorite record of the real-life country diva June Carter. Later, she and Weston invented the duo of Jonathan and Darlene Edwards, whose gift for butchering the standard rules of music led to some of the funniest recordings ever made. Stafford would sing a quarter tone sharp, Weston would play all the wrong notes, and they would perform earnestly sincere renditions of some of the stupidest songs ever written, from "Tip Toe Through The Tulips" to "Stayin' Alive." Her sole Grammy was for "Jonathan and Darlene Edwards in Paris" in 1961.
Yet Stafford's most important contribution was interpreting the great Broadway-oriented writers. Her 1947 recording of "Haunted Heart" is effective because it's so subtle, because Stafford holds something back and doesn't shove her emotion in the listener's face.
In the early years of the LP, Stafford recorded a string of classic albums for Columbia, including two collections of show music "Broadway's Best" (1953) and "Swinging Down Broadway" (1958), a set of World War II songs entitled "G.I. Jo" (1960). Rather than do a conventional Christmas album she made a set of winter songs called "Ski Trails" (1956). She made a brilliant jazz album with the swinging accordionist Art Van Damme ("Once Over Lightly," 1957). She reached a pinnacle with "Jo + Jazz" (1960) in which arranger Johnny Mandel masterminded brilliant settings for Stafford and a contingent of stalwart players, mostly from the Duke Ellington band. Even into the 1960s, when her type of high-quality, traditional pop music was being phased out, she continued to find new ideas to explore, like "The Ballad of The Blues" and "Do I Hear A Waltz."
With nothing left to prove, Stafford had largely retired by the end of the 1960s; she concentrated on her two children, Amy and Tim Weston, and both she and her husband (who died in 1996) were both founding members and longtime officers of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. Her last known public performance was at a 1990 salute to her old friend Frank Sinatra.