Monday, July 21, 2008
Remembering Jo Stafford
Jo Stafford died last week. A pop singer, her career extended from the big band era to the beginning of the Rock n’ Roll era, which left singers like her without much publicity as the record buyers became younger. She sang publicly only rarely after the mid 1960s. Thus, most obituaries on Jo Stafford have stamped her as forgotten, or at their kindest, little remembered.
The pop culture of the 20th century, that bold and brazen time of innovations and experimentation, is slipping away from us with each icon to depart for heaven. A word, then, about Jo Stafford for the younger readers who haven’t heard the good word.
Jo Stafford was the single most versatile pop singer of her day. She had a rich mezzo-soprano voice, with an astonishing musicianship to her singing. That may have come from early operatic training, or maybe from her days of singing complicated harmonies with The Pied Pipers, or maybe from her days with bandleader Tommy Dorsey, who was considered a rigid taskmaster by some and a tyrant by others. Wherever her work ethic or her musicality came from, she possessed a spirit of song where other singers merely sang.
Yet, what she did was simply sing. Unlike other singers of her day, she did not employ gimmickry or mimicry or showmanship to “sell” a song. She just sang, with her heart, and her guts. Her style was one of shy invitation, of confessions of unbearable longing, and at the same time, a sense of comforting. Perhaps this is why she was such a favorite among servicemen during World War II and the Korean War, who affectionately dubbed her “GI Jo.” She expressed that touch of wistful need and yet carried an almost subliminal message that somehow everything would be all right. In some situations, like war I imagine, you really need to hear things like that. Listen here to “You Belong to Me."
Jo Stafford could put across a ballad like nobody else. “Early Autumn,” “Midnight Sun,” “The Folks Who Live on the Hill,” and “I Didn’t Know About You,” come to mind. But she did not restrict her repertoire to merely modern ballads. Her interest in music also brought her into the realm of American folk songs, where she was among the first to record this traditional music. Listen here to her achingly lovely version of “Shenandoah.”
She could sing jazz. She could sing pop. She could sing church hymns. She could sing Broadway show tunes. She recorded them all. She had the widest repertoire of any singer of her day. She also had a wickedly silly sense of humor. Listen here to her so-called “hillbilly” version of the formerly sultry hit “Tim-Tayshun.”
When she and her husband, musician and conductor/arranger Paul Weston entertained friends at parties by pretending to be “Jonathan and Darlene Edwards,” the worst, most off-key lounge act in the history of the world, they discovered they had a brand new act. The only Grammy Award Jo Stafford ever won was for her riotously tortured performance as Darlene Edwards, butcher of songs.
Jo Stafford had a brief fling at the movies, as just about every pop culture figure did then, from sports heroes to band singers, and TCM will show “Du Barry Was a Lady” (1943) on Wednesday, which features Jo in a couple of numbers. She also did some backup singing for Alice Faye.
Here are the traditional obituaries from The Washington Post and from the Los Angeles Times. But the notion that she is forgotten or little remembered is not exactly true. A person may be ignorant of her career, especially if he has little interest in pop music of her era.
But anyone who has heard Jo Stafford could never forget her.
For more on Jo Stafford, kindly have a look at this terrific interview by Bill Reed.