A Classic Portrait of Garland at Her Emotional Height
It was 39 years ago this month that Judy Garland stepped on stage at Carnegie Hall and gave what was one of the most celebrated concerts of the modern pop era.
Garland wasn’t the greatest singer or actress of her time, but she was one of the greatest entertainers. Only Frank Sinatra, perhaps, did a better job of acting out a song’s lyrics, making the words seem the singer’s own story.
Sinatra may have been bruised a lot by some very public heartaches (the failed marriage to Ava Gardner) and career humiliations (the fall from grace after the bobby-sox days), but his wounds were far less severe than those inflicted on Garland, whose role as young Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz” made her the nation’s sweetheart, and whose subsequent career in movies and recordings made her a popular icon.
Biographies of Garland detail how she was apparently victimized by everyone from a dominating stage mother to tough-minded studio executives, and how her personal life was pushed to the edge by drugs and troubled relationships.
As told in Scott Schechter’s liner notes to a new edition of the album recorded at the Carnegie Hall concert, Garland was so worn down from overwork in the late ‘50s that she checked into a New York hospital, where she learned that she was suffering from hepatitis. She was told that she would spend the rest of her life as a semi-invalid. Future films and concerts were out of the question.
After a few months off, however, Garland was back on the concert stage. She toured Europe and then the U.S., concluding April 23, 1961, at Carnegie Hall.
On that night, she was greeted by a star-studded audience that included Spencer Tracy, who defined the protectiveness that Garland’s fans felt for her. “A Garland audience doesn’t just listen,” Tracy once said. “They feel they have to put their arms around her when she works.”
You can sense that devotion in the intensity of the applause at several places in the album, a two-disc package released by DCC Compact Classics in the label’s trademark 24 Karat Gold CD format.
**** Judy Garland’s “Judy at Carnegie Hall” (DCC Compact Classics). The interesting contrast between Sinatra and Garland is that Sinatra worked hard to hide his vulnerability, while Garland freely shared hers.
Because of the melancholy undercurrents of Garland’s life, the emotional highs in this album are all the more stirring--from the resilience of “That’s Entertainment” to the untarnished hope of “Over the Rainbow.”
Similarly, you feel the optimism of “You Go to My Head” even though you know that “The Man That Got Away” and “Stormy Weather” are just around the corner.
“Judy at Carnegie Hall” was released by Capitol Records in summer 1961 and it stayed on the pop charts for nearly two years. It spent 13 weeks at No. 1 (taking over from Elvis Presley’s “Something for Everybody”); it won a Grammy for album of the year.
Garland enjoyed considerable success after the Carnegie Hall album. She starred in her own TV series and enjoyed many more concert triumphs, including a pair of appearances in London with her daughter, Liza Minnelli. But Garland, who died in 1969 at age 47, never matched again on record the emotional heights of the Carnegie Hall show.
**** Emmylou Harris’ “Last Date” (Eminent). This live album is in no way as celebrated as Garland’s. It only reached No. 65 on the pop charts and just No. 9 on the country charts when released in 1982. Indeed, Warner Bros. Records apparently thought so little of its commercial potential that the collection was never even released on CD until now.
But the album is a marvel. Harris is my choice as the greatest female country singer ever, and she’s in top form here. Backed by the Hot Band, she set out in a series of California club dates to capture the spirit of genuine country honky-tonk music on record--and she does it.
Harris didn’t write many songs during the early years of her career, but she had almost flawless instincts for material.
Here, she moves from the robust spirit of Hank Snow’s “I’m Movin’ On” to the starkness of Bruce Springsteen’s “Racing in the Streets” to the comfort of Neil Young’s “Long May You Run.” In between, she showcases a few honky-tonk heartbreak tunes, including Don Everly’s “So Sad (To Watch Good Love Go Bad”) and the old Merle Haggard hit “It’s Not Love (But It’s Not Bad),” which was written by Glenn Martin and Hank Cochran. There are also four songs written by or recorded by Gram Parsons, who was Harris’ chief musical mentor.
This edition of “Last Date” is enhanced by a 16-page booklet, complete with liner notes and lyrics, as well as two bonus tracks.
The daring thing about the album (and perhaps the mistake in commercial terms) is that Harris didn’t include any of her own hits. According to the liner notes, however, Harris and the Hot Band did record a set’s worth of her hits during the series of dates. If those tapes still exist, they would be a wonderful volume two.
*** Emmylou Harris’ “Cimarron” (Eminent). This isn’t another live album, but it is available now for the first time in CD, and it also includes a booklet and a bonus track.
Originally released a few months before “Last Date,” this album didn’t do much better than the live album on either the country or pop charts, and it doesn’t rank among Harris’ essential works.
There are some highlights, including “Born to Run” (not the Springsteen anthem but a song by Paul Kennerley) and “The Price You Pay” (a Springsteen song from “The River”). But much of the album seems formless.
According to Brian Mansfield’s liner notes, Harris’ four albums before “Cimarron” were built around specific concepts, and most of these songs were left over from those projects.
** 1/2 The Byrds’ “Live at the Fillmore/February 1969" (Columbia/Legacy). This live recording is also available for the first time--and not just on CD, but in any commercial form. Recorded a week after the release of “Dr. Byrds and Mr. Hyde,” the album features a lineup of Roger McGuinn on vocals and guitar, Clarence White on lead guitar, John York on bass and Gene Parsons on drums. Unfortunately, it doesn’t include Gram Parsons (no relation to Gene) and Chris Hillman, both of whom left the Byrds after helping shape the country sensibilities of their “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” album in 1968.
Although the music is framed by White’s stylish guitar work, you sense something missing in many of the tracks--and all you need to confirm the suspicion is to hear the more confident and daring country music offered by Parsons and Hillman in the early works of the Flying Burrito Brothers, the band they formed after leaving the Byrds.
Where McGuinn’s voice approaches country from the folk tradition, Parsons reached into the heart of the sentimental honky-tonk style and added a touch of rock bite to it. The result was captivating, where this is merely well-intended.
*** The Allman Brothers Band’s “The Best of the Allman Brothers Band/The Millennium Collection” (Polydor). Speaking of live American rock bands, the Allmans on a good night ranked with the best ever. With Duane Allman and Dickey Betts on guitars, Jaimoe and Butch Trucks on drums, Berry Oakley on bass, and Gregg Allman on vocals and organ, they were hypnotic. They even made long instrumental jams exciting.
Unfortunately, these tracks aren’t live. The Allmans could create magic in the studio, but their real forte was in front of an audience. To experience the band at its most powerful, try “The Allman Brothers Band/The Fillmore Concerts,” a two-disc set taken from five 1971 performances. It includes two songs from this package (“Whipping Post” and “Hot ‘Lana”) as well as a version of “One Way Out” that is one of the great moments ever in blues-rock.
Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent).