November 12, 1917– Jo Stafford
In the early 1970s, Tim was an acquaintance/friend, not quite in my circle, but he was dating one of my best friends. He was cute, bright, and talented. I knew him for a few months before we had a long-ish conversation where I discovered that his father was the esteemed, popular big band leader/arranger Paul Weston and his mother was the beautiful Jo Stafford, one of the great jazz singers of the 1940s and 1950s.
Stafford possessed a pure and understated voice. I was, and remain, a huge fan of Stafford’s and I think maybe Tim was taken aback a bit when I gushed about his mother. I dragged him back to my apartment to show him my collection of LPs of his parents’ music.
Tim was kind enough to invite me over to the house in Beverly Hills. He owed me nothing and we were not that close, so it seemed a particularly lovely gesture. I brought one album for Stafford to sign. She was very beautiful, gracious and quite funny. Stafford and Weston had a great thing going throughout the 1950s as ”Jonathan & Darlene Edwards”, a bad lounge act. Stafford, as Darlene, would sing off-key in a high-pitched voice; Weston, as Jonathan, played an un-tuned piano with bizarre rhythms.
Stafford was the one female voice that held sway over American music fans in the era between Frank Sinatra‘s screaming bobbysoxers in the mid-1940s and Elvis Presley in 1957.
She was the third of four daughters of an Appalachian hill country couple. She was born near Coalinga, California, where the family had searched for work in the oil fields.
They remaimed true to their Tennessee music. By 1938, the Stafford Sisters were cast in 20th Century Fox’s film musical Alexander’s Ragtime Band. The studio brought in many vocal groups to work on the film, including The Four Esquires, The Rhythm Kings, and The King Sisters. These young people began to sing and socialized between takes. They became a new vocal group called The Pied Pipers. Stafford:
“We started singing together just for fun, and these sessions led to the formation of an eight-voice singing group that we christened ‘The Pied Pipers’”
The Pied Pipers sang on radio. Paul Weston was an arranger for Tommy Dorsey‘s band, when heard their balanced voices with Stafford in the lead. In 1938 he recruited them for Dorsey’s radio show, a gig that ended when the sponsor heard and hated them. Stafford:
“Most of the time you never even saw a bed. You slept and dressed on the band bus.”
Weston gave her a break. He worked with Bing Crosby at Paramount Pictures, and met songwriter Johnny Mercer, who co-founded Capitol Records. Weston formed an orchestra, adding strings and voices to big band ensembles to create what was called ”mood music”. Mercer made him Capitol’s music director, and in 1944, after Stafford sang for 26 weeks on Mercer’s radio show, she was signed as Capitol’s first contract singer.
In 1945, Stafford hosted the Tuesday and Thursday broadcasts of NBC’s musical variety radio program The Chesterfield Supper Club. On April 5, 1946, Stafford and the show participated in the first commercial radio broadcast from an airplane. In 1948, she restricted her appearances on the show to Tuesdays, and Peggy Lee hosted on Thursday. Stafford left the show when it was expanded to 30 minutes in 1949. She returned to the program in 1954; it ended its radio run the following year.
Her first hit was a freak. She was in a studio corridor when Joe “Country” Washburn found that he needed a vocalist to record Tim-Tay-Shun (1947). Using the name ”Cinderella G. Stump”, Stafford helped sell a million records, but she received no royalties. After that the material she chose was with advice from Weston. He did a full orchestral accompaniment for The Nightingale, a song she sang growing up. He found an old church song, Whispering Hope, an old 78 LP, and had Stafford record it in 1949 as a duet with Gordon Macrae. In 1954, she sold 25 million copies of her records.
She avoided live solo performances, initially because of her weight, then dieted, achieving photographable size in time to switch from radio to television. Stafford:
“I wasn’t driven. I just loved what I did.”
Her broadcasts for Voice of America, the US government broadcaster transmitting overseas to undermine the influence of communism. A magazine article, titled “Jo Stafford: Her Songs Upset Joe Stalin“, earned her the wrath of the Communist Daily Worker newspaper, which published a column critical of Stafford and VOA. Her work made her “GI Jo” to US servicemen around the globe. She did covers of World War II songs such as I’ll Be Seeing You.
Stafford followed Weston when he left Capitol Records for Columbia in 1950, which subjected her to the regime of producer Mitch Miller. Stafford had had a clause inserted in her contract with Capitol stating that if Weston left that label, she would automatically be released from her obligations to them. When that happened, Capitol wanted Stafford to record eight more songs before the end of 1950, and she found herself in the unusual situation of simultaneously working for two competing record companies, very rare in an industry where musicians were considered assets.
Miller supplied her with southern country music and required her to record novelty tunes like Underneath The Overpass (1957). Her excellent albums American Folk Songs (1950) and Jo+Jazz (1960) went unpromoted, and she was relieved to give up the stage fright that preceded television broadcasts.
Her 1952 record You Belong To Me topped the charts in the United States and United Kingdom, the record becoming the first by a female artist to reach Number One on the UK Singles Chart. Also in 1952, she married Weston. They had two children, Tim and Amy and settled in Beverly Hills.
Stafford and Weston got their revenge on Miller. After recording his terrible choices, she and the Weston band reprised them as they deserved, with Stafford slightly missing each note. At a Columbia sales convention in 1957, Weston and his A&R staff had dinner at a club with a bad piano player. Weston mimicked the pianist. The A&R people imagined an entire album of this ineptitude with Weston “Jonathan Edwards”, Stafford as his chanteuse wife “Darlene”. Their albums were so popular that Miller claimed it ruined his own “Sing-along With Mitch” albums and television show.
The result, The Original Piano Artistry Of Jonathan Edwards (1957) and its sequels, were bestsellers, even after Time magazine outed the Westons. Darlene’s a quarter tone off in pitch and she added a fifth beat to a 4/4 bar. Stafford:
“She’s a nice lady from Trenton, New Jersey, and she does her best. Darlene is the only singer to get off the A train between A and B-flat.”
The album Jonathan And Darlene In Paris won Stafford a Grammy Award – for comedy in 1960. In 1961, the couple spent the summer in London, recording the last series of the Jo Stafford Show for the ATV network.
In the late 1960s, Stafford retired, performing one last time, safely in a group, at a tribute to Sinatra, and again as Darlene, for charity. Until his passing in 1996, Weston managed the couple’s Corinthian record label, which reissued their recordings. Darlene’s pitch was even more challenged when digitally remastered.
The Westons intentionally butchered some of the best popular music of the time. The couple continued to release previous Jonathan & Darlene albums and in 1977 they released a final single, a cover of The Bee Gees‘ Stayin’ Alive with Helen Reddy‘s I Am Woman on the B-side. They were truly a funny couple. By the way, it’s not easy for good singers to sing off-key, especially that nuanced just slightly missing the note sound that Stafford achieved as Darlene and Meryl Streep mastered for Florence Foster Jenkins.
In 1996, Weston died of natural causes; Stafford joined him in 2008. She was 90 years old. I sent Tim a condolence and a thank you for having met his mother.