The World's Greatest Entertainer. Miss Show Business. The One And Only. Judy Garland was labeled with many superlatives as she hit the heights in her roller coaster of a career. As has been amply documented, she went from being America's Sweetheart into one of the most mismanaged careers in Show Business history and it's astonishing how much she accomplished against such enormous obstacles. Despite her short life and personal troubles, she left behind an indelible legacy in popular music, the impact of which is particularly felt in modern musical theatre, where it's safe to say nearly every single performer — and certainly every single female performer of any note — is deeply influenced by Garland.
At the very least, our modern idea of emotive, conversational singing, (as opposed to, say, classical, blues or jazz) was if not invented, then defined and perfected by Judy Garland. Even in her early career as a juvenile lead at the old MGM, Judy gave her song performances an extra weight and conviction — be it via profound pathos or unbridled joy. This is a skill she continued to develop as her career matriculated (or in a sense, was exiled) to television and concert stages, to the point where her showmanship, song interpretation, musicality and phrasing whipped crowds around the world into a hysterical frenzy unlike anything seen before or since, even as Garland's legendary, once-in-a-century voice began to more frequently exhibit the strain of hard work and hard living. Listening to some of the later work where the voice is less there, it's almost beside the point. Still, though — and even in its most diminished state — Judy Garland's voice was one of the great wonders of the world. Capable of both colossal belting and the sweetest crooning, her vocal beauty and power were limitless. A master at the styles of her era, she could swing a swing and nail a march with the best of them, but never sacrificed her singular expressiveness and always embodied the lyrics with a compelling personal connection.
June 10 would have been Judy's 92nd birthday and her memory continues to be celebrated. Justin Sayre's The Meeting* (of the I.O.S.) presents the fourth annual "Night Of A Thousand Judys" June 16 at Merkin Hall with a host of guest stars performing songs from Garland's repertoire including Sierra Boggess, Sarah Dash, Alison Fraser, Randy Harrison, Jackie Hoffman, Jane Monheit, Julia Murney and Rory O'Malley, directed and choreographed by Jason Wise. As always, it's exciting just to imagine which of Judy's unforgettable classics everybody will be singing.
Click through to read my selections for the Essential Judy Garland On Disc.
1. Judy At Carnegie Hall
There is no end to the accolades that have been hurled at this album, and with good reason. The historic live recording of Judy Garland's April 23, 1961, Carnegie Hall concert spent 95 weeks on the Billboard chart, 13 of them at Number One. It won five Grammys, including Album of the Year and Best Female Vocal of the Year, and has never been out of print. There is no match for the thrill of hearing Judy Garland at the peak of her powers deliver two hours of her best material full-throttle to an ecstatic crowd.
The communal euphoria begins with the goosebumps of the Garland Overture as the audience warmly applauds each of her signature tunes (selected from the dozens of contenders) included in the instrumental. The energy meeting Garland on her entrance is staggering, second only to the energy she returns, beginning with a sort of "Triple Lindy" of opening numbers: her specially enhanced version of "When You're Smiling (The Whole World Smiles With You" and the electrifying pairing of "Almost Like Being In Love" and "This Can't Be Love." What follows is nothing but sensational highlight after sensational highlight, traversing nearly every song or mood you could ask of her, and then some, with aplomb.
As she finishes off the first act with a riveting "The Man That Got Away" and rousing "San Francisco," it's hard to imagine there could possibly be more magic to do. But indeed there is so much more. Bouncing back on with a jubilant "That's Entertainment," Garland proceeds to melt hearts with stunning vulnerability and exquisite beauty in a series of ballads, culminating in the definitive renditions of Noel Coward's poignant "If Love Were All" and Harold Arlen's powerful "Stormy Weather," interspersed with some lighter, more up material including a mind-blowing, nearly hallucinogenic arrangement of "Come Rain Or Come Shine." The final section begins with the seminal medley for the ages of three of her MGM hits, "You Made Me Love You," "For Me And My Gal" and "The Trolley Song" that pretty much slays what left of the audience's brains to the point where even just listening the album, the rapture is almost unbearable as she launches into the histrionics of "Rock-A-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody," then rips hearts open with a religious "Over The Rainbow." She continues with still more fervor in three encores, finally leaving the stage after "Chicago," her rendition of which is so infused with gleeful humor and passion that after you've heard it once, you immediately feel an everlasting spiritual connection to the Windy City, regardless of whether you've ever been there.
