An Order of Jo on CD, Rare

I've been listening to my recently arrived copy of the DRG label's new "The Capitol Rarities," the latest compact disc collection to present unreleased recordings of my favorite singer, Jo Stafford. Is this CD what it purports to be? Well ... yeah. Is it great? (More positively and enthusiastically) Oh, yes! I suppose I have to remember that not every Jo Stafford admirer would, as I would, snatch up (a hypothetical) "Jo Sings the Beverly Hills Directory, Live from a Phone Booth during Rush Hour" and, in which case, might not be aware that, really, all but three of the "Rarities" tracks have been available on CD for some time. Not a caveat – merely a clarification. Beautifully remastered and accompanied by insightful and informative liner notes by the dean of pop/jazz vocalist essayists, Will Friedwald, this well-chosen sampling of undeniably (as well as undeservedly) obscure sides from Jo's first Capitol stint offers something to win the uninitiated and satisfy the well-experienced. (I have to admit that I'm sort of put out by the absence, in the booklet, of recording dates but, hey, there's always Jim Marshall's Jo discography, clearly a labor of love.)

Shall we go through "Rarities" track-by-track? We shall:

"Out of This World" 9/13/44 Well, we discussed it before, but there's always much to say about Jo's records, which, themselves, speak volumes. Pretty and celestially evocative as the arrangement, by then future Stafford spouse, Paul Weston, is, I agree with WF (author of "Rarities" notes, of course) – it's a bit dramatic; so, Jo, of the flawless instincts, holds back even more than usual, for appropriate contrast. No one understood so well as Jo the potency of restraint. As I recall, I first caught this cosmic treatment of the minor-keyed Mercer-Arlen nugget on the Memoir label's (now out-of-print) "Too Marvelous For Words."

"Conversation While Dancing" 9/13/44
Another Mercer lyric – this time, with hep cat rather than egg head jargon and paired with a Weston rather than an Arlen melody. Jo is, perhaps, primarily thought of as a ballad singer, but as this track – on which she is teamed with her idol and boss, wordsmith extraordinaire and Capitol co-founder, John Henry Mercer – demonstrates, she could dish rhythm and jive with the best of them: JM, for example. The gap-toothed gent from Savannah "
loved Jo Stafford," observed another Capitol contractee, the hardly talentless Margaret Whiting, and we can see this too in all the Johnny-Jo collaborations. Memoir's "For You" first allowed me to eavesdrop on the "Conversation."

"Alone Together" 11/29/44
You want rarities? You got 'em! Jo's 7/12/44 JM Music Shop-rehearsal performance of the Arthur Schwartz-Howard Dietz stunner, released back when WWII was raging as a for-servicemen-only V-Disc, has been available on compact disc for more contemporary civvy-wearing
folks for some few years now. Her yet more nuanced, still more devastating commercially-issued take of a few months later is just making it to CD on 2009's "Rarities." Applied to Schwartz's exquisitely somber melody and Dietz's stark lyrics and layered on Weston's spare and stately orchestra animation, Jo's haunting voice is at its barest, conveying powerfully the bleakness ("the blinding rain") and nothingness ("the starless night"), indeed "the great unknown" in which the two (of whom she is steadfastly one) "cling together." Here, I strongly suspect, is Jo singing one of her favorites.

"Gee, It's Good to Hold You" 6/29/45
This hitherto unissued take contains a slightly muffed (concert) Bb from trumpeter Billy Butterfield and is a little less punchy than the V-Disc version (lauded, in
RE, here), which was recorded a few days later and has been kicking around, in digitized form, for a while. Darn cute song and Jo was the girl to put it over properly.

"You May Not Love Me" 11/21/45
I was introduced to the Johnny Burke-Jimmy Van Heusen number through the 1950 Nat Pierce and His Orchestra version with a Teddi King vocal, and I must admit that I was impressed by neither song nor interpretation initially. Though both eventually grew on me, I was unprepared for the reaction I had to Jo's take – even being aware of my fondness for her singing – when I encountered the side on the Stafford-Gordon MacRae "Stars of the Summer Night." Whew! Working with quiet material, albeit such made interesting by an opening gambit, "You may not love me but you may," of an intriguing ambiguity of meaning (on which WF perspicaciously comments), and before a muted Weston-fashioned backdrop of brass and strings, Jo comes up with an reading of controlled intensity. "I only hope tomorrow won't be just another day" seems an unlikely lyric climax, but Jo makes of the line a shining zenith.

