US singer Jo Stafford’s cover of You Belong to Me featured in the very first UK singles chart on 14 November 1952. When Al Martino’s Here in My Heart finally lost its grip on the top slot, Stafford became the first female solo artist to be number 1 on 16 January 1953.
Stafford, born 12 November 1917 in Coalinga, California, caught the music bug from a young age, thanks to her mother’s love of folk music and banjo playing. She began performing at the tender age of 12 and her mother had high hopes for her. For a while she had voice lessons and ambitions to be an opera singer, but the Great Depression put paid to that. While at high school she teamed up with her elder siblings and they were known, obviously enough, as the Stafford Sisters.
They had some success on radio and in film, and it was in 1938 that Stafford met the singing group the Pied Pipers and became their lead singer. The following year, bandleader Tommy Dorsey hired them to provide backing vocals for his orchestra, and they helped propel Frank Sinatra to stardom. Dorsey eventually shone the spotlight on Stafford and awarded her solo performances. In 1944, she left the group and became the first solo artist to sign with Capitol Records.
Like Martino, Stafford’s vocal range was operatic, but there was more to her than that. Among her contemporaries she was considered one of the most versatile vocalists of the 50s and had several hit duets with Frankie Laine.
She had earned the nickname ‘GI Jo’ during World War Two, performing for soldiers stationed in the US, and like Martino’s track, You Belong to Me clearly touched a nerve for those who had suffered through the war.
This romantic ballad was credited to Pee Wee King, Chilton Price and Redd Stewart, but Price wrote the first draft. Originally entitled Hurry Home to Me, he envisaged it as being from the viewpoint of a woman missing her soldier sweetheart during the war. King and Stewart made alterations and made it less specific, providing the song with more of a universal appeal. After all, the war was seven years in the past by this point.
You Belong to Me holds up better than Here in My Heart, and I think the lyrics can be interpreted in more than one way…
‘See the pyramids along the Nile
Watch the sun rise on a tropic isle
But just remember, darling, all the while
You belong to me’
Sounds sweet and lovely at first, doesn’t it, but could these be the words of a worried, paranoid control freak? Could she be issuing a threat to her partner to behave himself while he’s away? Or am I alone in thinking this?!
Despite only topping the charts for one week, its appeal has stood the test of time – Bob Dylan and Tori Amos are among the notable artists to release cover versions.
As for Stafford, she continued to record with her husband Paul Weston (they had wed in 1952), the famous orchestra leader and producer on this track. In 1954, she became the second artist after Bing Crosby to sell 25 million records for Columbia. But by the end of the decade she and her husband were mostly performing comedy songs, which seems like a waste of a great voice to me.
Stafford was offered a contract to perform in Las Vegas in 1959, but she declined and went into semi-retirement soon after to concentrate on her family. In 1977 she and Weston released a cover of the Bee Gees’ Stayin’ Alive.
Weston died in 1996, and Stafford passed away due to heart failure on 16 July 2008, aged 90.
Written by: Pee Wee King, Chilton Price & Redd Stewart
Producer: Paul Weston
Weeks at number 1: 1 (16-22 January)