She had a voice with a tone as rich and heady as fresh maple syrup, yet her delivery had the clarity of cool glass of water. See her here with another immortal vocalist.
I started appreciating her sound in my early 30s, when her version of “Haunted Heart” was used in the title track from the CD of the same name by the Charlie Haden Quartet West. It was Haden’s valentine to the smoky pop ballads from the 1940s, the kind that might appear in a lounge scene in a movie that had lots of shadows and wet streets. His band did a cover version of a song, then segued into the original. Sort of like sampling, but using the entire piece instead of a snippet. Maybe a more respectful approach.
Back in early December of 1992, I was in Deerfield, Illinois for a training seminar. Since the only excitement seemed to be at the Ed Debevic’s across the street, I opted to stay in, read Farewell, My Lovely, and listen to my casette dub of Haden’s CD. When Haden’s version ended with Ernie Watts holding a long minor-key note on his alto sax, the soft vibrato of violins and trilling flutes of the original seeped through. Then Stafford’s voice gently eased in:
In the night, though we’re apart,
There’s a ghost of you within my haunted heart,
Ghost of you my lost romance,
Lips that laugh, eyes that gaze
My eyes were on this passage from Farewell, My Lovely:
She came back with the glass and her fingers cold from holding the cold glass touched mine, and I held them for a moment and let them go slowly as you let go of a dream when you wake with the sun in your face and you have been in an enchanted valley.
I confess it was only my second time reading a Raymond Chandler novel. I appreciated Hammett more all through my twenties, going so far as to attempt some serious scholarship on his work when I wrote my interminably bad graduate thesis on him, Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Allan Poe. Hammett reads better for twenty-year-olds. It’s the intensity and bluntness I think. Chandler smooths all of that out.
But by the time you read Chandler, you’ve probably had to come to grips with a lot of mistakes you made, and you finally start to ache from all your regrets built up during the previous decade of your life. All through my twenties I struggled with finding a career that suited me, finally taking a low-paying, by-the-course job as an adjunct faculty member in the English department of a large university, doubling- or tripling-up on teaching assignments at schools in different parts of the city, and I finished that decade of my life with a marriage that augured in before it even got off the ground.
It’s times like those when you start paying more attention to the dreams you let go when you awaken.
When songs like “Haunted Heart” start to make sense.