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A Voice Like Home

Jo Stafford and the Mystery of Why Music Moves Us

By Nancy Franklin

Published in: The New Yorker August 26/September 2, 1996

About a dozen years ago, in a TV commercial for some airline, I heard the song "I'll Be Seeing You" for the first time. If I had heard it before, it had never registered, but now it really got to me, and I asked a friend of mine which recording of it I should buy. This was a guy I had known for a year but wasn't friends with until the day I corrected him and said no, Nelson Riddle didn't arrange the Ella Fitzgerald-Cole Porter "Songbook," Buddy Bregman did, and we both realized that we were sort of weird in the same way. He said to get Jo Stafford's recording. I had never heard of her, but I went to a record store and bought an album called "G.I. Jo" and took it home and played it. I think it was that night that I realized I was in love with this guy, and I know it was that night that Jo Stafford became my favorite singer.

Like "I'll Be Seeing You," the other songs on the album were associated with the Second World War; they were songs of farewell and of longing for return, of the permanence of the memory of love if not of love itself. The songs were so consistent in theme that you could make one big title out of them: "I Fall in Love Too Easily--It Could Happen to You--and You'll Never Know that I Left My Heart at the Stage Door Canteen, but I Don't Want to Walk Without You, so I'll Walk Alone with No Love, No Nothin;, though I'll Remember April and, since We Mustn't Say Goodbye, I'll Be Seeing You." In all of them, Stafford sang with a voice that seemed to understand everything that was important to understand. It was low, warm, and rich - qualities that led one music writer to liken it to chocolate mousse. It was clear, unshowy, and direct, and yet there was a feeling of melancholy deep within it - melancholy contained rather than expressed. You could say that it was a beautiful voice, even a perfect voice, but those words do not account for the emotional chemistry that takes place when that voice hits your ears. Its restrained gorgeousness carries a dual charge of intimacy and aloneness; the singer herself seems to disappear, which the voice remains to haunt you.

Today, Jo Stafford, who is seventy-eight and lives in Los Angeles, may be the least well-known of the great pop singers of the middle part of the century. During her recording career, which began in the late thirties, shortly before she joined the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, and started to slow down only in the late fifties (hello, Elvis; goodbye, Jo, more or less), she was ubiquitous. She recorded some eight hundred songs and had more than ninety singles on the charts. During the years of live radio, she logged thousands of hours of airtime, on others' shows and her own, and for a year she had a weekly television show. She was the top female singer of the early fifties; by 1954, she had sold twenty-five million records. The song that Stafford is most closely associated with today is undoubtedly her 1952 hit "You Belong to Me" (a title that draws a blank with many people, even those who were around at the time, until they hear the lilting first line" "See they pyramids along the Nile"). It was No. 1 for twelve weeks, sold two million copies, and was the third-best-selling record of the first half of the decade.

Stafford's repertoire was not confined to romantic and four-hankie ballads; her first No. 1 song, in fact, was "Tim-Tayshun," a hillbilly parody of "Temptation," on which Stafford, under contract to Capitol Records at the time, was billed as Cinderella G. Stump. She did show tunes and Tim Pan Alley stuff and the great American standards; she sang Scottish songs, folk songs, religious songs, and country songs; and though she couldn't by any stretch be called a blues or a jazz singer, she recorded a pleasant blues-flavored album and a terrific jazz album that featured the fine, fat saxophone of Ben Webster. It may be that her blurry image today has something to do with the great range of songs she sang; you can't pin her down.

Stafford's out put is a mixed bag, especially after 1950, when she switched to Columbia Records, where pop singles were under the aegis of Mitch Miller--"I made some real turkeys at Columbia," she told me--but somehow she always managed to meet the material head on and to remain true to herself. People I spoke to about Stafford often referred to the purity of her voice; Mel Torme, a connoisseur of singers, says "First and foremost, she's the most in-tunes singer on the planet." The bassist Charlie Haden, who has incorporated two shivery Stafford vocals--"Haunted Heart" and "Alone Together"--in albums he made with his group Quarter West, says that "she sang with a passion that most great musicians play with." This was seconded by a formerly skinny kid from Hoboken who joined the Dorsey band a couple of weeks after Stafford. He was twenty-four and she was twenty-two; fifty-six later, Frank Sinatra says simply, "It was a joy to sit on the bandstand and listen to her."

