One of the most popular female vocalists of the 1940s, Jo Stafford is probably best remembered today for her WWII recordings, though her career spanned through the 1950s as well. She was often called “America’s Most Versatile Singer” for the wide-range of material she performed.
Stafford studied classical vocal as a youth and had aspirations of becoming an operatic singer, but 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, singing hillbilly music. They were featured in their own regular broadcast on Los Angeles radio station KHJ and made their network debut on the CBS program Hollywood Barn Dance.
Her sisters’ marriages eventually broke up the act, and Jo found work with a newly-formed vocal group, the Pied Pipers, an octet featuring seven male singers. The group’s 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 December 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, however, and they were signed to appear for ten weeks, but 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 in mid-1939, the group lost several members to regular jobs. The remaining members, including Stafford and her then-husband John Huddleston, struggled to make a living and were on the verge of calling it quits when, in late 1939, they received an offer from Dorsey to join his orchestra. With Dorsey, the Pipers finally found success, and they became one of the most popular vocal groups in the nation.
When vocalist Anita Boyer left Dorsey in January 1940, the bandleader initially decided to use Stafford as his solo female vocalist but then brought in Connie Haines as well. Haines sang on the bouncier numbers while Stafford often handled romantic tunes or speciality songs. She made her first solo recording with Dorsey in February 1941, the song “For You,” and with the Pipers she backed Frank Sinatra on many of his early numbers. When Haines left the band in March 1942, Stafford became the sole female vocalist. She placed ninth in Billboard magazine’s 1942 annual college poll for best female band singer.
The Pied Pipers remained with Dorsey until December 1, 1942, when, after Dorsey exploded at one of the members on Thanksgiving Day, igniting an argument with the whole group, they quit and returned to Los Angeles. They weren’t out of work for long. They were almost immediately hired for radio, and they began a theater tour in January 1943. They made several film appearances in 1943 and 1944, including Girl Crazy and Gals, Incorporated. Recognizing Stafford’s popularity as a soloist, the group began to bill themselves as “Jo Stafford and her Pied Pipers.” Stafford won Down Beat magazine’s 1943 reader’s poll for best female vocalist.
In 1943, Johnny Mercer signed the Pipers to his newly-formed label, Capitol Records. Mercer began to push Stafford as a solo artist both on recordings and his Chesterfield radio program, on which the Pipers also appeared. Stafford finally left the Pipers in mid-1944 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 won Down Beat’s poll again in 1945 after finishing third in 1944. She made a screen test for Paramount in late 1945.
Stafford divorced Huddleston in 1944. Huddleston had entered the service in 1943, and in 1946 he sued the Pipers plus Stafford for breach of contract, asking for $150,000. When he had left, his spot in the quartet was to be guaranteed upon his discharge, but he wasn’t allowed to rejoin when that time came. The Pipers thought it detrimental to break up their current formation to allow him back in. There was also a question of whether he was owed earnings. The suit was settled in 1947, with Huddleston receiving $9,000.
Stafford appeared regularly on radio as a solo artist. In December 1945, she began hosting the Chesterfield Supper Club on NBC in New York while at the same time appearing on CBS for Ford once a week. In December 1946, she began to share hosting duties on Supper Club with Perry Como. Como hosted the show on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from New York, while she hosted Tuesday and Thursday from the West Coast. In April 1948, Como and Stafford switched places, with Stafford handling the three day schedule from New York while Como was in Hollywood to make a film. Peggy Lee joined the mix of hosts later that year. In September 1948, Stafford appeared with Mercer and the Pied Pipers again on the AFRS program Command Performance. In late 1948, she appeared on the weekly Revere camera show on ABC.
In mid-1947, Stafford returned to her hillbilly roots when she was brought in as a last-minute singer for a satiric country music version of the Bing Crosby hit “Temptation” by comedy music artist Red Ingle. Stafford heard the test pressing for the song and wanted to be a part of it. Capitol, however, didn’t want to associate Stafford’s name with the recording for fear it could damage her reputation as a serious singer, and they billed her as Cinderella G. Stump. When the song, “Tim-tay-shun,” took off and became a hit, the knowledge that it was Stafford leaked out, which only ended up generating more sales as well as accolades for Stafford’s performance. “I’m just a hillbilly at heart,” said Stafford, “and I’m not ashamed of it.” The record sparked a run of other hillbilly take-offs by other artists over the next several years. Stafford recorded another hillbilly satire with Ingle in 1948, and Capitol re-released “Tim-tay-shun” in late 1949 as “Temptation” using Stafford’s real name and giving her billing over Ingle.
The success of “Tim-tay-shun” emboldened Stafford to widen her musical horizons, and she began to step outside the realm of popular music to visit genres and styles that interested her. In 1948, she released the album American Folk Songs to good reviews, and in 1949 she recorded a bop vocal with help from Dave Lambert. She also sang several duets with Gordon McRae that same year. Her popularity remained as strong as ever, and she appeared with Peggy Lee on the cover of Down Beat magazine’s June 30, 1948 issue.
1950s and Beyond
While 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 late 1950, Stafford moved from Capitol to Columbia, where she continued to record through the rest of the decade. She made her debut on television in 1954, starring in her own programs in both the United States and Britain and appearing on numerous other television shows over the next ten years. In the late 1950s, 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. They won a Grammy in 1960 for Best Comedy Album.
Stafford returned to Capitol for a six-album deal in 1961. She semi-retired in 1966 and left the music business completely in 1975 except for an additional Jonathan and Darlene recording session. She made 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.
Stafford’s parents were from the Tennessee hills. ↩︎
The Pipers’ manager at the time was “Bullets” Durgom, who also managed Dorsey’s organization. Despite the split, the Pipers were still under a personal management contract with Dorsey, who thus received a cut of their income as a solo act. Dorsey also had the same management agreement with Frank Sinatra, Connie Haines, and Jack Leonard. Stafford eventually parted ways with Durgom and Dorsey in late 1946. ↩︎