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Arts & Music

Jim Stafford returns to his roots

Special Correspondent
Published:   |   Updated: March 19, 2013 at 09:56 AM

Jim Stafford is becoming the singing snowbird.

"Yeah, I like that title," says the entertainer who gave us the 1970s songs "Spiders and Snakes," "My Girl, Bill," "Swamp Witch" and "Wildwood Weed."

After 22 years in Branson, Mo., at his own theater, Stafford plans to spend about three months a year in Winter Haven, where he grew up.

"It makes sense to come here in the winter, when the weather can be rough in Branson and the snowbirds are flocking to Florida," he said in a telephone interview. Stafford has bought a home in Winter Haven and is playing venues in the Tampa area now through March, including a performance at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater on Sunday afternoon.

Stafford, who hosts more than 300 shows a year at his Jim Stafford Theater in Branson, also is bringing his family friendly show to Winter Haven's recently renovated The Ritz on Central, a historic theater, Feb. 2 through March 17.

"I'm thrilled to be coming back to where it all started," Stafford says.

"When I was a kid, my father took us to the Ritz theater to see a movie every weekend until I was about 12 or 13. I remember one night when he found a dollar on the way to the theater and spent it on a raffle ticket at the movie and he won a Studebaker."

Now, his grown children, daughter G.G. and son Sheaffer, are part of his show. Both play piano. G.G. also plays the harp, and Sheaffer also plays a fiddle. Stafford's wife, Ann, helps run the Branson theater.

"I got my first break in Clearwater back in the '70s when I was playing a little beach bar and introduced a song that I wrote, 'Swamp Witch,' " he says.

The song, about a woman named Black Water Hattie who saves an Okeechobee town from a plague, was inspired by Stafford's childhood near Cypress Gardens.

"Florida has so many lakes and swamps, and at night these can be amazing places with scary sounds," he says. 'Swamps are America's jungles, and the story of an old mysterious swamp woman who is misunderstood just seemed like a natural."

Stafford says he was performing the song at that beach bar when a former classmate from Winter Haven High School, Kent LaVoie, was in the audience. Stafford, LaVoie and another Winter Haven High friend, Gram Parsons, had performed together in a band called "The Legends."

"We sure weren't legends back when we were in high school, but LaVoie became Lobo and had a hit with 'You and Me and a Dog Named Blue,'" Stafford says. "And Parsons had a national career going with several bands, including The Flying Burrito Brothers.

"LaVoie liked 'Swamp Witch' and helped me get it recorded in Atlanta," he says.

The song made the U.S. Top 40 in July 1973 and put Stafford in demand. In 1974, his amusing song about a boy who teases girls with "Spiders and Snakes" made it to No. 3 on Billboard's Hot 100. It sold more than 2 million copies.

Stafford's career soared during much of the 1970s. He hosted "The Jim Stafford Show" on ABC in 1975. He appeared on numerous TV music specials, variety shows and talk shows (he was a "Tonight Show" favorite). He also co-hosted "Those Amazing Animals" with Priscilla Presley.

He worked with The Smothers Brothers and was in Clint Eastwood's "Any Which Way You Can." A marriage to country singer Bobbie Gentry produced a son and ended in divorce.

Because of his outgoing personality, sense of humor and success with novelty songs, Stafford has been tagged as a comedy performer. His first love is the guitar. Self-taught on guitar, fiddle, piano, banjo, organ and harmonica, he's produced two classical guitar music albums.

"I used to sneak a guitar into the high school band room and play when no one was around," he says. "I still have the same passion for guitar that I did when I was 12.

"On stage, I'm like a comedian who can sing, and it's a thrill to be back in Florida where it all started," says Stafford, who turns 68 this month.

"I've had my ups and downs, but I've enjoyed it and consider myself lucky to have the opportunity to perform," he says.

JIM STAFFORD

Concert preview

When: 1 p.m. Sunday

Where: Ruth Eckerd Hall, 1111 McMullen-Booth Road, Clearwater

Tickets: $18 and $25; (727) 791-7400 or http://www.rutheckerdhall.com/

 

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Stafford performs Thursdays and weekends Feb. 2 to March 17 at The Ritz on Central in Winter Haven. Tickets are $9.95 to $30; (800) 677-8533.

 

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