Judy at Carnegie Hall, Judy Garland

By Benny Koziol, Staff Writer

Each week, Sunday School takes a second look at a classic album worth revisiting years after its release. EMMIE staff handpick releases that shaped a genre, defined a generation or deserve recognition despite being left in the distance. Keep up with Sunday School for your weekly dose of dusted-off classics and throwbacks that merit a second spin.

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Judy at Carnegie Hall, Judy Garland

Release Date: July 10, 1961

Though there exists a beloved canon of  live albums in popular music, few can boast the title of “the greatest night in show business history.” Enter the tour de force that is Judy Garland’s 1961 double-LP, Judy at Carnegie Hall.

The recording captures Garland in the middle of her welcome-back world tour which had been preceded by several years of seclusion and convalescence. The vaudeville star and actress of Wizard of Oz fame had progressively struggled with her health and drug abuse throughout the ‘40s and ‘50s to much public gossip and ridicule. But by 1960 she was ready to make her triumphant return to public performance.

Judy at Carnegie Hall is the document of a genius performer in the midst of her fiery resurrection. To listen to this concert is to be swept up into a widescreen experience of emotion, history, and culture as narrated by the voice of a master. Two hours of music: twenty-six songs, several encores, and just a brief intermission. Garland and her orchestra, led by conductor/pianist Mort Lindsey, lay out a formidable survey of American popular music, managing to encompass decades of the art form in one night.

But even by 1961, this source material, which included the classic songs of Berlin and Gershwin, was very well-trod. Rock & roll was on the rise and the MGM musicals of Garland’s heyday were long out of style. If her performance was to amount to anything more than yesterday’s hit parade, Garland would have to totally reanimate and reinvigorate the old canon.

And fortunately, the American songbook becomes a wholly new beast in the hands of Judy Garland. She is a vibrant and radical artist who gives urgency to every work she touches. Over the course of the LP, she wails, howls, and croons through staggering feats of musical showmanship. A new, improvisational fury is applied to her signature songs like “Puttin’ on the Ritz” and “Come Rain or Come Shine.” Bombastically sad ballads like “Stormy Weather” are marked by chillingly macabre touches. And often, Garland unexpectedly pares songs down to just her and the piano, sharing hushed, unexpected moments like “You’re Nearer.”

The effect is awe. Judy at Carnegie Hall is delightfully entertaining from beginning to end, well-paced and full of nuanced offerings. Garland barrels through the daunting set list with remarkable stamina and ceaseless passion. More so than the typical performer, she seems to truly give something of herself through the very act of her singing. By the end of the concert, you feel as if she has truly imparted her very nature to you and the audience.

It’s telling that throughout Garland’s career she expressed an often intense, rapturous love for that audience. She once said she wanted to prove it “by giving them blood.” In Judy at Carnegie Hall, she speaks to her crowd like an old friend, sharing all kinds of laughs and intimacies. The audience begins to chant at the outset of the encore, requesting their favorite songs. Garland joyously shouts over the din, “I know! I’ll sing them all and we’ll stay all night!” You can practically hear her soul lift to another altitude.

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