Five Questions

Listening today, Jo Stafford's birthday, to the music of my favorite singer, I remembered an interview I heard for the first time a few months ago, shortly after the incomparable vocalist's passing. In this conversation between Jo and a California DJ – which took place in 2006, some time before Jo's eighty-ninth birthday that year – Jo responded in her usual thoughtful and intelligent manner – to the same tired, old questions that I, in my capacity of audience had encountered many times before and she, in her capacity of subject, surely must have encountered hundreds of times before. As I listened, back in July, I thought, This is the latest interview with Jo that I've heard; most likely, I'll never run across a more recent one – now she's gone ... and I'll never know the answers to the questions that have burned in my mind since I discovered that voice.

The interview – conducted by musician and Standards Era historian, Michael Feinstein – that concludes the 2003 CD debut of Jo's 1959 concept album, "Ballad of The Blues," is, by far and away, the best with Stafford that I've come across. Because Michael talked to her musician-to-musician. He posed questions that allowed Jo to reveal aspects of the musical miracle that was/is Jo Stafford. There was none of that "Well, what was the young Sinatra like?" (Why ask Jo Stafford about Frank Sinatra when you can ask her about Jo Stafford?) ... Still, the exchange with Feinstein serves to intrigue rather than satisfy fully.

Now, in 2008, like in the late '80's when first I heard that voice, that tone, Jo seems to have come out of nowhere. I'm sure that all whose initial exposure to the Stafford sound came in 1940 reacted as I did – and musician/composer/arranger Johnny Mandel did: "Who is THAT!?" Where did she come from; what did she evolve from?

In 1995, I wrote to Jo. I didn't ask for an autographed picture; I didn't ask any questions – I just rhapsodized, without expectation of acknowledgment. A couple of weeks after I sent my missive, I got a reply from her, which opened with, "Thank you for one of the nicest – if not the [she underlined the – twice] nicest letter I have ever received." Well, did I smile. .. Perhaps such was merely this gracious lady's standard response to a devotee's outpouring of enthusiasm, but I like to imagine that I met my objective of communicating to my favorite singer my tremendous admiration for her talent and music.

If I had had the opportunity that many others had (and, it seems to me, squandered) to speak with that musical enigma, Jo Stafford, I would have asked:

Who and what were your musical influences?
What did you listen to when you were growing up?
What do you listen to now?
Who is your favorite composer?
Does an identification with the lyrics aid you in your interpretation?

Banal? Maybe. Yet, I believe these five questions might have helped me to understand. ... Jo's parents came from Tennessee. Her mother played banjo. Jo had five years of operatic training and took piano lessons. She spoke of having listened, in the '30's, to Glen Gray and Benny Goodman. She dug the Mercer-Teagarden duets with Paul Whiteman's orchestra. The Stafford Sisters, the vocalizing trio in which Jo made her professional debut, took their stylistic cue from the jazzy New Orleanians, The Boswell Sisters. "Our talents — his and mine — fit the music of the time,” she said, of herself and her husband, bandleader/composer/arranger, Paul Weston. “And the music fit us." ... Still, where the heck did Jo Stafford come from? How do you take the environment and the times and get Jo Stafford? Recently, I was listening to her Reader's Digest recordings from the late '60's; Jo, at the time these sides were made, was a 30-year veteran of the music business. And the musical landscape had changed considerably since her heyday. She, singer-trombonist Warren Covington and the then current edition of The Pied Pipers were doing, among other things, that easy-listening '60's anthem "What the World Needs Now," (penned by the then ubiquitous Burt Bacharach), in a take, extremely late '60's in manner, on the quasi-spiritual "Yes, Indeed" approach of Dorsey arranger, Sy Oliver. I could just envision the vocal assemblage swaying, on a variety show (Ed Sullivan; The Smothers Brothers), before a mod, bold, colorful backdrop. The one timelessly hip element of the record was Jo's delivery. That cool tone and laidback style. Jo was hip and modern in 1940. She's hip and modern today. She will be so, long after we, of this moment, are gone. Perhaps the simple, one-word explanation for the newness, the unprecented quality that Jo brought to her environment and times – or anybody else brought to his/hers, for that matter – is uniqueness. Just the same, I would like to have heard her responses to those five questions.