Jo Elizabeth Stafford (November 12, 1917 – July 16, 2008) was an American traditional pop music singer and occasional actress, whose career spanned five decades from the late 1930s to the early 1980s. Admired for the purity of her voice, she was considered one of the most versatile vocalists of the era. Her 1952 song "You Belong to Me" topped the charts in the United States and United Kingdom, and she became the first woman to reach number one on the UK Singles Chart. She won a 1961 Grammy Award for an album of comedic interpretations of popular songs produced with her second husband, Paul Weston.
Born in Coalinga, California, Stafford made her first musical appearance at age twelve. After graduating from high school she joined her two older sisters to form a vocal trio named The Stafford Sisters, who enjoyed moderate success on radio and in film. In 1938, while the sisters were part of the cast of Twentieth Century Fox's production of Alexander's Ragtime Band, Stafford met the future members of The Pied Pipers and became the group's lead singer. Bandleader Tommy Dorsey hired them in 1939 to perform backup vocals for his orchestra.
In addition to her recordings with the Pied Pipers, Stafford featured in solo performances for Dorsey. After leaving the group in 1944, she recorded a series of pop standards for Capitol Records and Columbia Records. Many of her recordings were backed by the orchestra of Paul Weston, whom she married in 1952. She also performed duets with Gordon MacRae and Frankie Laine. Her work with the United Service Organizations (USO) giving concerts for soldiers earned her the nickname "G.I. Jo". Starting in 1945, Stafford was a regular host of the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) radio series The Chesterfield Supper Club and later appeared in television specials—including two series called The Jo Stafford Show, in 1954 in the US and in 1961 in the UK.
Stafford married twice; first in around 1941 to musician John Huddleston (the couple divorced in 1943), then in 1952 to Paul Weston, with whom she had two children. She and Weston developed a comedy routine in which they assumed the identity of an incompetent lounge act named Jonathan and Darlene Edwards, parodying well-known songs. The act proved popular at parties and among the wider public when the couple released an album as the Edwardses in 1957. In 1961, the album, Jonathan and Darlene Edwards in Paris, won Stafford her only Grammy Award for Best Comedy Album, and was the first commercially successful parody album. Stafford largely retired as a performer in the mid-1960s, but continued in the music business. She enjoyed a brief resurgence in popularity in the late 1970s when she recorded a cover of the Bee Gees hit, "Stayin' Alive" as Darlene Edwards. In the 1990s she began re-releasing some of her material through Corinthian Records, a label founded by her husband. She died in 2008 inCentury City, Los Angeles, and is interred with Weston at Holy Cross Cemetery, Culver City. Her work in radio, television and music is recognized by three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
The singing Stafford Sisters in 1941
Stafford was born in Coalinga, California in 1917 to Grover Cleveland and Anna (née York) Stafford—a second cousin of World War I hero Sergeant Alvin York. Both her parents enjoyed singing and sharing music with their family. Stafford's father hoped for success in the California oil fields when he moved his family from Gainesboro, Tennessee, but worked in a succession of unrelated jobs. When he worked for a private girls' school, Grover was allowed to take the school's phonograph home at Christmas. Stafford remembered hearing "Whispering Hope" on it as a small child. Her mother was an accomplished banjo player, playing and singing many of the folk songs which influenced Stafford's later career.
Stafford's first public singing appearance was in Long Beach, where the family lived when she was twelve. She sang "Believe Me If All Those Endearing Young Charms", a Stafford family sentimental favorite. Her second was far more dramatic. As a student at Long Beach Polytechnic High School with the lead in the school musical, she was rehearsing on stage when the 1933 Long Beach earthquake destroyed the school. Staford originally wanted to become an opera singer and studied voice as a child. Because of the Great Depression, she abandoned that idea and joined her sisters Christine and Pauline in a popular vocal group The Stafford Sisters, who performed on Los Angeles radio station KHJ. The group began their singing career on KNX as part of The Singing Crockett Family of Kentucky program when Jo was 18.
The sisters found work in the film industry as backup vocalists, and immediately after graduating from high school, Jo worked on film soundtracks. The Stafford Sisters made their first recording with Louis Prima in 1936. In 1937, Jo worked behind the scenes with Fred Astaire on the soundtrack of A Damsel in Distress, creating the arrangements for the film, and with her sisters she arranged the backing vocals for "Nice Work If You Can Get It". Stafford said that her arrangement had to be adapted because Astaire had difficulty with some of the syncopation. In her words: "The man with the syncopated shoes couldn't do the syncopated notes".
The Pied Pipers
By 1938, the Staffords were involved with Twentieth Century Fox's production of 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. Between takes, the groups sang and socialized while waiting to be called. The Stafford Sisters, The Four Esquires and The Rhythm Kings became a new vocal group called The Pied Pipers. Stafford later said, "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 group consisted of eight members including Stafford, John Huddleston—to whom Stafford was married between 1941 and 1943, Hal Hooper, Chuck Lowry, Bud Hervey, George Tait, Woody Newbury, and Dick Whittinghill.
As The Pied Pipers, they worked on local radio and movie soundtracks. When Alyce and Yvonne King threw a party for their boyfriends' visit to Los Angeles, the group was invited to perform. The King Sisters' boyfriends were Tommy Dorsey's arrangers Axel Stordahl and Paul Weston, who became interested in the group. Weston said the group's vocals were unique for its time and that their vocal arrangements were much like those for orchestral instruments.
Weston persuaded Dorsey to audition the group in 1938, and the eight drove together to New York City. Dorsey liked them and signed them for ten weeks. After their second broadcast, the sponsor—visiting from overseas—heard the group sing "Hold Tight (Want Some Seafood Mama)". Until this point, the sponsor knew only that he was paying for Dorsey's program and that its ratings were very good; transcription discs mailed to him by his advertising agency always arrived broken. He thought that the performance was off-color, and pressured the advertising agency representing his brand to fire the group. They stayed in New York for several months, landing one job that paid them $3.60 each, and they recorded some material for RCA Victor Records. Weston later said that he and Stordahl felt responsibility for the group, since Weston had arranged their audition with Dorsey. The two men felt embarrassment when unexpectedly encountering the group because they were both still employed by Dorsey. With no work in New York, The Pied Pipers returned to Los Angeles and soon afterwards, Stafford received a telephone call from Dorsey, who said he could use the group but with four members only. Half of the group—including Stafford—arrived in Chicago in 1939. This led to success, especially for Stafford, who was also featured in solo performances.
The group backed Frank Sinatra on some of his early recordings. In 1942, they argued with Dorsey and left; at the time the number one song in the United States was "There Are Such Things" by Frank Sinatra and The Pied Pipers. The group appeared on the radio shows of Sinatra, Bob Crosby and Johnny Mercer, and were one of the first groups signed to Mercer's new label, Capitol Records. Weston was now Capitol's music director; he left Dorsey's band to work with Dinah Shore shortly after Dorsey rehired the smaller version of The Pied Pipers.
In 1944, after her divorce from Huddlestone, Stafford left the Pied Pipers to go solo, becoming the first solo artist signed by Capitol Records. While Stafford was still working for Dorsey, Mercer told her, "Some day I'm going to have my own record company, and you're going to record for me." She was signed to Mercer's label before it was a year old. The success of Stafford's solo career led to a demand for personal appearances, and from February 1945 she embarked on a six-month residency at New York's La Martinique nightclub—the only nightclub venue she ever played. In a 1996 interview she said, "I'm basically a singer, period, and I think I'm really lousy up in front of an audience—it's just not me."
United Service Organizations
Stafford's tenure with the United Service Organizations (USO)—during which she often performed for soldiers stationed in the U.S.—led to her acquiring the nickname "G.I. Jo". On returning from the Pacific theater, a veteran told Stafford that the Japanese would play her records on loudspeakers in an attempt to make the U.S. troops homesick enough to surrender. She replied personally to all the letters she received from servicemen. Stafford was a favorite of many servicemen during both World War II and the Korean War; her recordings received extensive airplay on the American Forces radio and in some military hospitals at lights out. Stafford's involvement with servicemen led to an interest in military history and a sound knowledge of it. Years after World War II, Stafford was a guest at a dinner party with a retired naval officer. When the discussion turned to a wartime action off Mindanao, the officer tried to correct Stafford, who held to her point. He countered her by saying, "Madame, I was there". A few days after the party, Stafford received a note of apology from him, saying he had re-read his logs and that she was correct.
Chesterfield Supper Club
Beginning in late 1945, Stafford hosted the Tuesday and Thursday broadcasts of NBC musical variety radio program The Chesterfield Supper Club. On April 5, 1946, the entire cast, including Stafford and Perry Como, participated in the first commercial radio broadcast from an airplane. The initial plan was to use the stand-held microphones used in studios but when these proved to be problematic, the cast switched to hand-held microphones, which because of the plane's cabin pressure became difficult to hold. Two flights were made that evening; one for the initial 6:00 pm broadcast and another at 10:00 pm for the West Coast broadcast.
Stafford moved from New York to California in November 1946, continuing to host Chesterfield Supper Club from Hollywood. She had her own radio show which was broadcast later on Tuesday nights when she joined the Supper Club. In 1948, she restricted her Supper Club appearances to Tuesdays, and Peggy Lee hosted the Thursday broadcasts. During her time withChesterfield Supper Club, she revisited some of the folk music she had enjoyed as a child. Weston, the conductor of her Supper Club broadcasts, suggested using some of the folk music on the program. With her renewed interest in folk tunes came an interest in folklore; Stafford established a contest to award a prize to the best collection of American folklore submitted by a college student. The awards were handled by the American Folklore Society.
Duets and Voice of America
Stafford duetted with Gordon MacRae on a number of songs. In 1948, their version of "Say Something Sweet to Your Sweetheart" sold over a million copies. The following year, they repeated their success with "My Happiness", and Stafford and MacRae recorded "Whispering Hope" together. Stafford began hosting a weekly program on Radio Luxembourg in 1950; working unpaid, she recorded the voice portions of the shows in Hollywood. At the time, she was hosting Club 15 with Bob Crosby for Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) radio. By 1951, Stafford was working weekly for Voice of America (VOA). Collier's magazine published an article about the program in its April 21, 1951 issue titled: "Jo Stafford: Her Songs Upset Joe Stalin", earning her the wrath of the Communist newspaper the Daily Worker, which published a column critical of Stafford and VOA.
Weston moved from Capitol to Columbia Records and in 1950, Stafford followed suit. Content and very comfortable working with him, Stafford 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 December 15, 1950, and she made history by simultaneously working for two competing record companies. In 1954, Stafford became the second artist after Bing Crosby to sell 25 million records for Columbia.
Marriage to Paul Weston
Weston and Stafford were married in a Roman Catholic ceremony on February 26, 1952, before which Stafford converted to Catholicism. The wedding was conducted at St Gregory's Catholic Church in Los Angeles by Father Joe Kearney, a former guitarist with the Bob Crosby band who left the music business, trained as a priest and served as head of the Catholic Labor Institute. The couple left for Europe for a combined honeymoon and business trip; Stafford had an engagement at the London Palladium. Stafford and Weston had two children; Tim was born in 1952 and Amy was born 1956. Both children followed their parents into the music industry. Tim Weston became an arranger and producer who took charge of Corinthian Records, his father's music label, and Amy Weston became a session singer, performing with a trio, Daddy's Money, and singing in commercials.
In the 1950s, Stafford had a string of popular hits with Frankie Laine, six of which charted. Their duet of Hank Williams' "Hey Good Lookin'" made the top ten in 1951. She had her best-known hits "Jambalaya", "Shrimp Boats", "Make Love to Me", and "You Belong to Me" around this time. "You Belong to Me" was Stafford's biggest hit, topping the charts in the United States and the United Kingdom, where it was the first song by a female singer to top the chart. The record first appeared on U.S. charts on August 1, 1952 and remained there for 24 weeks. In the U.K., it entered the charts on November 14, 1952 at number 12, reached number one on January 16, 1953 and stayed on the charts for 19 weeks. In a July 1953 interview, Paul Weston said his wife's big hit was really the "B" side of the single "Pretty Boy", which both Weston and Columbia Records believed would be the big seller.
Stafford hosted the 15-minute The Jo Stafford Show on CBS-TV from 1954 to 1955, with Weston as her conductor and music arranger. She appeared as a guest on NBC's Club Oasis and the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) series The Pat Boone Chevy Showroom, as did many of the popular singers of the late 1950s.
In 1960, Stafford said there were good and bad points to working closely with her husband. She said that Weston's knowledge of her made it easy for him to arrange her music, but that sometimes it caused difficulties.Weston knew Stafford's abilities and would write or arrange elaborate music because he knew she was capable of performing it. She also said she did not believe she could perform in Broadway musicals because she thought her voice was not powerful enough for stage work.
In the early 1960s, Stafford hosted a series of television specials called The Jo Stafford Show, which were centered around music. The shows were produced in England and featured British and American guests including Ella Fitzgerald, Mel Tormé and Rosemary Clooney. Both Stafford and Weston returned to Capitol in 1961. During her second stint at Capitol, Stafford also recorded for Sinatra's label Reprise Records. These albums were released between 1961 and 1964, and were mostly remakes of songs from her past. Stafford left Reprise when Sinatra sold it to Warner Brothers. In late 1965, both Stafford and Weston left Capitol again, this time for Dot Records.
During the 1940s, Stafford briefly performed comedy songs under the name "Cinderella G. Stump" with Red Ingle and the Natural Seven. In 1947, she recorded a hillbilly-style parody of "Temptation", pronouncing its title "Tim-tayshun". Stafford created Stump when she met Ingle at a recording studio and he told her his female vocalist was unavailable for his recording session. Stafford asked if she could help, and gave an impromptu performance. It was not known initially that her voice was on the record. Because it was a lighthearted, impromptu performance and she accepted the standard scale pay, Stafford waived all royalties from the record. Stafford, along with Ingle and Weston, made a personal appearance tour in 1949, and she performed "Temptation" as Cinderella G. Stump. Stafford and Ingle performed the song on network television in 1960 forStartime. Fifty years after it was recorded, Stafford's performance as Stump was used on the soundtrack for the 1997 remake of Lolita.
