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Jo Stafford, a singer who was a favourite of GIs during the Second World War and had dozens of pop hits in the 1950s, has died at 90. ((Weston family/Associated Press))

Jo Stafford, a singer of the big band era who was guided in her later solo career by Johnny Mercer, has died in Los Angeles. She was 90.

Stafford died of congestive heart failure Wednesday at her home, her son, Tim Weston, said Friday. She had been in declining health since October, he said.

The honey-voiced band singer once had her own TV show and starred on radio, with hits such as I'll Walk Alone, Little Man with a Candy Cigar and Serenade of the Bells.

She sang in the 1930s with the Pied Pipers, a group that later was invited to join the Tommy Dorsey band.

Stafford served up sentimental songs such as I'll Be Seeing You and I Don't Want to Walk Without You to servicemen overseas and became a favourite. She was awarded the nickname "GI Jo."

She collaborated with Dorsey and a new singer called Frank Sinatra in 1940 on a languorous version of I'll Never Smile Again. It was a No. 1 hit for 12 weeks.

"It was a joy to sit on the bandstand and listen to her," Sinatra later said of Stafford.

She sold more than 25 million records in her career, which stretched from 1933 to 1970, when she made her last recording.

Stafford was shy and a "reluctant star," her son said. "She loved making records and really didn't crave the attention of personal appearances."

Studied classical music

Jo Elizabeth Stafford was born Nov. 12, 1917, in Coalinga, Calif., where her father, originally from Tennessee, had come to work in the oil fields.

She studied classical music for more than three years and was cast in a high school production of Robert, until the 1933 Long Beach earthquake destroyed the school.

Then she joined her two older sisters singing pop songs on radio and background music at film studios as the Stafford Sisters.

She met the all-male group the Pied Pipers in a film studio and they sang in ballrooms around the country. She would eventually marry member John Huddleston in 1941, though the marriage lasted only two years.

Dorsey gave her her first solo hit Little Man With a Candy Cigar.

But Dorsey had a falling out with the Pied Pipers in 1944 and they split from the big band.

Stafford left the group to join Johnny Mercer, one of the founders of Capitol Records. Mercer guided her to new hits such as Candy and That's for Me.

During the 1940s, she was a radio star. In 1944 she alternated with Perry Como on a nightly 15-minute radio show.

In the 1950s, she moved to TV, guest starring in variety shows and hosting  The Jo Stafford Show in 1955-56.

Stafford recorded more than 800 songs that included ballads, folk, Scottish, country and novelty.

In 1952 she married Paul Weston, who had been an arranger for Dorsey, and he acted as her arranger and conductor for the rest of her career. Weston died in 1996.

Stafford is survived by her two children, Tim and Amy, and four grandchildren.

With files from the Associated Press