When Jo Stafford Sings
By Richard G. Hubler
Published in Coronet Magazine, April 1955
It was 11 A. M. and the stage show at New York's Paramount Theater was in full swing. Tommy Dorsey's band was playing, the Nicholas Brothers were tap-dancing furiously, and the audience of 3,000 was squealing with delight.
Suddenly the dancers stopped. One of them held up his hand signaled for the spotlight. Amid dead silence, the spot moved to a fat girl in blue, seated high in the rear of the stage. Her head was bowed and she was snoring delicately, sound asleep.
The roars of laughter woke the girl up. She blushed to her hairline, tied a sickly smile, and fell over sideways in a dead faint.
"Sometimes maybe I get too relaxed," says Jo Stafford of that 1941 incident.
Due to this genius for casual unwinding, the carrot-topped, freckle-faced, 38-year-old-woman, who looks something like a plump housewife and has a contralto voice like a drink of mountain spring water, is without doubt the leading female singer of American popular songs.
At home in her $100,000 Brentwood, California, hilltop farmhouse-mansion, Jo Stafford is a puttering wife and mother who entertains friends constantly, studies Elizabethan history avidly and personally takes care of her first child, 2-year-old Timothy john. She rarely sings there, except for her own pleasure.
In public, faultlessly gowned and posed, her precise musicianship has enabled her to sell more than 25,000,000 records from 1939 to 1954, and acquire a world-wide audience estimated at 350.000.000 people. Since 1945, her limpid voice has earned her well over $3,000,000.
Her versatility is such that she is affectionately regarded as a "musician's singer," equally at home as a ballad crooner, a bop singer, a blues moaner, a folk-song expert, a novelty-tune cutup, a semi-classic purist, a hymn singer or a hillbilly comedienne.
Her first smash hit recording was Tim-Tay-Shun, a burlesque about an unhappy love affair, done by a backwoods group headed by one Red Ingle. Minutes before they were to record, their vocalist disappeared. The frantic leader pounced on Jo as she passed by and persuaded her to substitute.
The ditty became an all-time classic, which has sold nearly 2,000,000 copies. Jo cautiously preferred to be credited as "Cinderella G. Stomp" on the recording.
Jo likes to sing sentimental songs without frills. She thinks it is this approach which captivates most her listeners--as in the case of the smash hit, Keep It a Secret. "I sang it like the Tennessee Waltz, only backwards," she says thoughtfully.
She defends her tendency to relax at unexpected moments by declaring, "After all, the voice is just a muscle that has to rest."
The words "simplicity" and "Honesty" occur often in discussions of Jo Stafford's singing. She herself says: "I sing songs as I see them, the way they are written--in the mood as well as the words and melody. I'm not a stylist or a personality, I'm a voice, singing."
This ability to translate emotional values into tonal expression has given Jo a unique reputation for singing church music that has been accorded no other vocalist. One of her records, Whispering Hope, a duet with Gordon MacRae, has sold a phenomenal 1,300.000 copies.
Having handled classics and corn with equal east and at such widely separated points as the White House, the Hollywood Bow. And London's celebrated Palladium, she has also been the sole singer to have a U. S. embassy reception as "ambassadress-without portfolio."
This stemmed from the fact that from 1949 to 1953, Jo made more than 400 broadcasts for Radio Luxembourg and the Voice of America, two of the chief broadcasters beamed over Europe and through the Iron Curtain. In 1952, Luxembourg's audience, which fans out over a dozen countries and is estimated at 150,000,000, voted Stafford their favorite female singer. The Voice regards Jo's patter and singing as one of its most valuable assets.
Despite her tremendous success and popularity, it is sheer agony for Jo to make a personal appearance. Behind a microphone, before a camera or in a group she is easy as an old she. On stage alone, she is beset with the shakes. Not even the enormous success of her 15-minute TV program has made her lose the torture of revealing herself.
"What Jo never way," ways a good friend, "was an entertainer. She was a singer, first and last."
Josephine Elizabeth Stafford was born of Tennessee hill-country parents whose ancestors go back to 16-th century English. "I'm Irish, English, Scotch," Jo explains, " and maybe a couple of others tossed in."
Her mother, Anna York (second cousin to World War I hero, Sgt. Alvin York), and her father, Grover Cleveland Stafford, were married in their late teens in a village called Gibson's Hollow. Jo was the third of four girls: Christine, Pauline, Jo and Betty Jane.
Jo herself was born at Lease 35, California--a tract of land near Coalinga that has no other name--in November, 1917. Her father was an oil-field worker and Jo grew up with more than the usual difficulty. She was plump as a chicken dumpling and through her myopic eyes the world was a fizzy, distasteful place. She had trouble learning anything at school and, though naturally eager to make girl-friends, she rarely had many.
The Stafford family was a homogenous one, however, chiefly because of its musical talents. Anna Stafford could play the five-string backwoods banjo and sing as well. She insisted that her daughter take piano and singing.
"Dad could sing some real mean harmony," Jo recalls, "and Mother, who used to call square dances around Gainesboro, taught us Cindy, chicken in the Dough Pan and a lot of others that never had names."
Out of this heritage and her own yearnings, Jo became famous for her folk-song interpretations. After singing a pioneering album that sold a respectable 45,000 copies, she established the Jo Stafford Prize for American Folklore--$300 given yearly to college students in the field.
