Jo Stafford, the honey-voiced band singer who starred in radio and television and sold more than 25 million records with her ballads and folks songs, has died. She was 90.
Stafford died of congestive heart failure Wednesday at her Century City home, her son, Tim Weston of Topanga, said Friday. She had been in declining health since October, he said.
Stafford had 26 charted singles and nearly a dozen top 10 hits, her son said. She won a Grammy for her humor.
Stafford’s records of “I’ll Walk Alone,” “I’ll Be Seeing You,” “I Don’t Want to Walk Without You” and other sentimental songs struck the hearts of servicemen far from home in both World War II and the Korean War. They awarded her the title of “GI Jo.”
In 1939, she was working with a group of male singers called the Pied Pipers. The group was invited to join the Tommy Dorsey band, a big attraction in the swing era. Soon the Pied Pipers were singing in major hotels and ballrooms and on radio.
A year later, 24-year-old Frank Sinatra joined Dorsey after a brief stint with Harry James, and he and the Pied Pipers melded ideally. Their languorous “I’ll Never Smile Again” became the No. 1 hit for 12 weeks and sold 2 million copies. A half-century later, Sinatra remarked about Stafford, “It was a joy to sit on the bandstand and listen to her.”
Dorsey gave Stafford her first solo, “Little Man With a Candy Cigar,” and it became a hit record. One night in 1944 in Portland, Ore., the temperamental Dorsey got into an argument with one of the Pied Pipers and fired the group.
The Pied Pipers signed with the fledgling Capitol Records, but Stafford left the group to join Johnny Mercer, one of the Capitol founders. Mercer guided her new career with hits such as “Candy,” “Serenade of the Bells” and “That’s for Me.” In demand for personal appearances, she accepted a date at New York’s Club Martinique. A shy person, she never played a nightclub again.
“I’m basically a singer, period,” she said in a 1996 interview, “and I think I’m really lousy up in front of an audience— it’s just not me.”
She was a “reluctant star,” her son said. “She loved making records and really didn’t crave the attention of personal appearances.”
At Capitol, Stafford, who had been married to Pied Piper John Huddleston from 1941 to 1943, became reacquainted with Paul Weston, who had been an arranger for Dorsey. They married in 1952, and he acted as her arranger and conductor for the rest of her career. They had two children, Tim and Amy, and four grandchildren.
Despite her shyness, Stafford appeared before studio audiences in radio and television during the 1940s and 1950s. She alternated with Perry Como on a nightly 15-minute radio show in 1944, guest starred on many TV variety shows and had her own series, “The Jo Stafford Show,” in 1955-56.
She recorded more than 800 songs during a versatile career that included ballads, folk, Scottish, country and novelty. She even tried comedy. She and Weston recorded an album of numbers on which she sang painfully off-key and he played miserable piano. They were billed as Jonathan and Darlene, but their identity was soon discovered. A second album won them a Grammy in 1960 for best comedy album.
Jo Elizabeth Stafford was born Nov. 12, 1917, in Coalinga, Calif., where her Tennessee father had come to work in the oil fields. When a new field was discovered in Long Beach, he moved his wife and four daughters south. Young Jo studied classical music for more than three years and was cast in a high school production of “Roberta.” But the 1933 Long Beach earthquake destroyed the school, and she joined her two older sisters singing pop songs on radio as the Stafford Sisters.
The Staffords sang background music at film studios — where Jo met the Pied Pipers.
Stafford made her last recording in 1970 although her songs continue to be used in movie soundtracks, her son said.
She retired voluntarily, he said.
“It really was to raise my sister and I. She walked away from it,” he said. “People would sort of ask her, ‘How come you stopped singing?’ She said: ‘For the same reason that Lana Turner doesn’t pose in bathing suits anymore.”’
In addition to her son, Stafford is survived by a daughter, Amy Wells of Calabasas, and four grandchildren.
Paul Weston died in 1996.