august 2009

Jo Stafford recording at the Capitol Studios: Truly wondrous artistry, virtually incomparable, when you get right down to it, in the history of American popular song.

Incomparable and Rare

By David McGee

thumbnailTHE CAPITOL RARITIES, 1943-1950
Jo Stafford
DRG/EMI Special Products

In Jo Stafford's youth there was no shortage of outstanding girl singers, as they have come to be called, but even with staunch competition from the likes of Peggy Lee, Rosemary Clooney, Margaret Whiting, Patti Page, Doris Day, even Ella Fitzgerald (despite her more jazz leanings), Jo Stafford was a singular gift to the Great American Songbook. Arguments persist as to whether she is indeed the best selling female vocalist of all time, but so what? Her legacy is largely intact, if scattered about on various anthologies of recordings for Capitol and Columbia, her two major outposts as a recording artist (save for a brief stint in the '60s with Frank Sinatra's Reprise label), and provide ample and indisputable proof of her greatness. Some of the album titles alone tell a story of her vocal mastery: Ballad of the Blues, American Folk Songs, Jo + Jazz (one of many superb recordings released on her own label, Corinthian, which she and her husband, bandleader Paul Weston, reactivated in the early '90s to reissue some of her Columbia sides after she had won a breath-of-contract lawsuit and regained rights to her old recordings), Songs of Scotland, The Old Rugged Cross (gospel duets recorded with Broadway's brawny baritone stalwart, Gordon McCrae), Big Band Sound, Happy Holidays—I Love the Winter Weather (Christmas and seasonal fare), Broadway Revisited. There was nothing in the realm of popular song she couldn't hit out of the park with her silky middle-register contralto voice, but what made her artistry so special, indeed incomparable, was the emotional honesty of her singing. Jo Stafford always sang as if she were divulging intimate secrets to someone she trusted—namely, you, her interlocutor, her confidante, her most beloved friend. These are not inconsequential roles to play when approaching Stafford's music, because it's nigh on to impossible to resist being drawn into her confidence and then being swept up in the passion of the moment. Her trick was never to go overboard; she was the original medium-cool singer, always exploring the complex and sometimes disorienting temperaments ensuing when love arrives or flees. Exactly how effectively she did this is so difficult to articulate because feeling is central to Stafford's magic. The technique is there for those who want to admire it, but hers is a voice that conjures more than memories of another era—it evokes a whole other world from ours. Will Friedwald picks up on and develops this notion in his typically astute liner notes to this collection of true rarities, but the degree to which Stafford inhabited her own domain, one wherein happiness and melancholy were never far apart, but also never overdone, is an inviolable truth about her art. A lyric penned by Leo Robin and set to a beautiful melody by Harold Arlen might well be the Stafford credo:

It was written in the skies
That the heart and not the eyes
Shall see
"It Was Written In The Stars" (Harold Arlen/Leo Robin)

thumbnailYou can trace the history of this sentiment from Shakespeare to Antoine St. Exupery, but in the Arlen/Robin appropriation of it, Stafford does one of her most artful balancing acts between hope and heartache—you can hear the faint smile crossing her lips in the airy tone of her voice and, at the same time, the despair beginning to envelop her as she vows to wait for the man who got away to return and reclaim her heart. Her emotions are so controlled, but only barely so, and the tension can absolutely fell a listener. By contrast, a truly obscure Stafford recording, "If I Ever Love Again," recorded with Paul Weston and His Orchestra and featuring the Starlighters providing tight, smooth harmony backing, explores essentially the same territory as "It Was Written In the Stars," but on this outing the singer takes it at a dreamy, winsome pace, with less of an emotional edge in what is nevertheless a beautiful recording.

Similarly, in "Promise," by Carl Fischer and Bill Carey, a subtle, almost imperceptible modulation on the word "tenderly" takes the emotion of the song to a completely different place, as the tiniest flicker of wariness intrudes into the otherwise cheery certainty of events yet to unfold but deeply desired.

So won't you promise that you'll give it a lot of thought
And you'll share it just with me
Gee, I hope you'll answer yes and
Change my name and my address
And promise...
That you'll love me...
Promise me.

Jo Stafford sings 'The Gentleman Is a Dope,' a performance from the 1950s of a song she first recorded in 1947 for Capitol Records

One could do a track-by-track annotation of wonders such as this for the entirety of this most valuable addition to the Stafford catalogue, The Capitol Rarities: 1943-1950. The performances are uniformly magnificent in all respects—not only in Stafford's intelligent, moving interpretations, but in the tasty orchestral arrangements; in striking solo instrumental moments, such as Billy Butterfield's aggrieved trumpet solo on "Gee, It's Good To Hold You," which serves the purpose of expressing the eagerness the title implies but which Stafford sings with purposely restrained passion—because, of course, after all this time away you know it's good to hold you, baby, do you need me to say it any louder?; and in the beautifully shaded vocal support of the Starlighters and Pied Pipesr vocal groups. Everything in its proper place in proper proportion may suggest a lack of adventure, but, as Bugs Bunny would say, it is to laugh. There's enough action in these tracks, plenty of it, because these songs come out of the real world and involve flesh, blood and bone. There's some side trips into Stafford ephemera, such as the rollicking country sendup of "Prisoner of Love's Song" with Red Ingle and the Natural Seven, a group Stafford actually had some success with as a comedy act (when she billed herself as "Cinderella G. Stump"), presaging her Grammy winning comedy duo with husband Paul Weston as the hilariously off-key Jonathan and Darlene Edwards murdering pop classics in the late '50s and early '60s (the Grammy came in 1961, for their album, Jonathan and Darlene Edwards in Paris, in the Comedy category—they shared the award with Bob Newhart) and a frolicking, whimsical treatment of "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend," which is a bit too jaded for Stafford's taste, although she does fine by it; and there's also a warm, bluesy duet with Johnny Mercer, the man who signed her to Capitol Records and was one of her major benefactors, both as songwriter and executive, on the Weston/Mercer big band swinger, "Conversation While Dancing," on which Mercer takes his black dialect a bit too far. More satisfying in the far-out reaches of the Stafford oeuvre is "Jolly Jo," penned by Dave Lambert, who would go on to jazz acclaim as one-third of the Lambert, Hendricks and Ross trio. Here Stafford tackles a bustling scatfest with the aplomb of Ella and makes of it a delightful give and take with the extroverted Lambert. Still, the soul of these rarities—and many of the tracks were truly "lost" B sides or 78 singles that had somehow escaped reissue until discovered in the Capitol vaults—resides in the exquisitely rendered love songs—in dreamy epistles such as the Arthur Schwartz/Leo Robin beauty, "Through a Thousand Dreams," in which Stafford personalizes the lyric as if to make it her own; in the giddy, exalted wonder she mines in the blush of new love articulated amidst a rush of swirling strings in "Tell Me Why." And in a nice touch, Capitol included Jo's winsome, affecting rendition of Irving Berlin's "White Christmas" to close the disc, a song making its first appearance on CD here. A lyric imbued with both hope and an odd melancholic tinge, "White Christmas" is not merely a holiday song, but as plaintive an interior monologue as any Stafford explores in the other 23 songs. This is truly wondrous artistry, virtually incomparable, when you get right down to it, in the history of American popular song. 

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (
Website Design: Kieran McGee (
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024