Ten years ago, I wrote Stafford a fan letter and requested a photograph. I asked her if she ever sang anymore, and she replied that the only singing she did nowadays was when she babysat for her grandchildren. A few weeks ago, I spent a couple of afternoons talking to her in her apartment in Century City, where she and her husband, the bandleader and arranger Paul Weston, have lived for fifteen years. (Weston was under the weather and couldn't join our conversations.) Stafford is about five feet seven, and looks contentedly grandmotherly. She has gray-green eyes, and her blondish hair is set in a wave that puts her squarely in her generation. She describes herself as shy, but she has a low-key sense of humor. When I asked her to tell me about the turkeys she's recorded, she said, "Do you want to talk about "Underneath the Overpass?" How does it? I asked. "It goes no place. It never did." Her speaking voice is gentle, low, and a little husky (she was a "dedicated" smoker until ten years ago), and it has a definite Southern tinge. Stafford is a California native--she was born in Coalinga, up north in oil country, and grew up in Long Beach--but her parents were from the mountains of eastern Tennessee. They came to California two months before Jo was born, in 1917, and she grew up surrounded by a host of transplanted Appalachian aunts and uncles and cousins. She drops her "g's" as in "I was dancin' with my darlin' to the Tennessee Waltz."

Neither of Stafford's parents had a good singing voice, but her mother had strong musical tastes. "My dad and I used to have eternal arguments about the difference between Al Jolson and Bing Crosby," Stafford said. "I guess I think she knew what was good because she agreed with me." Jo's older sisters, Pauline and Christine, sang on local radio in Long Beach. Jo started singing "before I even remember," and she took piano lessons and read music by the time she was ten. When she graduated from high school, she had had five years of intensive classical vocal training. College was economically out of the questions, and she joined her sisters (sister acts, sometimes filled out with a non-sister or two, were big in those days), who were now up in Hollywood.

For several years, the Stafford Sisters, in addition to working on movie musicals produced at M-G-M and Twentieth Century-Fox, did "mountains of work" on radio, sometimes appearing as often as eight times a week: "We were very busy, and we were pretty good. There's no blend like a sister blend." In 1938, Jo and seven men formed a vocal group, and called themselves the Pied Pipers. Soon the group was whittled down to three men and Jo, and in 1939 she got a phone call from Tommy Dorsey inviting the Pipers to join his band.

It may be wrong to romanticize the past, but when it comes to the big-band days there's just no way around it. I love the fact that the phone number of the Pennsylvania Hotel is still Pennsylvania 6-5000, just as it is in the Glenn Miller song. When my father talks about hearing a remote broadcast of Benny Goodman from the Glen Island Casino, I can almost see what the music looked like as it went out over the airwaves; like fireflies dancing in the air on a late-summer night. Stafford also loved the big-band sound: "I still love that sound. It just knocks me out. A group of real musicians playing together in a good arrangement is a marvellous musical kick." When she signed up with Dorsey, she became part of that world--hotel ballrooms, Greyhound buses, weeks and weeks of one-night stands all over the country, playing the Paramount. Stafford says that the lie was "pretty grueling" but that she had a lot of fun: "We took our work very seriously, but not ourselves. Of course, musicians have the best sense of humor in the world. There was great camaraderie, and the guys treated me beautifully." Sinatra affectionately recalls Stafford as "a real trouper," no matter what the circumstances: "The bus was quite uncomfortable and most often it was either too cold or too hot, but Josie never complained."

During the three years that Stafford spent with Dorsey, she sang several solos--not enough, in Sinatra's view--but she was perfectly content to be a Piper, and she stayed with the group for two years after they left the band. "Singing lead in a group is the most fun of all," she says. "Much more fun than singing solos," Her favorite singer was, and is, Sinatra. And, just as Sinatra recognized Stafford's potential for standing out, she appreciated his ability to fit in: "With Dorsey, the Pipers made a lot of records with Frank. You find very few solo singers who can adjust to being a group singer, which is complete discipline--you can't go off on you own. But when he sang with us he was a Piper. That takes respect for the music, and musical thoughtfulness."

Stafford herself has never liked to be the center of attention; she likes to sing, but she doesn't like to perform. In her whole career, she did only one night-club engagement, at the Martinique, in New York, "I'm basically a singer, period, and I think I'm really lousy up in front of an audience--it's just not me," she says. She always preferred the recording studio, partly because she had the obvious advantage of being able to do a umber over again until she got it right, and partly because in the studio "you're performing in a very abstract way as far as your audience is concerned--you're not called upon to expose yourself to people." One of the things you don't hear in Stafford's voice is ambition, a yearning to be recognized. She was a famous singer, but she as never a "personality"--"much to the disgust of all the P.R. people who had to make up stories about me," she says. "They used to say, 'God, won't you do something?' I guess I am a pretty ordinary person." Yet Stafford's ordinariness, if that's what it is, is what makes her voice so compelling and so comforting: it makes me think of the way I used to feel when I was playing outside and I could hear my mother inside signing to the cat while she was making dinner.

