One of the most popular female vocalists of the 1940s, Jo Stafford is probably best remembered today for her WWII recordings. She was often called “America’s Most Versatile Singer” for the wide-range of material she performed.
Born in California on November 12, 1917, Jo studied classical vocal as a youth and had aspirations of becoming an operatic singer. The arrival of the Great Depression waylaid her plans, and she joined her two older sisters, Pauline and Christine, as part of a popular music trio, the Stafford Sisters. They were featured in their own regular broadcast on Los Angeles radio station KHJ.
Her sisters’ marriages eventually broke up the act, and Jo found work with a newly-formed vocal group, the Pied Pipers. The octet’s stylish harmonies proved popular, and they began to perform on local radio and on Hollywood soundtracks. They soon attracted the attention of Tommy Dorsey arrangers Paul Weston and Axel Stordahl.
In 1938, Weston persuaded Dorsey to give the Pied Pipers a spot on his Raleigh-Kool Show. All eight members piled into two cars and drove to New York, with no promise of work other than one shot on the radio. The show went well though, and they were signed to appear for ten weeks. Just as everything seemed to be going their way, however, disaster struck. During their second program, the sponsor heard them for the first time, didn’t like them, and promptly fired them. The Pipers remained in New York for seven more months, landing only one job the whole time from which they made $3.60 each, though they did record four sides for RCA Victor during their stay.
Returning to Los Angeles, the group lost four members to regular jobs on the way. The remaining four struggled to make a living and were on the verge of calling it quits when, in 1939, they received an offer from Dorsey to join his orchestra. With Dorsey, the Pipers finally found success. Stafford was featured solo on several occasions, and the group backed up Frank Sinatra on many of his early numbers. When Connie Haines left the band in March 1942, Stafford took over the chores of lead female vocalist. She placed ninth in Billboard magazine’s 1942 annual college poll for best female band vocalist.
The Pied Pipers remained with Dorsey until Thanksgiving Day 1942, when Dorsey exploded at one of the members, igniting an argument with the whole group, who promptly quit. They were immediately hired by three radio stations. The following year they were signed by Johnny Mercer to his newly-formed label, Capitol Records.
In December 1943, Stafford recorded her first solo sides, leaving the Pied Pipers to pursue her own career. Her recordings during WWII were among the most popular with American servicemen, resulting in her being nicknamed “G.I. Jo.” She appeared regularly on radio.
In 1947, Stafford’s first husband, John Huddleston, a former member of the Pied Pipers, sued her and the quartet for breach of contract. When Huddleston entered the service during World War II, his spot in the quartet was to be guaranteed upon his return, but he was not allowed to rejoin when that time came. Stafford divorced Huddleston in 1944. At Capitol, Stafford once again worked with Paul Weston, who was the label’s music director at the time. The two formed a strong friendship that eventually blossomed into marriage in 1952.
In 1950, Stafford moved from Capitol to CBS, where she continued her successful recording career until she returned to Capitol in 1961 for a six-album deal. She made her debut on television in 1954, starring in her own programs in both the U.S. and Britain. Together with her husband, she recorded several albums under the names of Jonathan and Darlene Edwards. The Edwards were a parody of a bad lounge act and won a Grammy for Best Comedy Album.
Jo semi-retired in 1966 and left the music business completely in 1975, except for an additional Jonathan and Darlene recording session, making only one more public appearance, in 1990, to honor Frank Sinatra. Paul Weston died in 1996. Jo Stafford passed away from heart failure in 2008, age 90.