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Jo Stafford/Erroll Garner

By Gary Giddins

Published in Village Voice Magazine, March 22, 1988

After 30 years, it's probably safe to say that Jonathan and Darlene Edwards are contemporary classics. They have survived any number of musical fashions by resolutely going their own way, and their influence has slowly snaked its way into the heart of America's popular music. It used to be observed that Erroll Garner was the key influence on a proliferating tribe of cocktail pianists; but in the heartland, at the hostelries where America does its business, and especially at those where it gambles, Jonathan Edwards has clearly emerged as the dominant force. His impacted arpeggios, elastic measures, muffled chords, and military--that is, fatigued--rhythms are in vogue everywhere. As for the divine Darlene, one has on to recall Streisand's Classical Barbra and Linda Ronstadt's readings of standards to appreciate the degree to which her close reading of lyrics, her hovering high notes, her freedom of pitch, and her peccable taste have won yet another generation of devoted admirers. The acolytes will be pleased to learn that the Edwardses have raided their five albums to compile Jonathan and Darlene's Greatest Hits, and that through digital remastering each note is even more vehement than before.

Still, they appear to have become the object of a cult in the years since their first Columbia album was a bestseller in 1957, and since the follow-up I Love Paris, won a Grammy award (for comedy, to Jonathan's everlasting humiliation). Those and three subsequent monsters, including the incommodious Darlene Remembers Duke, Jonathan Plays Fats, have since been issued on Corinthian, a small label operated by another husband and wife team, Paul Weston and Jo Stafford, who also recorded together, though they never won a Grammy. In fact, along with the Edwards album, they are releasing CD's of Jo + Jazz, G. I. Jo, and Weston's Music for Easy Listening. There are always complaints about the selections left off compilations (in this instance, mine included "Star Dust," "The Poor People of Paris," "Sophisticated Lady," and "It's Magic"), especially on a CD of only 36 minutes. Yet it doesn't seem like only 36 minutes: the 14 items in the anthology are so intense, it's probably wise not to listen to more than three or four at a sitting. Many people find it a strain to hear even a single selection in its entirety.

Jonathan's style is in part the consequence of a physical handicap, as shown in the cover photo: he was born with two right hands. Darlene's is more a consequence of geography: she was born and raised in Trenton, New Jersey. With the possible exception of Ornette Coleman, they've done more than anyone in Western music to explore the subtleties of quartertone, the vagaries of the tempered scale, and the largely ignored virtues of singing sharp instead of flat or the even more conventional method of singing on pitch. Can it be coincidence that they all discovered themselves in Los Angeles? No one has done as much to underscore the literalness of meaning. Darlene's enunciation of the line "I love Paris in the SPRING time" becomes an aural pun on the vaulting meaning of spring, and Jonathan's "Dizzy Fingers" become palpable as his arpeggios swirl in nauseated discursiveness. When Darlene exhorts, "You must take the A train," she implies a different key for each word, while employing a cadence that is the precise antithesis of swing. Her train effects on "Alabamy Bound" and her scat on "Staying Alive" (huh huh huh huh") defy description. Her masterpiece, though, is "You're Blasť"--the only version that does full justice to the lyric, which has never sounded nearly this insulting. After you hear her deconstruction (the Marx Brothers did a similar job on Il Trovatore), you will never want to hear it any other way.

Many people are surprised that the Edwardses could be so closely involved with the Westons. In many respects, Darlene is the antithesis of Stafford, who is the living definition of good taste. When it comes to pitch phrasing, and time, Stafford goes by the book; she's never wrong, never off. In recent conversation, Stafford defended Darlene: "She works just as hard as I do. When you sing, you hear a note a split-second before you sing it, so you know how to make it. Darlene hears it too, she just doesn't make it--or she overmakes it." "It's a real art to sing sharp," Weston added. Stafford also refers admiringly to Darlene's innovation of adding a fifth beat to a 4/4 measure for "an extra stride." The Edwardses have not performed since a superstar charity show with Sinatra, Carson, et al. In 1978, Stafford and Weston retired several years earlier, though they are deeply involved in their mail-order label, which owns every master Stafford made for Columbia--acquired through a most-favored nations clause after a legal battle over the label's mishandling of her later albums.

As of 1955 Stafford sold more records than any woman in history, ranking fifth among the top sellers in both sexes. With Weston, the man who is often credited with having invented mood music, arranging and sometimes composing ("I Should Care," and the ineffable "Shrimp Boats," which should have gone to Darlene), she scored one hit after another, reaching the number one spot in 1954 with "Make Love to Me," which was simply the hoariest of jazz themes ("Tin Roof Blues") outfitted with a lyric that would have turned Tipper Gore crimson. By the late 50's, Columbia was more interested in nurturing newer performers, like the Edwardses, and Stafford's final albums were neglected. That was ironic because they are the best work she ever did, which is to say they are among the purest and most haunting examples of savvy popular singing ever recorded. Jo + Jazz, arranged by Johnny Mandel in 1960, puts her in the company of Ellingtonians Ben Webster, Johnny Hodges, Ray Nance, Lawrence Brown, Harry Carney, and a rhythm section that includes Jimmy Rowles and Mel Lewis. The dozen songs are first-rate and the CD remastering is a dramatic improvement over the analogue, though Hodges is still undermiked on "Just Squeeze Me." There are no stars but Stafford on G. I. Jo, unless you include Weston's impressively cozy orchestra, but it's probably the best example of her singing. It's easy to see why thousands of servicemen went to sleep each night thinking they were fighting to save the world for Jo Stafford. Hers is the most womanly of voices, unaccented and lilting, yet without a trace of coquetry. Her high notes are immaculate and gorgeous; the lower ones have a lush liquidity, almost a pout. The song--"You'll Never Know," "I Don't Want to Walk Without You," "I Fall in Love Too Easily," "I'll Remember April"--are remarkably adult, and it's no wonder they've conspired to make her generation nostalgic for an era gutted by war and depression. Something precious died, and this record comes very close to embodying what it was. You can get the Corinthian Catalogue by writing Corinthian Records, P. O. Box 6296, Beverly Hills, CA, 90212.