“Forget your troubles, come on, get happy!” exhorts the song by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler. Ruth Etting, “America’s Sweetheart of Song,” introduced the anthem in 1930 as the finale of Broadway’s short-lived The Nine Fifteen Revue. But as soon as a svelte Judy Garland performed the song against a painted backdrop of white clouds on a pink sky for 1950’s MGM musical Summer Stock, “Get Happy” belonged to no one else. After all, Koehler’s lyrics could have been written for Garland, epitomizing her can-do spirit in the face of adversity with a revivalist fervor. That kind of excitement radiated from Garland, electrifying filmgoers and those lucky enough to have seen her live in concert. Garland’s stature in the pantheon of American song (and cinema, for that matter) is unquestionable, but even today, 45 years after her untimely death at the age of 47, there remains a fascination with the more lurid aspects of her private life. A thrilling new collection from Doremi Records’ new Hallow label places the focus squarely where it should be: on Garland’s art. As a first-of-its-kind document of both her final months and her earliest days, the 3-disc limited edition Swan Songs, First Flights: Her First and Last Recordings presents three Garland concerts from 1968 and 1969 as well as selections recorded between 1929 and 1940. In total, the set includes nearly four hours of music. The vast majority of these recordings are new to CD, and the painstakingly restored sound gives new life to even the material that will be familiar to longtime collectors.
Though the First Flights of the title are doubtless significant, the three concert performances, or Swan Songs, are at the heart of this set. They present Garland in very different venues – a stadium, a nightclub and a concert hall. By this point in her career, she had a vast repertoire of music from which to choose (just see the recent JSP Records Creations set of songs she introduced, or for that matter, JSP’s The Garland Variations which collected songs she recorded more than once), and only three songs figure in all three set lists: “For Once in My Life,” “The Man That Got Away” and inevitably, “Over the Rainbow.” The quality of Garland’s performances here gives the lie to the belief that she was incapable of delivering at this stage in her life – and proof that there were still triumphs amidst the well-documented troubles of her final months. Of course, any live recording from Judy Garland will inevitably be compared to Judy at Carnegie Hall – not just her greatest live album, but perhaps the greatest live pop album of all time. Though these programs are of a different nature than that triumphant Capitol Records LP, they’re captivating additions to Garland’s cherished live discography and fully capture her unparalleled gifts at communicating both sheer, unbridled optimism and devastating heartbreak in song.
The first disc premieres Garland’s final American concert on CD, from July 20, 1968 at Philadelphia’s now-demolished John F. Kennedy Stadium. It’s fitting that the performance took place in the City of Brotherly Love; Garland’s first U.S. concert was also held there, on July 1, 1943 at the Robin Hood Dell. The show finds her in strong voice and high spirits, and indeed, she was greeted with acclaim by the local press. The audience’s warmth and affection radiate from this disc, which features the orchestra under the direction of Gene Palumbo.
Despite playing to a stadium, Garland opened her show with the deliberate slow-burn of Ronald Miller and Orlando Murden’s “For Once in My Life,” building in intensity to the crescendo her fans expected, all steely resolve and determination. Garland’s life and art are inextricably intertwined; in the moments when the lyrics seem to most explicitly reflect her life, the effect can be chilling, but listening to these concerts is truly more joyous than discomfiting. There’s plenty of zing!, whether courtesy the sheer power of the “Almost Like Being in Love/This Can’t Be Love” medley, her swinging take on Frank Loesser’s Greenwillow ballad “Never Will I Marry” or Antonio Carlos Jobim’s bossa nova treat “How Insensitive.” Notwithstanding some notes in which emotion trumps technical perfection and a flubbed “That’s Entertainment” (“There always have been too many words to this [song],” she quips mid-song), Garland nonetheless seems in total control.
“I love intimate rooms,” she deadpans to the audience’s chuckles at one point before launching into a quiet, controlled reading of the Gershwins’ “The Man I Love.” It proves a respite following the thunderous, martial “What Now My Love.” (Both songs were accompanied by Palumbo’s solo piano.) There’s palpable frisson to her belted “By Myself,” which lends the 20,000-capacity stadium an intimacy that only a master artist could conjure in so vast a space.
This disc pairs the JFK Stadium concert with a number of bonus tracks also from 1968 including a medley performed with Count Basie from the same concert but left out of the proper sequence (likely due to its low fidelity), a couple of private rehearsal tracks with John Meyer on piano (including another rendition of “For Once in My Life”), and selections from a New York City tribute to Harold Arlen, Vincent Youmans and Noel Coward. The Meyer tracks show that Garland’s instrument was far from tattered; she sings with elegance and delicacy. The great Jay Blackton (original conductor of such Broadway musicals as Oklahoma! and Annie Get Your Gun) conducts the Arlen tribute tracks including a loose, playful “Get Happy,” with a special treat in the form of Arlen accompanying Garland and orchestra on “Over the Rainbow.”
The second disc of Swan Songs, First Flights premieres an expanded concert from Garland’s near-mythical residency at London’s Talk of the Town from December 30, 1968 to February 1, 1969. This engagement was most recently dramatized in less-than-flattering terms in the play End of the Rainbow but here is the “real deal.” A number of the shows were recorded separately by Garland’s onetime companion John Meyer and Mickey Deans, who would marry the star on March 15. Here, then, is a composite performance from those tapes, including some material new to CD, in the best sound possible. That the Talk of the Town engagement was tumultuous is without question; Garland battled illness, lateness, and even hostile audiences. But there can be little doubt that the performer once again gave her all when able; witness the playful “Get Happy” or nuanced “The Man That Got Away” here. Garland sounds ebullient and comfortably nostalgic revisiting her MGM days with the audience sing-along medley of “You Made Me Love You,” “For Me and My Gal” and “The Trolley Song.”
Even when performing (and occasionally, struggling) with an unfamiliar orchestra led by the club’s resident musical director Burt Rhodes, Garland persevered with her gutsy, brash and searing stylings. Her vocal instrument here is audibly weaker than in Philadelphia, but her interactions with the audience – loose, quick-witted, and in the moment – are happy compensation. If she could make a stadium as intimate as a nightclub, she could make a nightclub feel as grand as a stadium with her to-the-rafters belt and vibrant enthusiasm.
Additional performances from Talk of the Town (including a reprise of “I Belong to London” and the spirited January 29 “I’d Like to Hate Myself in the Morning” with composer Meyer joining Judy) have been appended. In his fine essay – one of four accompanying this collection – audio restoration engineer John H. Haley observes that even if Garland’s voice during the composite Talk concert sounds less fresh than in the other live recordings, she hits “what might be her highest recorded note, D5” at the end of the bonus performance of the “You Made Me Love You/For Me and My Gal/The Trolley Song” medley. Though the sound quality is substantially weaker than that of the main program, the Talk extras are worthwhile as they make clear that Garland never gave the same performance twice. (Even the patter, while similar, isn’t identical as she jokes with the audience.)
Three performances from ITV’s Sunday Night at the Palladium taped during the Talk tenure (including a rough “For Once in My Life”) and two home recordings from a bit earlier (May 1967) round out Disc Two’s offerings. The new-to-CD home recordings are particularly fascinating. The freeform spoken word-with-piano lament “How Do You Feel” (lyrics by Garland) and the raw reading of Porgy and Bess’ “My Man’s Gone Now” both offer insight into the artist’s fragile state of mind at the time.
The Copenhagen concert of March 25, 1969, featured on Swan Songs, First Flights’ third and final disc, turned out to be Garland’s last ever. As remastered here from a high quality copy of a live broadcast tape provided by Danmarks Radio, it’s revelatory both in performance and sound. Following the Overture as conducted by Tony Osborne, Garland emerges refreshed, assured and spontaneous on her playful opening “Get Happy. It’s an admonition that likely was impossible for those in attendance to refuse, as unmistakable vitality pulsates through this concert. There’s a bit more of an edge and a ferocity to “Just in Time,” but also a touching world-weariness to “The Man That Got Away” and a childlike vulnerability to “Over the Rainbow.” The latter makes for a beautifully touching, altogether fitting finale to a rapturously-greeted performance which is now free of the broadcast’s voiceover narration which has been included on past unofficial releases.
The concert is followed by Hans Vangkilde’s interview with Garland for Danmarks Radio which was taped the next day, on March 26. “Do you have a feeling that you have had a rich life?” he asks Garland. “No. Not until now,” she answers. “I think it’s been an interesting life. I love always giving performances to audiences…” She’s astute and down-to-earth during the interview, manifesting her great sense of humor, her apparent happiness with husband Mickey Deans, and the love of her fans which clearly sustained her. Deans accompanies her on piano for “When Sunny Gets Blue,” one of two tracks from a June 15, 1969 rehearsal at New York’s Half Note Club – one week before her passing on June 22.
This collection concludes with eleven “first flights,” also superbly restored by Haley. These include selections from short subjects dating as far back as 1929, with Garland’s voice purely youthful, and the 1935 Decca test acetate in which the precocious vocalist finally sounds like “Judy Garland.” Her mother, Ethel Gumm, plays piano on these performances of “Bill” and a charming medley of “On the Good Ship Lollipop,” “The Object of My Affection” and “Dinah.”
Credit is due to both producer Lawrence Schulman and engineer Haley for their herculean work in bringing the sound quality of these vintage recordings up to a high standard. While sonic deficiencies in the source material are inherent, the music as presented on Swan Songs, First Flights finally can boast of corrected speed and pitch; noise removal, too, has been applied tastefully. Schulman and Haley’s excellent essays are joined by similarly illuminating pieces by The Judy Room‘s founder, Scott Brogan, and John Meyer in the slipcased set’s 20-page booklet.
Swan Songs, First Flights offers an abundance of reasons for Garland fans and collectors to “get happy.” If it’s all too bittersweet listening with the knowledge that the three concerts here were among the beloved artist’s final ones, the emphasis on this lovingly curated collection is on the sweet. One might even say it offers “four hours of POW!”…as only Judy Garland could.
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