Interview: Wanda Stafford (PT. 1)


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Wanda Stafford
You may think you own every Bill Evans sideman studio album, but trust me, you don't. The one I'm about to tell you about is so obscure and rare that it wasn't even listed in Tom Lord's Jazz Discography at press time. On June 23 and 24, 1960, at Bell Studios in New York, pianist Evans recorded on a session behind vocalist Wanda Stafford that featured a band arranged by Bill Russo for Roulette Records.

The album is Wanda Stafford: In Love for the Very First Time. The band was comprised of Bernie Glow, Burt Collins, Louis Mucci and Jimmy Glasel (tp); Bill Elton, Don Sebesky, Eddie Bert and Kenneth Guffrey (tb); Dick Meldonian (cl, as); Tony Ferina (bs); Bill Evans (p); Howard Collins (g); John Drew (b) and Ed Shaughnessy(d).

I first heard about this album recently while researching and writing about trumpeter Burt Collins. A few clicks later, I discovered that Wanda was still singing in the Bay Area of California. An email conversation ensued, and we soon spoke by phone. Here's Part 1 of my interview with singer Wanda Stafford:

JazzWax: Where did you grow up?

Wanda Stafford: In Indianapolis in the 1950s. I started sneaking into bars when I was still in my teens and tried to sit in with all the major jazz musicians playing there. I always liked to sing. My mother was a stride pianist. After she graduated from high school, she had played piano and organ for silent movies in the 1920s. Then she married and had me and then my sister. While she played at home, my sister and I would stand behind her and sing. I think my mother was always a little bitter that she never got to fulfill her dreams.

JW: What did your mother do?

WS: She worked in a silk-hose factory to support us after my father abandoned us.

JW: Did you ever track him down?

WS: Yes. I finally met my father when I was 26 or 27. I searched and searched, and finally went back to his home town about 50 miles away. There I found his mother and realized I had a grandmother. She told me where he was, but my father was afraid to meet me after ditching us. He had a whole new family, which was painful for me. I eventually went out to meet him and my half-sister and brothers.

JW: How did you feel?

WS: I was angry. When I arrived, there were four shiny new bikes on the porch. My sister and I never had a bike. I confronted him. I said, “Why did you leave me and my sister, and why didn’t you ever contact us?” He started crying, saying he was no good and went wherever the wind blew. He said his present wife straightened him out.

JW: Pretty traumatic, yes?  

WS: Yes. It affected deeply—the abandonment, not being good enough, the rejection. However, telling him off helped me let it go But all of it scarred me. I think I was most surprised that he wasn’t particularly nice or handsome. I knew as a child that someday I was going to meet my dad and that he’d look like Errol Flynn. That was hardly the case. He did have a good singing voice, though.  

JW: How did you start singing professionally?

WS: With my father gone, we were really poor. So I often sat on our porch steps and sang to entertain myself. In high school, I got a part-time job being a principal’s assistant at another school and sang in the gym. I also listened to singers on the radio—we couldn’t afford a TV. I loved to sing and just knew I had to become a singer. I did have to take care of my sister, Sharon, though, who is three years younger than me. I had to grow up fast.

JW: When did you start singing at local clubs?

WS: One day I called up LaRue’s, a local club, to find out how I could get a singing job there. I went in and my knees were knocking. They let me sing. Then I met a pianist who told me I had to learn better songs. He gave me a list of singers that included Ella Fitzgerald, June Christy and Chris Connor. I was off and running, and fell in love with the “cool school" sound. I found out about local jam sessions and sneaked in, wearing lots of makeup. I also hitched a few places to sit in with jazz musicians.

JW: Who did you sing with?

WS: I went to jam sessions at George's Bar and Orchid Room [above], a black club. I got to know everyone and won a contest to sing with Wes Montgomery. Wes was very nice to me. When we had that contest, he liked what he had heard and told me I was going to win. I did and got to work for a week at the Hub Bub with his trio. Then I worked around Indianapolis with great musicians—David Baker, Buddy Montgomery, Al Plank, Leroy Vinegar and Larry Riddley. Between 1956 and 1960, I was on the scene all the time in Indianapolis.

JW: Did you have a lot of trouble pushing off guys?

WS: I had an aura of “don’t even think about it.” A lot of guys tried to hit on me, but I had grown up tough on the streets and could hold my own. I was spunky. I had learned to fend off sleazy guys all my life, and they came out of the woodwork back then. I was tough.

JW: How did the Roulette opportunity come about?

WS: Pianist Al Plank [right], who I had known from Indianapolis, asked if I wanted to sing at the Roundtable. I said, “Of course” So I traveled to New York shortly after graduating from high school and sang all of my Indianapolis stuff with Al. Peter Kameron from Roulette Records happened to be in the audience. After my set, he handed me his card and said to call him.

JW: Did you think he was on the level?

WS: I was a little suspect, but musician-friends said to call him. When I did, Peter said he wanted me to come in and make an audition tape. So I went in with Al and while I sang he played. Peter said to call him in a few days. When I called, I just assumed he was going to pass. I just wanted to make sure I had a copy of the tape to take home with me. But Peter said, “We’re going to sign you.” I returned home to Indianapolis elated, and Peter sent me a copy of the contract and I took it to a lawyer. I came back to New York to record the album in June 1960. I was 20.

JW: Who chose the songs?

WS: That was a problem for me. I was deeply entrenched in jazz, and they wanted me to be a pop vocalist. But they picked these songs that turned out to be pretty darn good. We also had a few additional songs to add, so the arranger, Bill Russo [above], and Peter took me to Noel Coward’s house. We chatted and talked a bit to see if he had any songs. Then they gave me a master list and told me to learn the songs. Al and I rehearsed for a couple of weeks. But Bill Russo wasn’t a very friendly guy and kind of difficult.

JazzWax tracks: You can try and track down a Japanese print of In Love for the Very First Time—or order a copy from Wanda directly for a lot less. She's making the album available with the complete personnel on each track for  $17.99, with free shipping. You can reach Wanda by email here (put “Roulette album" in the subject line) or mail a check for $17.99 to Wanda Stafford, P.O. Box 486, San Anselmo, Calif. 94979.

JazzWax clip: Here's Wanda Stafford with Bill Evans (p), John Drew (b) and Ed Shaughnessy (d)...

JazzWax notes: Wanda recorded a bunch of fabulous CDs, including Something Cool, from 2011 (go here). She also will be appearing with her trio at the Panama Hotel in San Rafael, Calif., on the second Thursday of each month.

Wanda's other fabulous albums are Songs from the Heart (1995), Let's Face the Music (1997) and Live at Pearl's (2003). You'll find links to the albums and more information about Wanda at her site here.

Tomorrow, Part 2 of my interview with Wanda Stafford.

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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