William Katz: Sweetness and greatness

Jo Stafford died Wednesday at 90. Terry Teachout paid tribute to her and collected links to her obituaries in “Jo Stafford, RIP.” Our occasional contributor Bill Katz of Urgent Agenda observes:

There are respectful obituaries, but it has not been headline news. There are no front-page stories, as with Sinatra, no huge remembrances from TV commentators. In fact, some younger readers may not even know her name. But Jo Stafford was one of the great singers of the 20th century, and revered among American soldiers of World War II and Korea.

The word “great” is overused. But, If you don’t believe me when I apply it to Stafford, get a CD of her singing, “You Belong to Me,” a hit of the early fifties, and ask if you’ve ever heard a sweeter, more pure, more perfectly pitched voice. Maybe Ella. All right, I’ll grant Ella, but I’ll call them equals.

Stephen Holden, in the New York Times’s obituary, said her “pure, nearly vibrato-less voice, with perfect intonation, conveyed steadfast devotion and reassurance with delicate understatement.”

Jo Stafford came to prominence in the late thirties and early forties as a member of the Pied Pipers, a popular singing group attached, early in its life, to the Tommy Dorsey band. Frank Sinatra joined the Dorsey group around this time, and did some singing with the Pipers. He said of Jo Stafford, “It was a joy to sit on the bandstand and listen to her.”

This was a time when singers didn’t have the status they have today. It was the big-band era, and the bands were the stars. Singers and vocal groups were often band employees – sometimes they were just low-paid props – and few singers ventured out to pursue solo careers. Most “solos” by singers were assigned by bandleaders, as part of the band’s regular work. The singer might get $50, and no royalties.

That begin to change during World War II. A musicians’ strike that dragged on from 1942 into 1943 made it impossible for record companies to use musicians. So, they turned to singers, and used choral groups as accompaniment. The public’s affection switched to vocalists, and remained there after the strike was settled, with the big bands fading away. (I’ve always loved Peggy Lee’s comment on the big-band era: “If I knew it’d be that important, I would have paid more attention.” )

Jo Stafford had a number of solos during the war – “I’ll Be Seeing You,” “I’ll Walk Alone,” “I Don’t Want to Walk Without You,” – sentimental, and beautifully done. The soldiers loved her, dubbing her “G.I. Jo.” The Japanese learned how popular she was, and blasted her records from loudspeakers directed at American battle lines, hoping to make the troops homesick.

After the war, as the age of the vocalist was born, she had a string of hits as a solo performer, unattached to any band: “Candy,” which went to number one on the charts, “You Belong to Me,” “Shrimp Boats,” “Make Love to Me,” “Jumbalaya,” and many others.

Like Sinatra, Jo Stafford paid enormous attention to the lyric. She was a balladeer. Every word was articulated and given meaning – and you didn’t need a hip-hop dictionary to translate the song into English. Most of the Jo Stafford hits were swept away by the coming of rock ‘n roll. However, they remain an elegant and important part of the great American songbook.

She was, by the way, also a comedienne. She and her husband, the musician Paul Weston, did a series of albums that spoofed popular songs. The comedy recordings continued into the late seventies, with takeoffs on “Stayin’ Alive” and “I am Woman.”

I never knew Jo Stafford. As a popular singer, her time as a star had ended long before I joined the Tonight Show staff. But anyone who has heard that voice will not forget it. She was one of those who created, and sustained, the golden era of American song. Fortunately, we have the recordings to prove it.

To comment on this post go here.


Books to read from Power Line