It's not so much that "Judy At Carnegie Hall" is the single most important Judy Garland album — even the most casual fan will want more than this alone, but rather "Judy At Carnegie Hall" is the single most important collection of music. At the very least, the very best recordings of rock, hip-hop, jazz and classical would be hard pressed to offer so many representative bests on one recording. Certainly anything in American popular music can only emulate this treasure.
2. "The London Studio Recordings, 1957-1964"
This import is probably the best way to get the wonderful tracks it features, although the bulk of them are available in several other configurations, including as disc three, "The London Sessions" on the box set, "The One And Only." While many of these arrangements are the same or similar as the ones Judy sang at Carnegie Hall, these studio performances, though lacking the unique live audience experience, provide more perfect vocal performances from a slightly younger Judy Garland, who was just at the peak of vocal maturity and artistry and arguably never sounding better. In addition to the Carnegie repertoire, there are such goodies as "I Happen To Like New York," "Lucky Day," "You'll Never Walk Alone," "Why Was I Born?" and the stunning "Judy At The Palace" medley, all knocked way out of the park. Also, this compilation includes stellar soundtrack recordings (and outtakes) from my favorite Garland film, "I Could Go On Singing," namely hands-down definitive renditions of "By Myself," "It Never Was You," the title song and the sui generis Garland classic, "Hello, Bluebird," as well as her scintillating recordings of songs from Lionel Bart's Maggie May.
3. "Judy Garland In Hollywood"
This fabulous compilation album is another one where the tracks are available elsewhere in different combinations, but I am partial to this indispensable grouping. So many of Judy's stellar original film soundtrack performances are represented here, including "Over The Rainbow," "The Boy Next Door," "Easter Parade," "Johnny One Note" and "Get Happy." The voice is as pure and sweet as you could wish and she sails through each of these chestnuts with gusto. This is your grandmother's Judy Garland, and it is sheer delight.
4. "Judy In Love"
I am so grateful this rare Garland studio album from the later era (1958) has been re-released. It's a peak-period Judy singing terrific arrangements of terrific songs in terrific voice. There are some trademark Garland standards such as "Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart," "I Can't Give You Anything But Love," "Day In, Day Out," and a saucy, swing arrangement of "Do It Again" (vastly different from her popular later recordings and performances of the song as a ballad), along with extremely welcome additions to the repertoire, including "More Than You Know," "I Am Loved," "This Is It" and "I Concentrate On You."
Something of a companion piece to "Judy In Love," this also essential 1950s Judy Garland studio album could be thought of as the other's depressed sister. The LP cover's affecting photograph of Judy in a raincoat on a gloomy beach (reproduced for the recent re-release) lingers in your mind as you listen to Judy — with a sob seemingly always imminent in her throat — spin rhapsodic renditions of such standards as "Me and My Shadow," "Mean to Me" and "How About Me?" These are classic songs and Judy gives them classic performances not to be missed.
6. "The Judy Garland Show" (various compilations)
Sadly, there is no complete audio collection of the embarrassment of riches that is the sum of Judy's performances on her variety television series, "The Judy Garland Show." There are, I'm grateful to say, some compilations (particularly the eight-disc series on Savoy Records) and there is the essential complete DVD collection offering the entire experience in excellent quality. It's a shame because the Judy of "The Judy Garland Show" is peak Judy. She sang far too many songs here to list and everyone will have their favorites. Titles that come up a lot are her staggering renditions of "As Long As He Needs Me," "Lost In the Stars" and "Battle Hymn of the Republic." And, of course, there are her duets with her many fabulous guest stars. These feature her magical chemistry in harmony with such greats as Tony Bennett, Lena Horne, Martha Raye and her legendary pairing with Barbra Streisand on several medleys including "Get Happy"/"Happy Days Are Here Again."
7. "The Complete Decca Masters"
This fundamental assembly of the lion's share of Judy's early non-soundtrack recordings is a trove of vocal richness. There are "pop" performances of many of her film hits including "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" and "I Got Rhythm" and then wonderful Garland versions of other great songs of the period, like "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows" and "I Wish I Were In Love Again."
