Jo Stafford: 1982 and 1999
Interviewed by Bill Reed (Los Angeles)
From the salad days of the Big Band era until the early 1960s, Jo Stafford was one of the world’s most successful pop singers. As of 1955, she’d sold more records than any other female vocalist, ranking fifth among the top sellers for either sex. With her emotional honesty, impeccable pitch and innate taste in quality material, virtually every single she released during a twenty-year span became a hit – this, in an era when the charts were overwhelmingly dominated by male singers. During the years 1944-57 she made the best selling charts 49 times, and was awarded seven gold records and a platinum disc for selling over 25 million (a first for a female singer).
Over 35 years she recorded some 800 sides. Her biggest hits included You Belong to Me, Make Love to Me, Shrimp Boats, Jambalaya, and Long Ago and Far Away. Among her numerous number one hits, there was the 1947 country music send-up, Tim-Tayshun (Temptation), with Stafford singing as "Cinderella G. Stump." But this was not the only time Stafford engaged in manic devastation of the species homo songbirdus. In 1957 she created the alternate personae of pitch-challenged Cafe Society chantoozie, Darlene Edwards. With her real-life husband, Paul Weston, one of the country’s top arrangers and record producers in the role of her accompanist, Jonathan, the couple recorded a novelty record album, The Piano Artistry of Jonathan Edwards. Darlene appeared on half the tracks of the release, and prompted one critic to note, "Mrs. Edwards’ intonation must be heard to be relieved." Their second escape in the series, Jonathan and Darlene Edwards in Paris, to Jonathan’s chagrin and Darlene’s confusion, won a 1960 Grammy for Best Comedy Recording. It is both an irony and a minor tragedy that this is the only Grammy ever awarded Stafford, and that this spoof of excruciatingly off-key singing is today, arguably, the thing for which the she is most remembered. It was on the occasion of the release of the Edwards’ latest attempt to finally get it right, Darlene Remembers Duke (Sometimes); Jonathan Plays Fats (Almost), in 1982, that I interviewed the couple for the newspaper, the L.A. Reader. I spent a memorable afternoon with them in their West Los Angeles home. This was the first time that Jonathan and Darlene laid waste to entire LP’s worth of vinyl in nearly fifteen years. The Westons met in 1936 and married in 1952. It is not known as to exactly when and under what circumstances Jonathan and Darlene tied the knot.
Part One: August 20, 1982
Stafford: We were kind of like the Boswell Sisters. We sang backgrounds
in movies like Alexander’s Ragtime Band. [The Stafford Sisters
can also be heard, as madrigal singers, on the soundtrack of the 1937
Fred Astaire film A Damsel in Distress.] On the movie I met up
with some other people from other groups and we formed The Pied Pipers.
There were seven boys and myself. One of them was Dick Whittingill [who
became a popular LA disc jockey]. Eventually Tommy Dorsey heard us through
the intercession of Paul Weston. We were hired for his radio show, not
to travel with the band, and off we went to New York.
[They did manage to remain in New York long enough to cut four tracks
for the Bluebird label, two of which appear on Sony’s 4-CD boxed set,
Jo Stafford: The Portrait Edition.]
Stafford: It was a real great experience. Even with all the traveling.
Even though the longest we were ever in one place was four months in New
York. That was very unusual. Most of the time you never even saw a bed.
Maybe once every couple of weeks. The rest of the time, you slept and
dressed on the band bus. A different city every night. Sometimes really
long hops. Once, after an unusually long, trip the bus rolled into town
real early one morning and there were all these college students waiting
to greet us. And I had my hair up in curlers, all berumpled, and I overheard
one kid say, with terror and pity in his voice, "My Gawd! I think
that’s Jo Stafford!"
Stafford: The pop music as we knew it didn’t have any boundaries.
It could go as far as
Stafford: The industry used to be much more structured. You had
publishers over here. Over there you had songwriters. And then you had
singers to sing what the songwriters had written. When I was doing my
radio show in the late Forties, when I was through there’d be 15 or 20
song-pluggers there with material they presented to me. Some I liked,
some I didn’t. But whatever I finally chose to record there’d also be
other versions coming out by other performers. And someone’s recording
would be the one to win out. But a song really got a good, big push. Now
they write them, sing them, and publish them all by themselves. And they’re
the only one that does that song. No songs get a chance. They suffer at
the mercy of the performer. When the Presleys and other first, popular,
legend-in-their-own-time performers started to come along it was the first
time in the U.S. where a ten-year-old had enough money to influence something
to the extent that they did. So when you’ve got a ten-year-old picking
the music it’s going to be pretty simple. Just above the level of a nursery
rhyme. The other music is too sophisticated for young ears. I’m not being
judgmental at all; it’s a simple statement of fact that that’s the first
time kids had enough money to influence a market and they did. As for
the performers becoming publishers and writers as well, that’s probably
a case of economics, too. As a rule, their lives are pretty short-lived
professionally, and they don’t have any way of keeping any money if they
just work for a salary. But that doesn’t mean that the songs are necessarily
any good. For songwriting is an art unto itself, not to be confused with
Songbirds: You’ve had a lot of success with your mom and pop record
company, Corinthian. How did it begin?
