The Hidden Legacy of Judy Garland’s Recording Career
Updated: Dec 27, 2019
Since her death in 1969, the glow of Judy Garland’s star has only grown more brilliant. She is remembered mostly for her film career, which included the roles of Dorothy Gale in 1939’s The Wizard of Oz, a singular, self-determined heroine who stumbles into a largely unwelcoming land and manages to free it from tandem tyrants (one evil, the other inept), before finding her way safely home not because of, but rather in spite of, a man’s interference; Esther Smith in Meet Me in St. Louis; Hannah Brown in Easter Parade; Esther Blodget aka Viki Lester in A Star Is Born; and Irene Hoffman in Judgment at Nuremburg. She is also regarded as a legendary vocalist. Somehow, however, she is simultaneously remembered as a faded lounge singer who navigated a tune by warbling phrases between brassy, bullhorn belts with vibrato wide enough to drive a truck through. This image surely rose out of Ms. Garland’s periods of vocal difficulty, but they are the exception. It is time to stop remembering her at her worst and start remembering her for what she truly was at almost all times of her short life – a gifted singer and recording artist, and one of the most influential figures in popular singing who has ever lived.
A Star Was Born
Judy Garland was a preternaturally gifted vocalist. Beginning at a tender age, she possessed the voice of a mature woman. Unlike her 1930’s contemporary Deanna Durbin, Ms. Garland was not a juvenile soprano. A child singing very high notes, however sharp or breathy, and approximating coloratura phrasing is an appealing novelty that typically wears off when maturity ushers in an expectation of true expertise. The notable exception to this phenomenon is, of course, the glorious Julie Andrews. Young Ms. Garland was instead a contralto with a deep, rich, voluminous voice that thrilled not because of its prodigious nature, but because it was truly every bit as good or better than that of singers more than twice her age. More than this, she also had an almost unnerving ability to understand and interpret songs with an emotional depth that could not have been, as a teenage girl, informed only by her own life experience. As a mature woman, Ms. Garland’s interpretive skills grew even more profound.
From the Recording Studio to the Sound Stage and Back Again
Modern folklore suggests that Judy Garland was a primarily theatrical performer, but this was not really the case. She never appeared in a Broadway musical. Yes, she performed for a short while in vaudeville, but after the advent of the microphone. From the age of thirteen, her singing was done almost exclusively in the recording studio and on the television or concert stage.
The premier of The Wizard of Oz in 1939 made Ms. Garland a bona fide star. A number of musical films followed. Judy Garland’s recording career, however, was not nearly limited to film soundtracks. Over a span of more than thirty years, she recorded hundreds of songs. She was the original interpreter or closely associated with a list of classic tunes that almost boggles the mind, including, of course, “Over the Rainbow”, but also, “You Made Me Love You”; “Zing, Went the Strings of My Heart”; “The Trolley Song”; “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”; “How About You”; “I Got Rhythm”; “Forget Your Troubles Come on Get Happy”; “The Man That Got Away”; “Fascinating Rhythm”; “But Not for Me”; “Come Rain or Come Shine”; and “More Than You Know,” to name more than a few. She also made a number of celebrated live recordings and was the first woman to win a Grammy for Album of the Year for 1961’s Judy at Carnegie Hall.
How then has history largely forgotten or misconstrued Ms. Garland’s contributions as a singer? Most likely because the public record is rife with inaccuracy.
The Shady Gray Lady
In its obituary published on June 23, 1969, The New York Times (commonly regarded as the “national newspaper of record”) makes scant mention of Ms. Garland’s body of recorded musical work, despite her prolific and award-winning recording career. Unsurprising given popular perception, the Times piece unnecessarily casts her entire career as noteworthy only as a secondary matter and focuses instead on a personal life presumed to be marked mainly by tragedy, a lack of self-determination, dearth of triumph, and paucity of joy. Even Oedipus had his good days, but Ms. Garland apparently did not. In a shocking turn, the Times concludes that Garland succeeded only because, “[m]ovies—which are put together in bits and pieces—do not particularly require rigid discipline.” This comes only after the Times refers to Ms. Garland as a “music hall performer” and imagines that “[i]n an earlier era, or in another society, she might have grown up slowly, developing her talent as she disciplined it, and gone on like other, tougher performers to enjoy a long and profitable career.” We are left to believe that, as a teenager, Ms. Garland carried what is now considered to be the most influential film of all time and continued on for three decades with performances polished to perfection because women in film just don’t have to work that hard and she, apparently in spite of herself, occasionally managed to carry a tune.