Stafford may not have had ambition, but others had it for her. She refers to Johnny Mercer as "my old mentor and god," partly because she adored the songs he wrote, but also because he was largely responsible for making her a solo performer. Mercer was a co-founder of Capitol Records, and in 1944 Stafford became the first singer to be given a solo contract there. At the time, Capitol was one of the few record companies run by musicians, and business decisions were the consequence of musical decisions. Being a vocal star at Capitol in the forties was like being a movie star at M-G-M in the thirties; it was a singer's dream factory. Stafford has always felt lucky to have come along when she did, when good songs were plentiful and good musicianship was valued. "Supposing I had come along now, " she said. "I'd be working in a See's candy store."

Capitol was also where she began working with Weston, whom she had known since the late thirties. (Stafford was then married to one of the Pied Pipers. She and Weston, who is now eighty-four, married in 1952.) Weston, a Dartmouth graduate from Massachusetts, had worked as an arranger with Dorsey and other bandleaders, and was now the A. & R. man at Capitol. Stafford soon was working almost exclusively with Weston; they thought the same way musically, and she felt more comfortable with him than with anyone else. She had it written into her contract that if Weston ever left Capitol she could leave, too, and in 1950, when he left to work at Columbia, she followed.

Stafford always sounded mellower than the other canaries of her day, and as time went on her voice became richer and deeper--markedly more so when she moved from Capitol to Columbia. She explained to me that the early recording techniques at Capitol made her voice sound higher and thinner than it was, and she added, "a lot of it was youth--as you mature, the sound gets fuller, and rounder. I was pretty young. And we recorded a lot in sharp keys, which is more brilliant sound." Stafford's voice continued to grow in power through the years; probably her peak was the 1961 album "American Folk Song," which was set to Weston's self-described Aaron Coplandish arrangements. Stafford first recorded these songs in 1947, when her voice was still a sun-dappled meadow; she re-recorded them in 1961, in stereo, when her voice had become a dark, inviting grove. Along with "G. I. Jo" and an album of Scottish songs she recorded in 1953, the songs on this album--they included, "Shenandoah," "Poor Wayfaring Stranger," "Barbara Allen," and "Black is the Color"--are her own favorites, and they are mine, too. All the longing that has ever existed is in those songs. I tried to convey to Stafford the effect that "Shenandoah" had on my by telling her about an experiment I once performed on my mother. I had a tape of "Shenandoah" in my Walkman, and I put the earphones on her without telling her what she was going to hear. In about thirty seconds, she had tears in her eyes. Stafford said, "My dad always cried at that. My sister plays 'Shenandoah' in her car and drives along the freeway weeping."

Why? What is it about her voice? Stafford tried to oblige my constant prodding to get her to explain it, but, of course, there is no explanation. By way of indicating this, she said, "Somebody--a singer--once asked me how I controlled my vibrato. I just take in a breath and start singing and the vibrato is there of its own volition. I don't do anything consciously about it. I don't do anything consciously about anything except pay attention to my pitch, and knowing if I'm going to go for a high note how I'm going to prepare for that. But, as far as the voice is concerned, whatever comes out, you know, that's it." Stafford told me that she had received a lot of letters from soldiers during the war. One group wrote to her that right before lights out they'd have her recording of "Yesterdays" played over the intercom in their quarters. "Now, that's a kind of sad, forlorn song--but they liked it. They said it just reminded them of home and good things. And why? I'm not smart enough to know why."

Charlie Haden, whose roots are in country music--his parents sang on the Grand Ole Opry before he was born--remembers crying when he heard Stafford's version of the folk song "He's Gone Away." His family had sung that song, in a major-key, up-tempo-mountain-music version; Stafford's version is wistful and tender, as if she had picked up a piece of clothing once worn by a loved one and begun singing. When I said something to Haden about the melancholy I heard in her voice, he didn't say anything for a while. When he finally spoke, he said that Stafford's singing showed him that there was a way to be in the world and experience both and good and the bad "with humility, with dignity, and with maturity." He went on to describe the feeling that her voice called up in him and, at the same time, said possibly everything there is to say about music": "It evokes appreciation of life and how precious life really is--whether there's sorrow and tears or happiness and joy, you're reminded that you're lucky to be here."