Like Frank Sinatra, Stafford's big break came as a featured singer in Tommy Dorsey's pre-war big band. And like Sinatra, Stafford's popularity soared as war neared and vocalists shifted from novelty acts to sentimentalists. With a soothing intonation and powerful range, Stafford could do it all, singing balmy ballads and swingers effortlessly as a soloist or as part of a vocal harmony group. Her muffin-warm voice came through radio and turntable speakers like sage advice from a loving aunt.
Stafford was among the first singers to record for Johnny Mercer's new Capitol label in 1943. Joined often by husband and arranger Paul Weston, Stafford had 42 charted hits for Capitol, including Candy, which featured Mercer and the Pied Pipers. In 1951 Stafford signed with Columbia and chalked up 22 additional hits by 1954, including You Belong to Me, which sold 2 million copies, and Make Love to Me. [Pictured: Paul Weston, Stafford, Mercer and June Hutton]
Stafford's relaxed, neighborly sound appealed most to an aging generation that won a world war and liked taking life a little slower. But as the country and music industry changed in the mid-1950s, Stafford's mature sound and relevance began to fade. Her modest, conservative style was simply overrun by ever-younger audiences demanding a more energetic feel on jukeboxes and younger looking idols on television and album covers. By the mid-1960s, Stafford was in semi-retirement. [Pictured: Stafford and Weston]
As Terry Teachout noted here in a superb appreciation of Stafford that was among the first posted on the web, most of Stafford's CD compilations don't do the singer justice. For my money, Stafford's finest recording remains Swinging Down Broadway (1958), which I've written about several times in the past. Some of the album is available on the CD Broadway Revisited, which is now available here as a download. Other tracks are on Jo Stafford: The Big Band Sound here.
And nothing beats the sound of Stafford's voice between Thanksgiving and Christmas. It's early, I know, but Jo Stafford: Happy Holidays is a superb compilation assembled by her family in 1999. It too is available as a download here.
Finally, to fully appreciate how sublime Stafford was, dig two YouTube clips from 1961, when Ella Fitzgerald joined Stafford on The Jo Stafford Show for a medley of songs on the ups and downs of love. These clips say it all about Josie's brass, warmth and gracious energy. Go here for Part 1 and then here, for Part 2. You'll find yourself laughing out loud as each singer ad-libs zingers during the other's vocal breaks. Two pros, doing what they did best. And remember, these gals were beltin' while sittin' down.
Pete Turner. I spoke with famed photographer Pete Turner last week. An early pioneer of color photography, Pete told me he just posted a new series of color prints from the 1950s here. All are for sale. Pete's work, of course, has appeared on the covers of dozens and dozens of jazz albums, including many of those featured on Verve, A&M and CTI record covers. Turner's book, The Color of Jazz, featuring his glossy covers and text explaining how each was photographed, is available here.
Richard "Groove" Holmes. Today, jazz disc jockey Sid Gribetz presents a special five-hour radio program focusing on the career of jazz organist Richard "Groove" Holmes. You can access Sid's show on the web from anywhere in the world. The show runs from 2 to 7 pm (EDT) at WKCR.org here.
Impulse Records. Longtime reader Don Frese writes in response to my second series on Creed Taylor last week:
"Impulse albums looked terrific, I agree. But I was always disappointed that they had minimal info on the outside (songs, sidemen, etc.). This was an unfortunate omission because, with all due respect to Mr. Taylor, who produced only the first six, Impulse albums were shrink-wrapped, making it impossible to know what was inside without a Down Beat review or another outside source. A minor inconvenience, however, because so much of the music recorded for the label was tremendous."
Gary McFarland. Jazz musician, arranger, historian and Grammy-winning liner notes writer Bill Kirchner has assembled 12 of his favorite Gary McFarland recordings at Jazz.com here. It's a fabulous list, complete with covers, session dates, sidemen, assessments and ratings. To quote from Bill's email:
"Until he was in his mid-20s, Gary McFarland (1933-1971) was a musical illiterate. By the age of 27, after two summers at the Lenox School of Jazz and a short stay at the Berklee School of Music, he had moved to New York City to pursue a career in music. In the next decade, he became one of the most acclaimed and recorded new composer-arrangers in jazz; writer Gene Lees called him an "adult prodigy." But suddenly, he was gone-the tragic victim of a prankster in a bar who furtively poured liquid methadone into McFarland's drink.
For years thereafter, McFarland was a virtually forgotten figure: his recordings were out-of-print, and his music was (and still is) mostly unavailable for performance. But in recent years, that situation has improved. A number of McFarland's records have been reissued on CD, albeit often only as imports. A comprehensive, labor-of-love website maintained by Doug Payne here is now devoted to his work. And in 2006, filmmaker Kristian St. Clair released This Is Gary McFarland, a 75-minute documentary (go here).
At its best, McFarland's music is a rare blend of simplicity and sophistication, with melodies and harmonies that stay with the listener. He's been a profound influence on my own work as a composer-arranger, and when I expose students to his music, I invariably find that they are startled by its enduring freshness. At least in this respect, time has been kind to Gary McFarland."
Tiny Kahn. I received the following email from Charlie Berg of Newton, MA:
"I've recently been digging Tiny Kahn's arrangements, especially in Elliot Lawrence's band. Some of his stuff presages what Quincy Jones later did in the 1950s—lots of tight, internal harmonizations among the horns with cross-sectional groupings of horn lines."
JazzWax photos. Readers know that I feature photos as large as possible. But in some cases, there may be images that you want to see larger because there's type on there or details you want to see. To enlarge them, simply click on the photo. A new box will open with the larger image. Just close the image to return to the JazzWax page.
Brooks Tegler. Drummer and producer Brooks Tegler leads quite an impressive big band based in Washington, DC. I'm usually not a fan of current big bands performing hits of old, but I was taken aback when I saw Bill Finegan's Pussy Willow on the back of That's It!, Tegler's new CD. Originally performed over the radio by Tommy Dorsey in 1946 and recorded for RCA in 1949, Pussy Willow is a back-breaker by any stretch.
So who in their right mind would take on Finegan's [pictured] Pussy Willow? Only a fool—or someone who knows his stuff. When I put on the track, I was so blown away that I set my iTunes to play it repeatedly and wound up listening to Pussy Willow about 20 times. Tegler's execution is fabulous, retaining all of the swing, instrumental interchanges and mischief of the original. Clearly, Tegler has taste and knows better than to re-invent the wheel. His authentic touch and high standards are also evident on the balance of the album. You'll find the CD here.