To set the record straight – Judy Garland was a stunningly talented singer. Her voice was rich and expressive, and resonated with a fullness that has hardly ever been matched in any singer, male or female, in any popular genre or discipline. This was her gift. She was more than apt as its recipient and caretaker; her well-trained vocal technique (yes, she studied singing) was as refined as it was imperceptible. Take a moment to listen to her performance of “The Man That Got Away” in A Star is Born. The dynamic range that she displays in this performance is exceptional, and when she belts, she never gives into the temptation to yell. At what seems full volume, she can effortlessly sing through to a well-supported soft tone that floats on the breath. By contrast, her performance of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” in Meet Me in St. Louis shimmers with near classical dimension. She is so good it seems likes she’s hardly trying. This is something rarely if ever achieved by any means other than very hard work.
A Voice, Sometimes Weary, But Never Gone
Vocal fatigue is the greatest threat to any professional singer. The rigors of the recording and touring schedules of an elite performer almost by definition require overuse of a very delicate instrument. The human voice relies heavily on breath and anatomical resonance, but at is center is the larynx, which houses two folds of delicate tissue commonly called the “vocal cords.” They will put up with abuse, however unintended, for only so long. Push them too far, and your ability to sing can vanish altogether, whether for a short while or indefinitely. Performers as varied as Maria Callas, Madonna, Frank Sinatra, Luciano Pavoratti, Adele, Mariah Carey, Freddie Mercury, and Elton John have all dealt with vocal injuries that have caused, at the least, cancelled shows, but also extended periods of lost or diminished capacity, and even permanent damage. Judy Garland was no exception in this regard. However, the persistent notion that she, at some point long before he death, ruined her voice but nonetheless persisted is demonstrably false.
In 1963’s I Could Go on Singing, her last film, Garland sang Kurt Weil's "It Never Was You" live on set – something rarely done. With few exceptions, musical numbers in films are recorded in the studio first, and performers lip synch during filming. She has no lush instrumentation to carry her and no option to let the producers edit a single good performance out of the best pieces of however many imperfect ones. She has only a pianist and her voice with the camera rolling. Here, Garland’s voice certainly bears the patina that comes with age, but this live performance makes it clear that she still had a voice very much resembling the one that brought her fame as a girl. Even her final recorded performance of “Over the Rainbow,” caught on tape months before her death, shows that she still had something very special. She was no doubt weary and in need of vocal rest and rehabilitation, but her voice was far from gone.
Judy Garland’s Living Legacy
Judy Garland’s singing style was, at the same time, truly personal and fantastically universal. Her performances were deeply rooted in emotional truth. There was always a sense the she was singing to someone, but even a slight change in tone could reflect a personal, introspective moment. She efficiently used glissandos, sliding between notes – generally cascading downward and scooping upward, and mastered the technique of beginning a belted note with a straight tone and increasing the dynamic while opening up her vibrato, sometimes pulling back to a soft, floating finish. She peppered her interpretations with rhythmic interest, employing subtle back phrasing to speed up or slow down a line during a repeated verse or chorus.
These techniques, in and of themselves, were not unique to Garland, but in her hands, they coalesced into something all her own. Then she gave it to the world, in the form of a blueprint for how to sing popular music. Listen to artists like Liza Minelli (the iconic apple rests nestled in the roots of the legendary tree), Barbra Streisand, Bette Midler, Freddie Mercury, Audra McDonald, Lady Gaga, John Legend, Rufus Wainwright, Sarah Bareilles, Katy Perry, Sam Smith and Ariana Grande, and you hear Judy Garland’s legacy living and breathing around you. During a cheeky but sweet impersonation of Ms. Garland for Saturday Night Live, Ms. Grande’s “Judy” is not so far removed from how a talented young singer at the top of today’s charts naturally sings. These artists, like so many of us, almost certainly heard a young girl singing about a place behind the sun, just a step beyond the rain, and wanted to sing about it, too.
It’s been over fifty years since Judy Garland slipped back over the rainbow. We owe her our thanks. The New York Times owes her a retraction and a long-overdue apology.
If you'd like to hear or purchase my version of Over the Rainbow, go back to the home page and find the music player at the bottom of the page.