8. "Judy Garland Live!"
Intended as Capitol Records' follow-up to the enormously successful Carnegie Hall album, the live (with audience) taping of this 1962 performance of theatre songs at the Manhattan Center remained unreleased for 30 years, due to Judy’s unfortunate bout with laryngitis. It’s sort of astonishing that the intent was to capture on record definitive performances of material being performed — and performed "live" — for the very first time. It would be like recording an original Broadway cast recording live at a show’s first preview! Thankfully, she got through most of the show on the voice she did have and if it did not produce a hit record, the re-released tracks are still great Garland recordings of a host of showtunes that would become Judy standards such as "Just In Time," "Hey, Look Me Over" and "Never Will I Marry."
9. "Live At The London Palladium" (Judy Garland And Liza Minnelli)
If this iconic 1964 concert represents one of Judy Garland's last triumphs as her career highlights began to dwindle, there's a kind of poetry in the two-hander commemorating the beginning of her daughter Liza Minnelli's stratospheric rise to stardom. This passing of the torch, then, offers far more than a sentimental mother-daughter act. Despite a voice obviously diminished (by an ill-conceived five-hour rehearsal with the orchestra on the afternoon of the show itself), Judy delivers socko renditions of such Garland go-tos as "The Man That Got Away," "San Francisco" and "Chicago," along with striking later period repertoire like "What Now My Love," "Smile" and "Once In A Lifetime." And of course, young Liza is stunning. Best of all are their duets, including "Together Wherever We Go," "He's Got The Whole World In His Hands" and even the Garland-Streisand "Hooray For Love" medley. When the two divas, by audience demand, launch into a reprise of their heart-stopping "Hello, Dolly!" duet, you have reached Show Business Nirvana.
10. "Garland at the Grove"
"Garland at the Grove" is seemingly a very similar set to "Judy at Carnegie Hall" in that it's much of the same repertoire from only a three years earlier. There are some song substitutions, such as "Day In, Day Out", "Purple People Eater," "When the Sun Comes Out" and "A Pretty Girl Milking Her Cow" and even a rare performance of the special introduction to her MGM medley. What really sets this album apart, though, is the intimacy of its setting. Recorded in front of a nightclub audience, you get not only the crowd's reactions to Judy, but also Judy's reactions, in turn, to to the crowd. It's particularly endearing and really makes you feel you're there, to hear the warm acknowledgment in Judy's singing voice when the audience appreciation rises to vocal levels, as it frequently does.
11. "Judy Live at the Palace"
Judy Garland's major concert career was born with this legendary run at Broadway's Palace Theater, a production said to momentarily revive the glory days of vaudeville. You can close your eyes and imagine the glory as Judy sings live her famed "Palace Medley" and her complete "Olio" medley of MGM songs, this time including the special introduction and "The Boy Next Door." There's a ravishing "Liza" and the powerful "Over the Rainbow" may be Judy's best ever.
12. "A Star Is Born" – Original Soundtrack Recording
A couple of the songs from Judy Garland's bigtime post-MGM comeback film can be found on compilations (e.g. "The Man That Got Away," "Gotta Have Me Go With You"), but "A Star Is Born" is really a musical, with a fully mature, totally brilliant Garland singing a dozen or so songs that truly ought not to be missed. Of extreme importance are "Lose That Long Face," "It's A New World" and the 15-minute tour de force "Born In a Trunk" medley that is endlessly entertaining.
13. "At Home at the Palace"
Sadly never released on CD, the intrepid Judy Garland fan can find their way to these tracks. Many turn away from "At Home at the Palace" because by the 1967 comeback engagement, Judy had too far to come back from and was working with less agility both vocally and otherwise. I still love it, though. If Judy has less to share, the fans in the audience seem to give back even more. The way the impassioned crowd erupts for each key change, each money note, is a moving tribute to the love of fans. And don't get hung up on what this Judy isn't; there's still so much she can do. The spirited opening number, "I Feel A Song Coming On," for example — or her heart wrenching rendition of "What Now My Love" are unequaled.
(Ben Rimalower is the author and original star of the critically acclaimed Patti Issues, currently on a worldwide tour. Read more about the solo show here. Visit him at benrimalower.com and follow @benrimalower on Twitter.)