"This Time" 8/1/46
Hate to say this of material composed by Weston and to disagree with Will who finds the song "stunning" but "This Time," inherently, is a snore. The lyrics, written by someone with the surname of Benton, remind me a bit of those of "A Sunday Kind of Love." "This time, I'm taking no chances on summer romances that fade in the fall," falls, I'm afraid, though, far short of "I want a Sunday kind of love, a love to last past Saturday night" from the far superior Belle-Leonard-Rhodes-Prima collaboration of the same year. The best thing in the world to happen to "This Time," as far as I'm concerned, is Jo, who sings it for far more than its worth. The record was digitized for 2007's "The Ultimate Capitol Collection."

"Promise" 9/16/46
As WF clarifies in the notes for Sony's: "Jo Stafford: The Portrait Edition," Jo is "hardly the girl next door." Your neighbor doesn't sound like Jo; she never does; yours (and mine) sounds like Marion Hutton. In the "Promise" record, we do, though, get a confiding Jo – full of unselfconscious gee's and revelations about the "grand" and "swell" boy, from whom she hopefully awaits a marriage proposal – sounding as close as she ever did to that girl we view, from our lace-curtained window, swinging on the veranda on starry summer nights. Here the sweet-toned Miss Stafford is everything we imagine of and idealize about post-War, pre-McCarthyism America. An unassumingly charming ditty, most winningly rendered. I like the way Weston scores the reeds, too. This one first appeared on CD, some years back, on ASV's fine "Coming Back Like a Song."

"It's as Simple as That" 10/18/46
WF sees the material as "a bargain basement 'She's Funny That Way'" – while acknowledging that Jo "treats it like a first class song." Well, I heartily agree with the second part of the analysis. Being not a paean to a slavishly devoted gal/guy but, rather, a celebration of love oblivious of and immune to adversity, "Simple" strikes me more as a kind of "two against the world" number along the lines of 1938's equally undistinguished "Never Felt Better, Never Had Less." Jo indeed shows complete commitment to this modest ballad, making me believe and relate.

"Through a Thousand Dreams" 11/4/46
Jo dips into her rich lower register, dazzling with those seamless legato lines, for this Arthur Schwartz-Leo Robin beauty, the type of yearning satisfied song at which she excels. You can always tell a Stafford side for which Paul Weston did not provide the arrangement: musically, something just seems impersonally different. The pizzicato strings somehow seem to belong on somebody else's record.

"Give Me Something to Dream About" 12/20/46
So snazzy! Instead of Jo's trusted Paul Weston, it's Lloyd Schaffer, the conductor for the Chesterfield Supper Club leading the orchestra but, despite the anomaly, the proceedings are, in the parlance of the comparatively innocent day, dreamy. Jo, with her perfect but never over-precise diction, always says words so prettily; lovely gets my attention on this. Very nice electric guitar obbligato placed here and there. Wonder who that is!

"It's Monday Every Day" 12/17/47
The muted compressed-sounding trumpet in the opening sets the tone beautifully for Jo's rueful, reflective reading of a nifty number by the lesser known Robin – Sydney Robin, the guy who set words to Charlie Shavers' "Undecided." Our always sensitive interpreter of music and lyrics makes effective use of that (afore-mentioned) "California-modified Tennessee accent." Marvelous Weston-scripted saxes provide strong support on this bluesy doozy.

"It was Written in the Stars" 12/31/47
Well, if there was ever written a Jo Stafford kind of song, it's this Harold Arlen-Leo Robin amber gem. Against the composer's dark sky of minor chords, pinpointed at times by major chord stars, Jo sings stirringly of destiny (it's nice to believe, sometimes). "It was written in the skies that the heart and not the eyes shall see" is, I think, highly representative of the Jo we encounter most frequently in song. Hear her soar on "so it shall be."