Throughout the 1950s, Stafford and Weston entertained party guests by performing skits in which they impersonated a poor lounge act. Stafford sang off-key in a high pitched voice and Weston played an untuned piano off-key and with unconventional rhythms. Weston began the act at a Columbia Records sales convention, filling time with his impression of an unskilled lounge pianist. His audience was very appreciative and continued to ask for more, even after the convention had ended. Columbia Records executive George Avakian named Weston's character Jonathan Edwards, for the 18th century Calvinist preacher, and asked him to record an album under this alias. Weston worried that he might not be able to find enough material for an entire album, and he asked his wife to join the project. Stafford named her off-key vocalist persona Darlene Edwards.
The head of Columbia's artists and repertoire department was Mitch Miller, who had been selecting songs like "Underneath the Overpass" and similar novelty songs for Stafford to record. Because she did not agree with Miller's music choices for her, Stafford and her studio musicians often recorded their own renditions of the music, performing the songs according to their feelings about them. This led to Stafford's creation of her character Darlene Edwards. Because she had some unused studio time at a 1957 recording session, as a joke Stafford recorded a track as Darlene Edwards. Those who heard bootlegs of the recording responded positively, and later that year, Stafford and Weston recorded an album of songs as Jonathan and Darlene, entitled The Piano Artistry of Jonathan Edwards.
As a publicity stunt, Stafford and Weston claimed that the Edwardses were a New Jersey lounge act which they had discovered, and denied any personal connection. This ruse led to much speculation about the Edwardses' identities. Time magazine said in 1957 that some people believed the performers were Margaret and Harry Truman, but the article named Weston and Stafford. In 1958, Stafford and Weston appeared as the Edwardses on Jack Benny's television program Shower of Stars, and in 1960 on The Garry Moore Show. The Piano Artistry of Jonathan Edwards was followed up with an album of popular music standards. Jonathan and Darlene Edwards in Paris was released in 1960 and won that year's Grammy Award for Best Comedy Album. In a rare move, the Academy decided to issue two awards for the category that year; Bob Newhart also received an award for "Spoken Word Comedy." It was Stafford's only major award.
The couple continued to release comedy albums for several years, and in 1979 released a cover of The Bee Gees' "Stayin' Alive" as a single, backed by an Edwards interpretation of Helen Reddy's "I Am Woman". The same year also saw a brief resurgence in the popularity of Jonathan and Darlene albums when their cover of "Carioca" was featured as the opening and closing theme to The Kentucky Fried Movie. Mitch Miller blamed their 1962 album Sing Along With Jonathan and Darlene Edwards for ending his sing-along albums and television show. Their last release, Darlene Remembers Duke, Jonathan Plays Fats, was issued in 1982.
Because she disliked continuously traveling for television appearances that took her away from her children, and because she no longer found it fun, Stafford went into semi-retirement in the mid-1960s, and retired completely from the music business in 1975. Except for the Jonathan and Darlene Edwards material and re-recording her favorite song "Whispering Hope" with her daughter Amy in 1978, Stafford did not perform again until 1990, at a ceremony honoring Frank Sinatra. The Westons devoted more time to Share Inc.—a charity aiding people with developmental disabilities—in which they had been active for many years. Concord Records tried to persuade Stafford to change her mind and come out of retirement, but she remained adamant.
In 1979, Stafford and Weston began working on an autobiography titled The Ducks Are Drowning, which was to focus on the early stages of their careers, and would include anecdotes and stories from that era. But after putting together an outline and working on a rough draft, they abandoned the project the following year because of a lack of interest from publishers—one of which had wanted the book to be sensationalist; a suggestion the Westons were unhappy with. Keith Pawlak, curator of the University of Arizona's jazz and popular music archive, later edited their manuscript and it was published in 2012 as Song of the Open Road: An Autobiography and Other Writings.
Stafford won a breach-of-contract lawsuit against her former record label Columbia in the early 1990s. Because of a clause concerning the payment of royalties in her contract, she secured the rights to all of the recordings she made with the company, including those made as Jonathan and Darlene Edwards. After the lawsuit was settled, Stafford and her son Tim reactivated Corinthian Records which Weston—a devout Christian—had started as a label for religious music, and they began releasing some of her old material.
In 1996, Paul Weston died of natural causes and Stafford continued to operate Corinthian Records. In 2006, she donated the couple's library—including music arrangements, photographs, business correspondence and recordings—to the University of Arizona. Stafford began suffering from congestive heart failure in October 2007, from which she died aged 90 on July 16, 2008. She was interred with her husband at the Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, California.