december 2011
Lester Young on Jo Stafford: 'I hear her voice and the sound and the way she puts things on. Enough said.

A Singular, Special Gift At Christmastime

By David McGee

One of the great vocalists of the 20th Century (and a pioneering musical parodist who, with her husband Paul Weston, won a Grammy in 1961 for Best Comedy Album, performing as the cheesy New Jersey lounge act Jonathan and Darlene Edwards on Jonathan and Darlene Edwards in Paris), Jo Stafford came out of the big band era, an alumnus of the outstanding vocal group the Pied Pipers, whose gigs included a stint with Tommy Dorsey's Orchestra. With the Pied Pipers she appeared on some of the early recordings of their Dorsey band colleague, Frank Sinatra; on her own as a solo performer, she was the first artist to reach the 25 million sales plateau. Her duets with Frankie Laine (on six charting singles, including a Top 10 version of Hank Williams's "Hey Good Lookin'" in 1951) and especially with big-voiced Broadway baritone Gordon MacRea (two million sellers together in 1948's "Say Something Sweet to Your Sweetheart" and 1949's "My Happiness") remain thrilling demonstrations of superlative vocal artistry, and many of her solo hit singles, notably "Shrimp Boats" and "You Belong To Me," remain the standards by which all other versions are measured. Her smooth, expressive mezzo-soprano and rhythmically fluid phrasing were perfectly suited to the romantic songs she preferred—and, it should be noted, to the mood of the post-World War II America she helped define—but the holiday and Christmas songs in her catalogue are on a par with the finest work any other artist has ever done in this milieu. Although never a favorite with critics of her day, musicians knew an artist when they heard one and were eager to join her sessions. In a 1958 interview with British jazz authority Chris Albertson, the legendary tenor saxophonist Lester Young, famed for his work with Billie Holiday, named Lady Day and Jo Stafford as his favorite singers, adding, "And I'm through."

To this statement a puzzled Albertson queried, "But Jo Stafford does not sing jazz, does she?"

"No," Young replied, "but I hear her voice and the sound and the way she puts things on. Enough said."

Jo Stafford, accompanied by Paul Weston and His Orchestra and the Starlighters, ‘By the Fireside,’ from the album Happy Holidays: I Love the Winter Weather

In recent years most of Stafford's holiday recordings have been returned to print on two CDs, both exceptional and essential. The earliest recordings, collected on Happy Holidays: I Love the Winter Weather, are from her 1955 and 1956 albums, Ski Trails and Happy Holidays, respectively. The second album in her holiday catalogue, The Joyful Season: The Voices of Jo Stafford, returns to market her somewhat experimental 1964 long player The Joyful Season, expanded with two excellent bonus tracks and two rich, moving Christmas medleys recorded with Gordon MacRae, both previously unreleased. Suffice it to say, no collection of holiday music can be taken seriously absent Jo Stafford's contributions. Hers are season's greetings of a singular nature.

‘Gesu Bambino,’ a superb performance by Jo Stafford from her album The Joyful Season: The Voices of Jo Stafford, an expanded version of her 1964 holiday release, The Joyful Season. This is a bonus track added to the CD version of the original album.

Released in 1955 and 1956, the recordings on Happy Holidays: I Love The Winter Weather are largely brassy, spirited outings, rich in warm, exuberant group harmonies and easygoing Stafford solos—the mood of the record could not have been better captured than in the cover photo showing the singer, clad in a floor-length quilted robe, curled up in a velvet easy chair, book in hand, a fully trimmed Christmas tree in the corner behind her, a roaring fireplace to her left. This is a record about home and hearth, family and friendship, and, not least of all, romance, as is evident from the most cursory listen to the dreamy strings-and-woodwinds-laden "By the Fireside." Listening to this album is to hear the sound of post-war America in all its bracing optimism, high spirits and boundless energy—it's all there in one scintillating cut, a medley of "Jingle Bells" and "Winter Wonderland" comprised of a brisk, galloping treatment of "Jingle Bells" smoothly transitioning to the soothing lope of "Winter Wonderland," with the honey-voiced Stafford caressing the lyrics so gently, as the sturdy male voices of the Starlighters quartet and a soothing string section lend support, all gathering together at the end in a celebratory crescendo bespeaking the nation's can-do resolve. The gentle ring-a-ding-ding swing of "Winter Weather"; the orchestra's unflagging rhythmic drive and Stafford's playful flirtatiousness on "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm" and "Baby, It's Cold Outside"; the familial love suffusing a genial spoken-sung version of "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" (with Jo's son Tim Weston—who produced this reissue disc—making his recorded debut, cutely lisping a couple of words of the introduction before his mother takes charge); the unalloyed reverence in Stafford's soft, humble reading of "I Wonder As I Wander," against a spare, evocative soundscape provided by harpsichord and acoustic guitar--these are moments when smarts and passion produce superb art. Add in the children's choir singing "Silent Night" before Stafford enters for a final, majestic verse, plus the quirky inclusion of a militaristic "March of the Toys" instrumental and the Starlighters' rumbling, barbershop quartet rendition of "Hanover Winter Song" (truly a man's man song celebrating fellowship and drink), and in its varying moods and depth of feeling the sum of the parts of Happy Holidays constitutes a conceptual integrity comparable to that heard on the seasonal fare Stafford's former Dorsey bandmate Frank Sinatra explored over the course of his career.