Songbirds: Are you surprised that there’s still so much interest in Jonathan and Darlene? A new album this year, and last year you Darlene went disco and liberated in one fell swoop with a single of Stayin’ Alive backed with I Am Woman.
Stafford: There’s still a Jonathan and Darlene cult. That’s why we made the new Fats/Duke album. After the first one came out, there was also Jonathan and Darlene in Paris, Sing Along with Jonathan and Darlene, and Song for Sheiks and Flappers.
Weston: The initial album came out in 1957 and one radio station
had a contest to guess who it really was. An awful lot of people wrote
in that it was Harry and Margaret Truman. Time magazine finally
blew the whistle on us. Down Beat magazine gave us 48 stars. Some
people bought the record and wrote in demanding their money back. We did
a Jack Benny Show as Jonathan and Darlene, and in the course of
the show we played a trick on Jack Benny. And our boy, Tim, who was four
at the time, loved Benny so much that he was in the audience and saw us
do it in the show and was so upset that we’d fooled Jack that he refused
to go home afterward. We had to call Jo’s sister to take him home.
Stafford: Darlene is a very [New Yorker magazine cartoonist] Helen Hokinson-type lady partial to white gloves and flowered prints.
Weston: I read an interview that [Los Angeles Times rock
critic] Robert Hilburn did with a local punk band in which the members
said that they decided to start their group and
Part Two: July 2, 1999
All the while her reputation as one of the great interpreters of American
Popular Song has continued to flourish, Jo Stafford, true to her word
in the 1982 interview, has remained retired. As such, she is one of the
few pop culture icons to have walked away from "the biz" while
still at the top of her game. Since then, there has been only one public
performance, a few years back, when she took part in a Society of Singers
tribute to her longtime professional and personal friend, Frank Sinatra.
That night, she came full circle and once more fulfilled her original
vocation of group singer. It is difficult to escape both the symbolism
of the gesture and the excellence of the company she found herself in
on stage that evening, the Hi-Lo’s.
In a recent phone interview, Tim offered: "My mom is proud of her
body of work but is a very modest person. A lot of people of her generation
have gotten a lot more press. I’m not saying that they don’t deserve it.
I think that because of her modesty and because people haven’t actively
been promoting her, she has not received the attention she deserves. I
think Jo Stafford is one of the best singers that ever lived."
Publishing, in Songbirds, my original 1982 interview with Jo Stafford
and Paul Weston is a long-deferred pleasure finally come to pass. But
what about Stafford today? The death of a mate tends to send lives into
a skid, especially for those long-married. I had no confidence that Stafford
could be reached at her old address. Nevertheless, a few weeks ago, I
wrote her a brief note requesting a new interview. And while Stafford
may not have been career-driven, she’s polite and courteous to a fault.
Two days after I dropped the letter into the mailbox, the phone rang,
I picked it up, and for an instant I thought I was talking with my sister
back in West Virginia. Although born in California, Stafford has still
not lost the accent her Tennessee-born parents bequeathed her. After the
usual salutations and amenities I got down to the business at hand.
[It was the dinner hour, but how could I resist? One of the great pop/jazz
singers of the century was on the other end of the line.]
Stafford: I’m awfully glad to hear it, because the ones I see
on TV, I get so fascinated with the cords in their necks standing out
that I forget to listen to them. Everything is fortissimo, to use a musical
term. Everything is Vesti La Giubba. Sometimes I just think, settle
down, and let me hear if you can sing. As for people still active, I’m
a big fan of Shirley Horn. You can do it in her milieu, the nightclub
scene is still active. But if you’re talking about records and television,
I’m not sure if much of that exists. There’s not that much music on TV
of any sort.
Stafford: I had four or five years in school training as a soprano. I fell into pop singing because of economics. I got out of high school and had to go work and they weren’t hiring opera singers. I liked pop a lot, but the classical just came naturally with glee clubs. The singing teacher decided that I should be a classical singer. I enjoyed it, liked it. Back then, if you seriously studied singing, I’m not talking about what they call coaching, somebody teaching you how to sing a song from a stylistic standpoint, then you studied opera. This was physical training of your vocal cords, diaphragm, breathing, all that. I think it served me well.