"Jolly Jo" 4/1/49
WF considers the Dave Lambert (later of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross) composition, "Jolly Jo" – or, in long form, "m + h + r x 3ee - oo (over) 4/4 aa3 x (times) 32 + bop (Jolly Jo)" – "easily the furthest out thing she [Jo] ever did." Well, who can say, when you look over the variegated material covered by the unmatchedly and unmatchably diverse Miss Stafford? No question, though – this platter (the flip of the ultra groovy, more widely known "Smiles"), on which Jo appears alongside the author and his Vocal Choir is a must-be-heard-to-be-believed, even for admirers of "America's Most Versatile Singing Star." Jo never took on anything she couldn't handle; truly, she could do it all exceedingly well. Hear the voice that Billie Holiday thought "sounds like an instrument" trading fours with Lambert; scroll down and click on "Jolly Jo" – here.

"If I Ever Love Again" 8/29/49
"[E]ssentially like a retread of 'I'll Never Smile Again'" is how WF sees this material. I look at it more as a sequel, but I suppose that's only because I'm aware that Ruth Lowe, author of "Smile," wrote her big song after, and in reaction to, the death of her husband. I picture the protagonist of "If I Ever Love Again," (both songs incorporate again, you've noticed, I'm sure), in the process of moving beyond the grieving phase, thinking, If I feel able to give my heart again, it will be you to whom I give it: "If I ever love again, it will be you." Actually, I find the song itself by far superior to "Smile"; it was the Tommy Dorsey, with Sinatra and The Pipers, and later solo Jo interpretations that made "Smile" appear something special. Jo and the always superb Starlighters, backed by romantic reeds and brass, give a very pretty song the deluxe treatment. Jo applies vibrato very sparingly in her singing; when she does, as here, on the last two words of her sans Starlighters, "No one else's charms can fill my empty arms," the effect is powerful.

"Open Door, Open Arms" 12/21/49
This record could be seen as either a companion to Jo's folkie Capitol sides like "Red River Valley," "Smilin' Through" and "Goodnight, Irene" or something that presages the country terrain she explored during her Columbia stint that followed. Melodically and harmonically, the song itself doesn't sound terribly Continental, but WF calls it a "European import"; English words were added by Buddy Kaye, of "Till the End of Time" fame. In any case, Jo, supported by The Starlighters and very spare instrumentation, treats this rather slight piece respectfully, singing it with obvious sincerity.

"Pagan Love Song" 4/27/50
Jo may be widely labeled a "pop singer," but as this devilish disc – on which she is ably assisted by Paul Weston's Dixie Eight, which includes, among others, Bob Crosby-ites Eddie Miller and Matty Matlock and ex-Miller man, Clyde Hurley – attests, she is a very fine jazz singer, too. She really digs in on the Arthur Freed-Nacio Herb Brown warhorse. What a tone! I much prefer this sizzling B-side to the A with which it was paired, "Play a Simple Melody."

"Our Very Own" 7/13/50
This is one of those songs that I strongly suspect I wouldn't be able to take emanating from any other throat or what appears to be heart. Separating the song from this rendition, I find the Victor Young melody just OK and the lyrics downright drippy. Jo, with no help from Harold Mooney's Orchestra (Paul Weston had just left to work for Columbia; his future wife would follow him shortly), makes of the intrinsically lackluster "Our Very Own" something radiant and lovely.

"Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend" 12/21/49
WF is right – his point, in essense, being that this Leo Robin sparkler from Gentleman Prefer Blondes doesn't really seem like Stafford territory. Jo and Paul, indeed, can be found "trying gamely" with this statement of a golddigger's philosophy but, here, as they do elsewhere on occasion, they rely on their amusement rather than engagement with the material to do the work. I like Jo's street-wise "Yeah, but where can you hock it?" and the xylophone's downward glissando on the final word in "He's your guy, when stocks are high/But beware when they start to descend." The big-top accompaniment is kind of dorky but intentionally so, I imagine.

