Jo Stafford, 90; Pop Singer Won a Grammy for Comedy

Jo Stafford was a favorite of servicemen during World War II and the Korean War.
Jo Stafford was a favorite of servicemen during World War II and the Korean War. (Family Photo - Family Photo)
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By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 18, 2008

Jo Stafford, 90, an exceptionally versatile singer who worked with Frank Sinatra, Tommy Dorsey and the Pied Pipers and shared a Grammy Award with her conductor-husband for their parody of a tone-deaf lounge act, died July 16 at her home in Century City, Calif. She had congestive heart failure.

Singer Judy Collins once said Ms. Stafford's poignant interpretation of folk ballads was pivotal to her own career in folk music. Although she made several acclaimed folk recordings, Ms. Stafford was mostly known as a pop vocalist with a warm, clean voice that music critic Terry Teachout called "rhythmically fluid without ever sounding self-consciously 'jazzy.' " From 1944 to 1954, Ms. Stafford placed nearly 75 songs in the pop charts as a solo entertainer. She was especially well-regarded for her versions of pop ballads including " You Belong to Me," " Make Love to Me," " Autumn Leaves" and "All the Things You Are."

A lifelong mischievous streak also led her to make cornball novelties of the day, from a mock hillbilly version of " Temptation,," which she pronounced "Tim-tayshun," to hits such as " Shrimp Boats" and " Jambalaya."

Although largely a solo artist, she recorded with singers Perry Como, Frankie Laine, Gordon MacRae, Johnny Mercer and Dick Haymes.

She was inexhaustible as a performer and became a favorite of servicemen who saw her tour bases and hospitals during World War II and the Korean War. She also participated in a high-profile American-led effort to beam pop music and propaganda throughout Eastern Europe during the Cold War.

She earned the nickname "G.I. Jo" but jokingly called herself "Miss Outgoing Freight," a War Department euphemism for artillery shells and tanks sent to the front lines.

She was a staple of TV variety shows in the 1950s and briefly hosted her own program on CBS-TV with a band conducted by her husband, Paul Weston, music director of Capitol Records.

For years, the Westons had privately developed for friends a comedy routine satirizing bad entertainers. Music executives urged them to record under their adopted persona of two clueless nightclub performers, Jonathan and Darlene Edwards.

The result was several hit records that triggered a national sensation: trying to identify the artists behind the brazenly off-key singing and piano-playing of dubious ability and taste.

Some thought they were Margaret and Harry Truman, Time magazine reported.

The liner notes to the Edwardses' debut album were deadpan: "Mr. Edwards places what he calls 'emotional honesty' first in importance. He believes that technical accuracy, slavish adherence to original harmonies and melody are secondary. Mrs. Edwards returned from private life to take part in this album, selecting her own repertoire of sophisticated songs, several of which she originally introduced in Trenton, N.J."

Their mangled interpretations of popular songs led to several albums through the 1970s, including versions of "Stayin' Alive" and "I Am Woman."

Their second release as the fictitious duo, "Jonathan and Darlene in Paris," won the 1960 Grammy for best comedy performance.

To make the burlesque work required a delicate balance of ability and inability, or as columnist Don Freeman wrote in the San Diego Union-Tribune, "fumbling incompetence, performed with enormous skill."

Jo Elizabeth Stafford was born Nov. 12, 1917, in Coalinga, Calif., near Fresno, where her father worked in the oil fields. She was raised in Long Beach, Calif., and received professional voice training.

After completing high school, she joined two older sisters, Christine and Pauline, who appeared on radio as a country-western singing act. The Stafford Sisters performed on a local station and won Hollywood studio work as background vocalists.

In 1938, while on the set of the movie musical "Alexander's Ragtime Band," she recalled: "We had to do a lot of waiting and sitting around between takes, so seven boys from a group called the Esquires and another called the Rhythm Kings began harmonizing with one another."

The singers teamed to form the Pied Pipers, and their talent caught the attention of Paul Weston and Axel Stordahl, then arrangers for the popular Dorsey band. Reduced to a quartet, the Pied Pipers soon joined Dorsey full time and gained fame backing the band's new singer -- Sinatra.

Sinatra and the Pied Pipers had a chart-topping success for 12 weeks with "I'll Never Smile Again," one of their many hits. In 1942, Ms. Stafford cut her first solo record, "Little Man With a Candy Cigar," and quit Dorsey with other members of the Pied Pipers. The singing group had developed a popularity independent of Dorsey and appeared on radio programs hosted by Sinatra, Bob Crosby and Mercer.

In 1944, Mercer signed Ms. Stafford to Capitol Records, where she thrived during the next several years as a solo artist on record and radio. She also reconnected with Weston, then Capitol's music director and whom she married in 1952. Her first marriage, to Pied Piper John Huddleston, ended in divorce.

Weston died in 1996. Survivors include their children, Tim Weston of Topanga, Calif., and Amy Wells of Calabasas, Calif.; a sister; and four grandchildren.

In 1950, when Ms. Stafford signed with Columbia Records, her manager negotiated a clause giving her rights to the master recordings. Because of that foresight, she had no trouble in later decades reissuing many of her hits through Corinthian Records, a company Weston started.

Ms. Stafford's family said she happily retired in the mid-1960s when she no longer found the music industry "fun." For many years, the Westons involved themselves in charity work, and Ms. Stafford also led an organization helping mentally handicapped children.

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