Songbirds: What do you do on a professional basis these days?
Stafford: Corinthian has never had a Christmas album. My son Tim
runs our label after Paul passed away. Last year Tim and I decided we’d
put one out this year. These are masters from Columbia that I now own.
This is a combination of Happy Holidays and Ski Trails.
Half Christmas, half winter songs. We've titled it Happy Holidays:
I Love the Winter Weather.
Songbirds: I love your Capitol Christmas album, The Joyful Season.
Stafford: You mean the one where I do all the voices. I don’t know what they ever did with that. Probably sitting on a shelf some place. I don’t own the Capitol material. I can lease it, but I don’t own it.
Songbirds: It’s so successful. Did you ever try to do that with
Stafford: Mel, Mel, Mel. I never recorded with him, but he did a great guest appearance on my TV show. The first time I saw him he wasn’t even 18 yet. During the war my sisters and I used to go down to Fort MacArthur and serve coffee and donuts to the soldiers. And Mel was down there in uniform playing the piano. He was in the Army. 1943, ‘44. He was a baby, but already playing the piano and singing away.
Songbirds: I was so happy to see those Victor 78s with the original Pied Piper octet on The Portrait Edition. They are as good as the other vocal group standard bearers of the time, say, the Kay Thompson Singers, or the Merry Macs.
Stafford: We were pretty darn good.
Songbirds: What else do you fill your day up with besides Corinthian?
Stafford: As little as possible. After you spend a life of activity and pressure, there comes a time when it’s kind of a pleasure to not do anything. Except what you want to. I’m being very selfish, doing exactly what I want to do. I was under an awful lot of pressure for 35 years.
Songbirds: Do you still sing?
Stafford: Very badly. It’s passable. But it wouldn’t pass my criteria.
At Christmas time we have a tradition in our family; everybody comes to
my house and before dinner we all sing Christmas carols. Informal things
Songbirds: The last recording you made was with your daughter,
Amy, in the late 1970s. What is she up to these days?
Songbirds: Ah, yes! Jonathan and Darlene. When I interviewed you in 1982, you signed my copy, "Hooray for Music!" and Paul wrote, "To Bill, a true music lover!"
Stafford: When Paul put them on CD I thought that was the funniest thing of all times. You could hear the mistakes even more clearly. We have three of them on Corinthian and… they sell. The way Darlene really developed was with some of the songs that Mitch Miller sent out for me to record, which were awful. So at record dates, when we’d have a little time left at the end, the guys in the band and I would do a take the way we felt the song really deserved. Me singing like Darlene, and the band just really square.
Songbirds: I read somewhere that on the Jonathan and Darlene records the jokes so convulsed musicians that, one time, drummer Jack Sperling had to be replaced on a session because he could not stop laughing. Changing the subject, Mitch Miller foisted a lot of really bad songs on you and others at the label.
Stafford: Not so much bad as inappropriate for the particular person. A lot of the material he gave me to record it was not my cup of tea. I couldn’t do it justice. One was called Chow Willy. C-H-O-W, W-I-L-L-Y. And then there was one called Underneath the Overpass. If you can believe it.
Songbirds: A lot of what he was doing wasn’t rock so much as it was country.
Stafford: I don’t know what you’d call it. [Pause.] Bad!
Songbirds: Do you still receive much fan mail?
Stafford: I send out about 30 photos a month. That’s a lot considering
I haven’t sung for years. I know that I enjoyed making that body of work.
My grandson asked me today, when we were listening to some of the playbacks
Tim has been working on, "Was that fun?" I told him that it
was the most fun of all.
Stafford: He now works in San Diego. I hear from him quite often. He works at a television station in San Francisco and I’ve done some promos for him. They were interviewing Frankie Laine and wanted me to make a telephone call. I hear from him from time to time. His name is Kevin Taylor.
Songbirds: Any favorite album?
Stafford: I’ve been asked that many times. I can’t really answer
it. I’ve always loved the folk songs, but I also love G.I. Jo.
But favorite album. I don’t know if any artist could answer that, because
the very fact that we put our heart and soul into something, we did it
every time out. So how do you pick a favorite?
Songbirds: Do you go out and hear much live music?
Stafford: Not too much. Once in a while, Tim will take me out to hear something. He’ll pick me up and we’ll go to The Jazz Bakery. Not often. I’m not a go-er anymore. That’s another privilege I have, of not putting makeup on and getting dressed.
Songbirds: The way you look on most of the album covers and in
your photos – that’s the way I remember all women looking the 1940s. Looking
Stafford: I salute them. I think pretty is nice.
Songbirds: Do you have a computer?
Corinthian Records website