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Interview: Wanda Stafford (PT. 2)


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Wanda Stafford
Wanda Stafford's album In Love for the Very First Time was arranged by Bill Russo and recorded in June 1960—between Russo's School of Rebellion and Seven Deadly Sins for Roulette, with virtually the same band. One of the exceptions was the inclusion of Bill Evans, a quiet period for the pianist during which he played New York clubs with his trio while picking up sideman recording dates for extra cash.

For her part, Wanda's phrasing and swing on the album—her first, at age 20—are superb. Her voice has a husky, breathy sound akin to June Christy and Chris Connor. Russo's arrangements are inventive, and the band assembled was terrific: 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).

But why wasn't there a followup to this album? Here's Part 2 of my two-part interview with Wanda...

JazzWax: Why was Bill Russo so difficult to work with on your Roulette album?

Wanda Stafford: Arrangers want you to work around their arrangements. I don’t think he ever heard me sing, so he just arranged the way he saw fit, and it was my problem to figure it out. I rehearsed the songs for a couple of weeks with my friend, pianist Al Plank. When I ran them down at Bell Sound Studios, Russo said, “You have to fit in the spaces. You can’t be behind the beat.” It was my nature to come in behind the beat. That’s when I realized it wasn’t going to be a straight-ahead jazz session but a jazzy pop album. I was a bit upset. I thought to myself, “So this is going to be Wanda Stafford accompanies Bill Russo’s Arrangements?” Bill wanted the record to be wild and crazy behind me. Fortunately, I could pull it off.

JW: Had you heard his arrangements prior to arriving at the studio?

WS: No. I walked in cold and nailed it. We recorded from 7 to 11 p.m. over two nights in a row. Back then, you didn’t have all these electronic mixes. I was live with the band, isolated in the studio by acoustic baffle panels.

JW: Was Al Plank on piano?

WS: No. I was a young girl from Indianapolis then. I asked innocently if Al could be the pianist. They said, “No. We have Bill Evans” [above].

JW: What did you tell Plank? WS: I said, “Al, I tried to get you on the date but they said they have some guy named Bill Evans.” Al flipped, since he knew of Bill by then. I had no idea who he was.

JW: What was it like to work with Evans?

WS: I was isolated in the studio, but I remember that Evans got up and left a lot, and we had to wait each time for him to return. I knew the guys on the date were good, but I didn’t know their reputations yet. I was a kid. [Above, Bill Evans in 1960]

JW: How did you feel after the first night?

WS: I couldn’t sleep. I was so excited by those arrangements. It was the first time I had a sleepless night from being pumped and wired.

JW: Did you become pals with anyone on the date?

WS: No one was really friendly. Russo ran a tight ship. I went there with my Thermos of warm water, honey and vinegar, and went to work. I knew the songs inside and out. When Russo threw me curves where the tempos slowed in places, I had to watch him carefully. A few times he gave me freedom. After the horns had their say, Bill Evans often had the background parts. To me it was just another gig, and I figured I’d find my spot and did. [Above, Eddie Bert]

JW: In the studio, were you wearing a headset?

WS: Yes, I had headphones on and read down the arrangements, since I could read music. We ran each song down once and then recorded. The band was so professional, and I was pretty well rehearsed on the songs. We didn’t need to fix anything after. They were all first takes.

JW: No editing?

WS: The only edit was on I Only Have Eyes for You, which I recorded with just Bill Evans, John Drew and Ed Shaughnessy [above]. When I received the album, there was an annoying flugelhorn that had been overdubbed. I was pretty upset and called producer Peter Kameron, who told me that Bill Russo had overdubbed the part. For years people thought it was Burt Collins and part of the session. It wasn't. The horn eats into my vocal and eclipsed Bill Evans. A shame, really. Peter told me it wasn't Burt but Russo, who overdubbed himself. It's so disruptive. I have no idea why he did that.

JW: Other than that, was everything else straight-up?

WS: Yes. I was paid $600 for the session. Richard Kollmar, Dorothy Kilgallen’s husband was at the session and became my manager for a short time in New York. But Peter was able to land me with the William Morris Agency, which booked tours. I had to go on the road to promote the album, so I did. In Winnipeg, Canada, I played at a big Chinese restaurant where there was a floor show. Agents at William Morris told me they had a singer up there who was different and asked me to check her out. [Above, Richard Kollmar and Dorothy Kilgallen]

JW: Who was it?

WS: Barbra Streisand. Wow, what a voice.

JW: How do you know who was on the date? The LP didn't list the musicians, nor did the Japanese CD.

WS: A jazz critic from Japan got in touch with me years ago. He said that EMI Japan was reissuing the album on CD. I said to him, “Why me?” He said people there loved the album. I told him that I didn’t remember all the names of the guys on the date. He sent me the names that he had translated from the Japanese. When EMI bought the rights to remaster the album, they had the old files.

JW: So what happened with your career after such a great start with this album?

WS: I quit. I had a baby right out of high school a few years earlier. My sister was taking care of her while I was in New York, Canada and Chicago, since I was divorced by then. I also was pretty lonesome. I had a daughter crying for me all the time and I was sitting in hotel rooms. That’s when I realized I wasn’t cut out for the road.

JW: What did you do?

WS: I went to my agent and Morris Levy [above], the owner of Roulette, and told them I had to quit and return to Indianapolis. They warned me that I’d never have this opportunity again. I said, “What am I supposed to do? I have no choice.” Female musicians and singers back then had different hurdles than the guys, and not all of these hurdles could be jumped. The heart plays a role. It’s funny, now that I think back, I had the same agent as Barbra Streisand—for one album, anyway.

JW: What did you do back home?

WS: I resumed singing in local supper clubs liek the Lamplighter so I could raise my daughter. Every now and then I would hear my album played on the radio, which stung a little. A few years later, I traveled out to San Francisco on vacation and hung out with a drummer-friend from Indianapolis. He had a gig at the Hungry I. After I auditioned at the club, the owner, Enrico Banducci [above], asked if I wanted to sing there on a steady basis. He said if I ever moved to town, I’d have a job.

JW: What did you do?

WS: When I returned to Indianapolis, I realized I had too many bad memories there. So I moved to San Francisco with my little girl and got a job in a department store. At the Hungry I, I opened for comedians like Bill Cosby, Mort Sahl and Professor Irwin Corey. I also sang at the Playboy Club when Al Plank became musical director. In the 1990s, I began producing my own CDs. [Above, “bunny" waitresses at the San Francisco Playboy Club in 1968]

JW: What was the most gratifying moment of your career?

WS: When my daughter said to me less than a year ago, “Thank you, mom, for throwing away everything for me.” To hear that made it all worthwhile. I’d do it all the same way again.  

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 albums are also terrific—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.

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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