By Patricia Barber
What’s cool? Who’s cool? How do you get cool? Jo Stafford was a cool singer. She was of the cool school ... cool was and is an aesthetic that embodies reserve. Whether that reserve comes from poise or rebellion, you just don’t give everything you’ve got. No blistering tempos, no complex bebop changes and no frantic scat singing. Jo sang with an ease and directness that reflected the confidence of the country. They called her “G.I. Jo” during WWII.
Being called Jo when you’re a woman is cool. In America, during the 1940s, swing and jazz were the popular musics of the day. That’s incredibly cool. Americans were cool. Jo, an accomplished musician and pianist as well, sang with a rich timbre and dead-on pitch. She hung slightly back of the beat in that swinging way, the way we walked down the street then, open faces and loose gestures, as if we had nothing to lose. We sang and danced our way through the middle of the 20th century and we won the war. The soldiers loved Jo and we loved her. She sold 25 million records. That’s cool.
But Jo was cool before the 25 million records. Cool begets cool and cool can come from a lot of things. It can come from growing up in California in the richest country on earth. It can come from the security of a loving family. It can come from knowing you’re a good singer, good enough to make the rhythm section do the dirty work while you let the words fall easily from your gorgeous lips. It can come from having gorgeous lips, being young, beautiful and smart and funny.
Jo was all that. After her string of hits, she and her second husband, Paul Weston, created a musical comedy review, Jonathan and Darlene Edwards, a pre-Saturday Night Live spoof on a bad lounge singer and pianist. The first time my bass player played this record for me I laughed so hard my sides hurt.
It’s cool to know when to get in, even cooler to know when to get out. After all those hits, Jo Stafford retired early to live a long, full life. She had had more than one ace in the hole. Jo was talented, beautiful, rich, smart, funny and loved by millions. Jo Stafford will be remembered as the perfect voice at the perfect place and time. Cool...