"Prisoner's Love Song" 12/19/47
Every bit as hilarious as Jo's first outing as hillbilly chantoosie Cinderella G. Stump, "Tim-tay-shun." Is this nasal neigher the same girl who makes you cry and your hair stand on end? Yup! Here, unlike on "Diamonds," she's totally immersed in character; with Red Ingle and His Natural Seven wheezing jauntily (they prove that such is possible) behind her, our gal's hollerin' about how she "can't ecscape." Probably not what crooner/"Prisoner of Love" co-author Russ Columbo had in mind, but I like to think he would have been amused.

"This is the Moment" 12/10/47
Well, I talked about this beautiful one before, but I'll add here that it's one of my favorite Jo records. Everyone who has yet to fall in love as well as all, cynical and hard, who believe they can't fall again, should hear this. ... And it's more than just the pretty Frederick Hollander tune and sweet Leo Robin lyrics – it's, most importantly, the voice, of understanding and reassurance, telling you not to pass up that true "moment"; you can't help but believe.

"The Stanley Steamer" 6/30/47
Never having seen Summer Holiday, the MGM Mickey Rooney-Gloria DeHaven-starring extravaganza from which the Harry Warren-Ralph Blane number comes, I just decided to check Amazon for a sound sample of the soundtrack version of "Steamer" – for comparative purposes. Well, I'm afraid I wasn't buoyed or made to smile by the DeHaven warbling – as I am by the Stafford-Starlighters belting. Too bad this absolutely terrific take on a very cute song wasn't in the film! Jo's always great on stuff with an old-fashioned theme, like this and "The Trolley Song."

"Candy" 12/6/44
I'm not quite sure what this Number 2 on the charts Mercer-Stafford-Pipers side, which has been available on Jo collections for years, is doing here, on a CD entitled "Rarities." ... Ah, who cares! This confectionary offering, which Mom told me you couldn't miss hearing if you stepped into a juke joint in '45, is something to be enjoyed slowly – like a chocolate-covered caramel. It's a hit that deserved to be a hit. I've always imagined that Johnny had kind of a musical crush on Jo; this is the record on which I first detected it.

"Tell Me Why" 12/31/47
Well, here we find another genuine rarity! This intended-as-but-never-issued-as-a-78 is showing up here for the first time! WF doesn't have a darn thing to say about either the record or the song itself, written by a team identified as "Gold/Alberts," so we're left to our own devices. This "Tell Me Why," unlike the better-known one which showed up seventeen years later in the groundbreaking musical, A Hard Day's Night, may not have a famous pedigree, namely "Lennon-McCartney," but it's, nevertheless, a very fine song. We could spend considerable time in talking about the two identically-titled ditties and treatments thereof! The Beatles' "Tell Me Why," from Ringo's first bomp of tom-toms, bashes you over the head, while the Stafford-Weston record takes a low-key song and, with orchestration and vocal interpretation, makes it yet more insinuating and subtle. John Lennon demands of his love a reason for shabby treatment, while Jo asks of hers an explanation for the joy-inducing effect he has on her. ... Stately and passionate seem odd words to apply to the same thing, but the mysteriously withheld Jo-Paul record is both simultaneously – potently so. Jo's final "Suddenly I'm feeling happy/So happy, I want to cry" is supernal. Here, on "Tell Me Why," is "that tone" I'm always talking about.

"White Christmas"
Well, I still think Bing owns the Berlin mega-standard, but I consider Jo my favorite among the song's many lessees. Somehow, this California girl, born and raised, makes you see the whole scene – the treetops glistening and the children listening ... and, of course, the snow – and makes you believe in the magic of Christmas. Even the Lyn Murray Singers can neither weigh her down nor yank her skyward: Jo, surrounded by drifts, we can imagine, and, tender and imperturbable, radiating good will, gifts us with a perfect reading of this homey, hope-inspiring hymn.

WF goofs in a couple of instances: neither "Give Me Something to Dream About" (available on "Stars of the Summer Night") or "White Christmas" (present on "Coming Back Like a Song") were previously unissued. ... And there are other Jo CD's, containing Capitol material, out there that I would consider more worthy – on the basis of including more of the genuine article, obscurities – of the description, "Rarities." Still, this latest effort toward transferring the Stafford recordings, in their entirety, to compact disc boasts both a wonderful sound and program and is a boon to collectors. Between you and me, it takes only one new Jo side to get me to buy.