At the age of two, Jo's sisters Chris and Pauline taught her to sing the durable lyrics of Baby, Won't You Please Come Home? followed by Margie and Peggy O'Neill at four. She developed a range of about 13 notes in the next ten years.
In high school, Jo was fitted with a pair of horn-rimmed glasses. "You wouldn't believe the way the world cleared up," she says. "I had been going around all these years thinking that everything looked like a cheap tweed suit in a lint factory."
Jo, five feet three then, weighed nearly 185 pounds. She did not particularly mind, though her lack of boy friends was inevitable.
She sang at banquets with her sisters for $5 per night. She was in the high school glee club and cornered all the solo parts. She took four years of operatic training at her mother's urging and says, "I owe most of what I have right now to those years." At 16, she sang Caro Nome from "Rigoletto" creditably.
In 1936, the sisters joined a Hollywood program of hillbillies called "The Crockett Family of Kentucky; but when Pauline and Chris married, Jo went on her own.
About this time, a cheerful chap named Paul Weston, an arranger for Tommy Dorsey's band, came West to do some shows. One of the King Sisters told him he should hear a group called The Pied Pipers. Weston and some friends had the vocalists over for a sing-fest in their apartment, seven men and a girl--who was Jo.
"The singing fractured us," says Weston. "It was the first time we had ever heard voices arranged the way orchestras do music. It was so good it was way ahead of its time."
High above all the voices, of course, was that of dumpling Jo. This did not impress Weston at the time; what did amaze him was how hungry the group seemed to be. "The Pied Pipers were indeed hungry to the point of desperation. "We lived on peanut butter sandwiches and stale telephone calls," Jo says.
This was despite her credit in the special world of pro musicians. "Anybody who heard Jo knew how well she could sing," says Weston. "Her voice is the best group lead I've ever heard. It takes over and molds the quality of the rest."
On Weston's recommendation, Dorsey ordered the Pipers to report to New York for his new radio show. They made it across the continent in a dilapidated sedan and got a heavenly ten weeks of work.
Afterward, the Pipers went back to peanut butter and telephones. Their number dropped from eight to three, and Jo. But they grimly hung on, rehearsing daily, until Dorsey had a new show out of Chicago and the quartet joined him once more.
When the band hit the one-night-stand trail across the country, Jo tagged along, always faithful, occasionally getting the chance to fill in. In 1941, she sang her first record that got attention, Little Man with the Candy Cigar.
When she left the rugged band routine, she did odd singing jobs for radio and records. Weston had organized his own band, and, by 1943, Jo was singing solo standouts with it. Weston's unusual backings, filled with strings and voices, gave her the impetus she needed.
In 1944, Jo appeared as a single on Johnny Mercer's Music Shop program for 26 weeks and was signed by Capitol Records to record (she stayed with Capitol for seven years and then, in 1950, signed a five-year contract with Columbia).
Hearing Jo humming The Nightingale, a tune her mother had taught her, Weston advised her to record it. She agreed--if he would do the accompaniment. Up to the time, folk songs had been accompanied only by the traditional guitar; Weston brought up a full orchestra to the huzzahs of the critics and Jo was launched on still another career. From 1945 on, Jo and her voice went forward.
When Mike Nidorf became Jo's manager, one of his first feats was to book her into New York's Café Martinique. Jo appeared, all 185 pounds of her, in a flowing gown and sang to the astonishment and displeasure of the patrons.
"It was, to say the least, a flop," says Weston, who attended the opening. Jo did not know how to handle her lines, her hands or anything except her songs. One critic called her "an overstuffed bobby-soxer."
This kind of criticism did Jo's diminutive psyche no good, in spite of the fact that Nidorf pointed out that Kate Smith had made her mark at twice the weight. It did start her reducing, though. She was also received into the Roman Catholic Church. She had been, as she says, "half-cowboy and half-Indian" long enough; she wanted a secure haven in the midst of her growing success.
Her records were booming in sales, her voice was a trademark on radio, and that was almost enough. Jo commuted between Hollywood and New York, seeing Weston occasionally, corresponding with him constantly. Somewhere along the way they fell in love.
In 1952, they were married. Late that year, Jo had her first child. "I want two more as soon as possible," she says. For the first time in her life, working and living closely with the man who backs her up musically and psychologically, she is happy.
She sets herself rigid standards. In rehearsal, she will frankly admit where she was flat or off-beat and request a re-run.
"A person of great musical integrity, good taste and sincerity," Nidorf says, "she is one of the most unemotional persons in a completely emotional business."
A classic example of Jo's imperturbability came when she was overdue for her baby. No rushing to the hospital for her. While Weston waited frantically in the car, Jo took a shower and carefully changed to her smartest ensemble.
Since 1945, Jo has been the most consistent female pop-singer in virtually every medium. "Kids like her because she represents romance," says Weston. "The next generation likes her because she gives them a sense of escape; the next likes the way she creates memories; and the old folks like the spiritual quality in her voice."
Jo merely says that she submerges herself in her song the way a competent actress will lose her own personality in a role.
In the past 11 years, she has cut perhaps 400 records. All of them have done well and some have done very well indeed, such as her recent recording, Make Love to Me.
Down to 135 pounds, uninhibited about spectacles, she still retains her ideas about herself. Since her marriage, her baby and conversion, some think her voice has become warmer and more colorful.
"Nonsense," says Jo. "I've spent years over that thing in my throat, polishing the tones like you rub up ivory. It's just a matter of tightening and relaxing the muscle at the right times."