Jo Stafford: Multi-million-selling hit singer who with 'You Belong to Me' was the first woman to top the UK charts

In 1955, Columbia Records presented Jo Stafford with a diamond-studded disc to mark her selling 25 million records for the label. Ironically, this marked the peak of her career, as she had only moderate success subsequently. The award coincided with the advent of rock'n'roll and it became increasingly difficult for middle-of-the-road singers like Stafford, no matter how good, to retain their commercial success.

Jo Elizabeth Stafford was born in Coalinga, California in 1917. Her father had come to Coalinga in search of oil, but within a few years, the family moved to Long Beach and he took a succession of menial jobs. Stafford studied singing with a view to performing opera, but then formed a vocal group, the Stafford Sisters, with her elder sisters, Christine and Pauline. They appeared regularly on a Los Angeles radio station and sang a madrigal in Fred Astaire's film A Damsel In Distress (1937).

When the sisters married, Stafford joined her husband, John Huddleston, and six others in the Pied Pipers vocal group. One of Tommy Dorsey's arrangers, Paul Weston, heard and recommended them to the mercurial Dorsey. He took them to New York for a national broadcast, but the sponsor disliked their singing and dismissed them. They remained in New York and recorded, without success, for RCA.

When the group disbanded and returned to LA, Dorsey asked Stafford to be part of a quartet, still called the Pied Pipers, and join his orchestra. The band was hugely popular and although the Pied Pipers contributed to Dorsey's success, the main selling factor was Dorsey's new male vocalist, Frank Sinatra. The Pied Pipers supported him on such hits as "I'll Never Smile Again" and "Stardust". Like everybody in the orchestra, Stafford had a difficult time with Dorsey, who would sack musicians on a whim and reinstate them the next day, but he allowed her solo performances including "Little Man With a Candy Cigar" and "Embraceable You". Dorsey's arranger, Sy Oliver, gave Stafford a new song he had written, "Yes Indeed", which became a standard.

In 1943, the Pied Pipers left Dorsey and joined a new record label, Capitol, which was formed by the songwriter Johnny Mercer. The label's musical director was Stafford's friend Weston and, by now divorced from her first husband, she married him in 1952. He took an immense interest in her career, finding her good songs and writing sympathetic arrangements. Stafford undertook concert tours for the troops and she became known as "GI Jo", although she jokingly called herself "Miss Outgoing Freight". She had hit records with "The Trolley Song" and "My Darling, My Darling", and Nat King Cole played piano on her 1946 recording of "I'll Be With You In Apple Blossom Time".

After Perry Como revived the oldie "Temptation" in 1945 with immense success, Stafford recorded a million-selling parody, "Tim-tay-shun", in 1947 under the name Cinderella G. Stump with Red Ingle and the Natural Seven. In 1948, with Gordon MacRae, she had another million-selling single with "Say Something Sweet to Your Sweetheart" and the following year, they combined their talents again with equal success on "Whispering Hope". Over the years, Stafford recorded many inspirational albums, some with MacRae.

In 1950, Stafford joined Columbia and hit record followed hit record. She sang several, big selling duets with Frankie Laine including "Hey Good Lookin'" and "In The Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening". They were an odd couple – Laine would bellow his lines, while Stafford sang brightly and smoothly and without any vibrato. She also recorded with Nelson Eddy ("With These Hands"), Gene Autry ("My Heart Cries For You") and Liberace ("Indiscretion"). Her recording of "Ragtime Cowboy Joe" credited a pianist, Pat Gillham, but this was a private joke: Gillham owned a ranch where the Westons stayed with their children and the pianist was really the bandleader Lou Busch.

Anyone who has attended a pub quiz will know that the first ever UK No 1 was "Here In My Heart" by Al Martino in November 1952. Relatively few know that the No 2 record was Jo Stafford's "You Belong to Me" and that it sold so well that it became the UK's second No 1 some 10 weeks later, thus making Stafford the first female to top the UK charts. By the time Stafford finally made the top, her follow-up, a pop version of Hank Williams's country song "Jambalaya" had come and gone.

The lyric of "You Belong To Me", her biggest success, makes little sense today – why is this man globetrotting and leaving his girlfriend at home, and where does his money come from? The answer is that he was one of the millions doing national service, and several songs of the time reflected the separation of servicemen from their loved ones – "Auf Wiederseh'*Sweetheart" (Vera Lynn, 1952), "Arrivederci Darling" (Anne Shelton, 1955) and "I'll Be Home" (Pat Boone, 1956).

Stafford had several other hits, including Weston's arrangement of the folk song "Shrimp Boats" with the Norman Luboff Choir (1951), "Teach Me Tonight" (1954), "Make Love to Me", a classic example of songwriting by committee, as it had eight composers (1954), "Suddenly There's a Valley" (1955) and "On London Bridge" (1956). She recorded several albums of standards, including Swingin' Down Broadway (1958) and I'll Be Seeing You (1959).

Weston and Stafford would entertain party guests by pretending to be Jonathan and Darlene Edwards, a bad cabaret act from New Jersey. Stafford would sing off-key in a high-pitched voice while Weston, playing the piano, would lapse into appalling rhythms. Rather like a precursor to Phoenix Nights, they made humorous records as America's worst club act and even won a Grammy in 1961 for the Best Comedy Album of the year. They continued to make these comic records (although it was a repetitive joke) long after they had stopped making serious records and in 1978 even parodied the Bee Gees' "Stayin' Alive".

In 1961, the Westons spent the summer in London with their children and Stafford recorded several ITV specials including one in which the actor Edd "Kookie" Byrnes unwisely sang and danced alongside Stafford, Rosemary Clooney, Mel Tormé and Lionel Blair. Stafford also had a very popular series on Radio Luxembourg.

During the 1960s, Stafford recorded for Frank Sinatra's label, Reprise, and she sang on his new recordings of the scores of Kiss Me Kate and Guys and Dolls. In 1964 she made the album Getting Sentimental Over Tommy Dorsey. Stafford effectively retired from performing in 1975, but she did return for a tribute show to Sinatra in 1990. She said that she did not want to sing "for the same reason that Lana Turner is not posing in bathing suits anymore".

Instead, she did much organisational work for charity, particularly for mentally handicapped children. Paul Weston died in 1996 and, in 2006, Jo Stafford donated her archives to the University of Arizona.

Spencer Leigh

Jo Elizabeth Stafford, singer: born Coalinga, California 12 November 1917; married 1941 John Huddleston (marriage dissolved 1943), 1952 Paul Weston (died 1996; one son, one daughter); died Century City, California 16 July 2008.

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