A medley of ‘Jingle Bells’ and ‘Winter Wonderland’ by Jo Stafford from her 1955 holiday album, Ski Trails, with Paul Weston and His Orchestra and the Norman Luboff Choir. Ski Trails is now repackaged with Ms. Stafford’s 1956 Christmas album, Happy Holidays, as Happy Holidays: I Love the Winter Weather

The subtitle of Stafford's Capitol Christmas album from 1964, The Voices of Jo Stafford, is literal—enthralled by the multitracking sound pioneered by Les Paul and Mary Ford, Stafford and producer Lee Gillette dispensed with background singers, and, through the magic of technology, had multiple Jo Staffords accompanying Jo Stafford. Needless to say, the various Jo Staffords acquitted themselves admirably, thank you. Unfortunately the reissue has no session credits, so the identity of the guitarist who's doing a spot-on imitation of Les Paul's rippling notes goes unidentified. The backings here are more stripped down than Stafford ever worked with at Columbia, which puts the focus even more intensely on the beautiful voices in harmony but also achieves a stark grandeur quite distinct from other Stafford recordings. For instance, "Deck the Halls" features the Stafford voices both in a harmonious blend and cascading over each other, in a beautiful, stately reading accompanied by chimes, save for an insistent but subdued humming organ chording in the background. Amidst the standards here, though, are two new songs written by Paul Weston and Allan and Marilyn Bergman, heard here in their first recordings. "Merry Christmas" is all soft edges and tender crooning celebrating love and friendship at the holidays, to the accompaniment of guitar and organ; "Christmas Is the Season" is a festive workout, swinging and ringing with chiming guitar lines and busy sleigh bells, propelled forward by brisk drumming and the steady pulse of the ever-present organ, Stafford delighting in enumerating that many pleasures of Christmastime. The two stunning (and previously unreleased) bonus tracks added to this disc are sacred fare, "Gesu Bambino" and "Ave Maria." The former adds a mixed gender choir to the mix, and when those voices, Stafford's and the heralding, cathedral-like organ blend in the choruses, something of beauty ensues from this expression of profound reverence for the day of Christ's birth—a feeling propounded in Stafford's humble, measured reading of a string-enhanced "Ave Maria," a performance so emotional but so subdued and delicate it is a thing of wonder unto itself. The disc is completed with two Christmas medleys teaming Stafford with her favorite duet partner, Gordon MacRae, both numbers comprised of sacred carols (save for a lone snippet of "Deck the Halls" in the first medley), parts of 10 songs in all, the featured singers backed by a full, robust choir and an organist who knows precisely when to assert his instrument and when to lay out. MacRae and Stafford are so attuned to each other's style and emotions that they practically rewrite "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" and "O Come O Come Emmanuel," through the sheer force of their emotional commitment to each song's message. If anyone's wondering, Charlie Brown style, what Christmas is all about, these two medleys provide an irrefutable answer.

A Christmas medley from The Joyful Season: The Voices of Jo Stafford, also featuring Ms. Stafford’s favorite duet partner, Gordon MacRae, on a profound reading of ‘O Come O Come Emmanuel,’ which the singers virtually rewrite through the sheer force of their emotional commitment to the song’s message.

Two years after this recording, Stafford, not yet 50, went into semi-retirement and was rarely heard from again before her death in the summer of 2008 (July 16 at the age of 90). Her songs lingered on through the years, fortunately, thanks to her successful breach-of-contract lawsuit against her former label (which returned to her the rights to her old recordings) and the reactivation of Paul Weston's Corinthian Records label for the purpose of reissuing her catalogue. Any record with Jo Stafford's name on it is must listening, and those Corinthian reissues are abundant in priceless examples of pop vocalizing at its finest. Yet her Christmas albums contain performances as beautiful and arguably even more mesmerizing than her pop hits. No? Listen, and be moved.

Jo Stafford’s Happy Holidays: I Love the Winter Weather is available at

Jo Stafford’s The Joyful Season: The Voices of Jo Stafford is available at

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (
Website Design: Kieran McGee (
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024