Judy Garland opens JSP Records’ new 5-CD box set The Garland Variations: Songs She Recorded More Than Once (JSP 975) with “Everybody Sing,” the kind of rousing showstopper she was practically born to sing. Sessions for the song from MGM’s Broadway Melody of 1938 began when Garland was on the cusp of just fifteen years old, but the power of her vocal instrument was already in place. But even when belting with a force to rival the mighty Merman, there was always something unfailingly intimate – or personal – about a Judy Garland performance. There’s plenty of that intimacy, as well as that power, on this illuminating new set produced by JSP’s John Stedman and compiled and annotated by Lawrence Schulman.
As with so many of her peers, it wasn’t uncommon for Judy Garland to revisit repertoire over the years; after all, these are the recordings through which many of these songs entered the standard American songbook. An arrangement might vary, in great or small ways, and so, of course, would the artist’s interpretation. The Garland Variations presents songs she recorded in the studio on multiple occasions between 1937 and 1962, with 115 tracks (three of which are new to CD) and over 6-1/2 hours of music, These tracks include such signature songs as “The Man That Got Away,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” and of course, “Over the Rainbow,” which is included in five distinct renditions. A number of the most renowned composers and lyricists of popular song are represented, such as Harold Arlen, E.Y. “Yip” Harburg, George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II, Hugh Martin, Ralph Blane, Johnny Mercer, and Harry Warren. There’s also a good amount of so-called “special material,” much of it courtesy MGM’s Roger Edens, one of the more influential music men in Garland’s life.
As she was inarguably the greatest female song stylist to remain best-known for her work on the silver screen, it’s easy to forget that Garland was actually a recording artist before she was a movie star. Her first long-lasting recording affiliation was with Decca Records. Following some abortive test records made in 1935 by the twelve-year old singer (released by JSP on the label’s Lost Tracks set), Decca released two sides by Garland in 1936 and signed MGM’s up-and-coming star the following year. Garland remained at Decca through 1947, and her tenure there yielded 90 recordings from 30 sessions between 1936 and 1947. Her departure from Decca coincided with MGM’s entering the young soundtrack LP market, and so she no longer had the need to re-record movie favorites for Decca as had been her standard practice. With MGM having first right of refusal for her work, she didn’t make any further studio recordings until after her departure from the Hollywood giant in 1950.
Naturally, Garland’s recordings for MGM play a major role here. Not that Garland’s venerated recordings and celebrated onstage performances aren’t all crucial parts of her legend, but her indelible cinematic portrayals informed every aspect of her career. The first lady of the movie musical, Garland brought her visual and dramatic gifts to other avenues of performance, including the recording studio. Cinema brought out her singular blend of the earthy and the larger-than-life.
Hit the jump for more on this revelatory set!
If there’s not as much difference between, say, “(Dear Mr. Gable) You Made Me Love You” for MGM and Decca (both 1937) as there is between “Over the Rainbow” circa 1938 and 1960, the recordings are far from identical. The Garland Variations juxtaposes the original movie performances – often extended; with a larger orchestra; designed for a film with a visual component – with Decca’s singles, made on a more intimate scale and rearranged for the pop marketplace. As the Decca 78 RPM performances allowed Garland a second chance at a song, her interpretation might also be honed or refined. On “Over the Rainbow,” her interpretations only grew more poignant with the passing years.
In 1953, Garland appeared on the Columbia label with four single sides, and crucially, the following year the label released the landmark soundtrack to her film A Star is Born – another project in which she reaffirmed her status as the foremost interpreter of Harold Arlen’s beautifully blue notes such as on the ultimate “saloon song,” “The Man That Got Away.” The original soundtrack recording is one of Garland’s most exquisitely modulated performances, building in drama and anguish with a striking realism. By the time she reaches the climactic “There is nothing sadder than a one-man woman looking for the man that got away,” the effect is shattering. Almost seven years later, Garland re-recorded the song in London in a Norrie Paramor arrangement that stayed fairly faithful to the original chart; her performance is still masterful, but a bit bigger, and at times, both more seductive and more forceful. Both recordings, however, are chillingly effective proof of Garland’s strength as not just a singer in control of her powerful belt and vibrato, but as an actress.
In 1955, she was back in Hollywood signing with Capitol Records. She remained at the Capitol Tower until 1966, recording a series of stellar studio albums with top-tier arrangers including Nelson Riddle and Gordon Jenkins – not to mention live releases such as the Grammy Award-winning, record-breaking Judy at Carnegie Hall. JSP’s set concludes in 1962, the year of her final studio LP released in her lifetime, The Garland Touch. (The record was actually a compilation, drawing on four previously issued tracks and six songs from her 1960 London recording sessions.). Her work with Riddle, in particular, yielded some of the most remarkable singing of her career. His charts, as distinctive as his best work for Sinatra or Nat “King” Cole, likely inspired Garland on records like Judy and Judy in Love, from which this set samples tracks including “Do It Again,” “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart” and “Lucky Day.” Her tremendous joie de vivre is greatly evident on these recordings. Garland’s catalogue is hardly a large one, relatively speaking; compare her 1950s at Capitol to Nat King Cole or Frank Sinatra’s. Between 1955 and 1960, she released just one studio album per year, with two in 1960 – but what’s there was choice. By this stage in her career, even the brightest songs were beautifully shaded, often with a dash of melancholy. (This has accurately been said of another, very different vocalist operating years later in the pop music realm: Karen Carpenter.)
Garland is rightly revered for her emotional honesty while singing – a quality that might manifest itself in great vulnerability or steely determination. It’s that same honesty, and in-the-moment sensibility, that makes The Garland Variations such a compelling project. Had Garland always delivered the same performance, or a reasonable facsimile thereof, the inherent repetition would make for a less than ideal listening experience. She wasn’t a jazz singer, per se, but her instincts as an actor kept each performance fresh or even unpredictable.
The Garland Variations follows such past, landmark box sets from JSP as Creations: Songs She Introduced and Smilin’ Through: The Singles Collection 1936-1947. This box (made possible, like those, due to E.U. public domain laws) premieres three tracks on CD: Take 6 of “Danny Boy” from 1940’s Little Nellie Kelly, and two unique mono versions of “It Never Was You,” from 1960 and 1962, respectively. Like those previous sets, The Garland Variations is well-remastered and packaged in a simple cardboard slipcase, with each disc in its own jewel case with an insert containing liner notes. Schulman provides the introduction, with other essays from historian James Fisher, The Judy Room founder Scott Brogan, Radio France journalist and presenter Laurent Valiere, and Tony-nominated actress Christine Andreas, who recently portrayed the Garland during her tragic final days in John Meyer’s play Heartbreaker. This set is also notable as it doubles as a rare all-encompassing career overview, containing recordings from the vocalist’s MGM, Decca, Columbia, and Capitol periods.
By this set’s conclusion in 1962, the times may have been a-changin’, but Garland’s commitment to a song never did. It’s no wonder that those in the business of telling stories through song – whether Frank Sinatra or Bob Dylan – have paid homage to her art…which is what, ultimately, more than her well-publicized demons, will last. The Garland Variations is a celebration in song of an enduring talent that still burns brightly.