Sandra Staley Vaporetti / 'Finest jazz singer that's ever come out of Pittsburgh'

Sandra Staley Vaporetti, who played piano with verve, sang an encyclopedic repertoire in a breathy voice and amused audiences with trumpet imitations, died Tuesday at Forbes Hospice in Oakland. She was 69. Ms. Staley, of Brackenridge, suffered from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, emphysema and heart disease since 2004. Starting in the 1960s, the jazz pianist and vocalist performed in dressy gowns and large, dangling earrings at local clubs, including The Balcony in Shadyside and the Holiday Inn in Oakland. Bandstands were her second home because at age 4 she learned to sing in a Dixieland jazz band led by her father, trumpeter Bill Staley, whose side gig was working at a PPG factory. As an adult, Ms. Staley felt so comfortable on stage that when the band took a break, she'd remove her shoes if her feet hurt. Once, she talked trombone player Harold Betters into massaging her stockinged feet, a moment captured in a photograph. When he wasn't rubbing her feet, Harold Betters admired her style. "She is, to me, the finest jazz singer that's ever come out of Pittsburgh," Mr. Betters said. Ms. Staley's warmth added to her strong stage presence. She had blonde hair and stood 5 feet 7 inches tall. In husky shades, she would render the nuances of Cole Porter's ballad "Get Out of Town," then rock through David Frishberg's humorous "Blizzard of Lies." Two years ago, she was inducted into the Pittsburgh Jazz Society's Pittsburgh Hall of Fame. Tony Mowod, host of the WDUQ jazz show that bears his name, knew her for 45 years. "There are very few entertainers around who could make you cry and make you laugh during the same set. I can't think of anyone who knew and respected the music and players more than Sandy," Mr. Mowod said. Chuck Spatafore, a North Hills drummer, met his longtime friend on a KDKA television show in the 1960s and played with her often. "I never heard her have a bad night. When she would scat, it wouldn't be the same thing she did the night before. That's why she was like a horn. She improvised," Mr. Spatafore said. One of Ms. Staley's earlier recordings, "Out of the Ordinary," featured an image of her eyes; one was blue, the other brown. She admired jazz vocalist Carmen McRae so much that she named her daughter, Jenny McRae Vaporetti. During performances, Ms. Vaporetti said, her mother told audiences about who wrote the songs she sang and what made them significant. She often accompanied her mother on gigs, adding, "I fell asleep in a lot of coat rooms." Ms. Staley's brassy sense of humor endeared her to colleagues. She would joke, "My drummer, Chuck Spatafore, worked for Judy Garland. He was her gardener." Pianist Max Leake spent the last 20 years playing with Ms. Staley and, in 2005, produced her last recording, "Everything I Love." At age 15, he sneaked out of his bedroom window in a coat and tie, met a friend who had a car and listened to Ms. Staley sing with pianist Bobby Negri at the Part II club on Route 51. "I thought, 'If I ever get a chance to play with Sandy Staley, I'll have made it.' " Mr. Leake recalled. Obscurity was her forte because she sang tunes nobody ever heard. "She would often say, 'I don't sing the Top 40. I sing the bottom 400,' " Mr. Leake recalled. In the 1980s, Ms. Staley taught voice at Duquesne University, passing on her knowledge to students, who included vocalist Maureen Budway. Another local singer, Michele Bensen, was a close friend. After recuperating from a heart attack in 2004, Ms. Staley played her first gig on Easter Sunday at the Rhythm House in Bridgeville, where she sang the ballad, "Where Do You Start?" "You could hear a pin drop in the room. There was not a dry eye in the audience," Mr. Leake recalled. In her spare time, Ms. Staley loved to play Scrabble and gin rummy, watch "Jeopardy" and enjoy the company of Jake, her bichon frise, a little cotton ball of a dog, plus five indoor cats. Ms. Staley met her crooner husband, Buddy DeCarlo, at the New Era Club in the mid-1960s. His real name was Carlo "Buddy" Vaporetti and he died in 1973 after his daughter was born. Afterward, Ms. Staley moved back to her native Natrona Heights. "Family meant a lot to her. She had many opportunities to leave," Ms. Vaporetti said, adding that offers came from New York City and Boston. Besides her daughter, Ms. Staley is survived by a brother, Jon Staley of Florida.  A memorial service that celebrates her life will be held at a later date. Arrangements are by Thomas M. Smith Funeral Home & Crematory, Blawnox. 


First published on September 4, 2009 at 7:53 am