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A Lot to Learn from 'Judy at Carnegie Hall'


Tonight at New York's Carnegie Hall, musician Rufus Wainwright is recreating, song for song, a concert that took place there, 45 years ago. The performer: Judy Garland. Her show at Carnegie became a best-selling album that remains influential. With an appreciation of that concert way back in 1961, here is musician David Was.

(Soundbite of Judy Garland)

DAVID WAS reporting:

That Judy Garland continues to inspire artists and fans alike, more than 35 years after her death, is no great surprise.

(Soundbite of Judy Garland singing, When You're Smiling)

JUDY GARLAND: (Singing) When you're smiling, when you're smiling…

WAS: Her powerful pipes and passionate approach to song, were coupled with the charisma that an awestruck colleague once dubbed, a force field that could reach the back of the house.

(Soundbite of Judy Garland singing, When you're Smiling)

JUDY GARLAND: (Singing) But not for me.

(Soundbite of applause)

WAS: As is well known, she reached these heights while battling personal demons, which perhaps, lend an air of additional authenticity to her performances. Judy Garland was keeping it real, long before Kurt Cobain assumed a parallel role for his followers. There was an unmistakable fragility to both of them, which made them seem more proximate to an audience, than singers with more technical expertise and polish. They seemed human. Garland's over-the-top affect and outsider status, have also endeared her to the gay community over the years, which brings the Rufus Wainwright connection into perspective.

(Soundbite of Judy Garland singing, Somewhere Over the Rainbow)

JUDY GARLAND: (Singing) Somewhere…

WAS: Her version of Over the Rainbow is acknowledged to be a veritable gay national anthem but the catch factor alone doesn't explain Garland's enduring appeal, nor that the live recording of her Carnegie Hall concert in 1961, arranged and conducted by Morton Lindsey, garnered five Grammy's and stayed at the top of the charts for 13 weeks.

(Soundbite of Judy Garland singing, Somewhere Over the Rainbow)

JUDY GARLAND: (Singing) Birds fly over the rainbow, why then, oh why can't I?

WAS: The success of this album is evidence of her superior musicianship and an actress's respect to the text and not just the notes of a song. Judy Garland interpreted, long before there was a cabaret scene in Manhattan devoted to the preservation of such values. Arguably, she invented the genre single-handedly. And perhaps most impressively, she could belt with the best as she does on Chicago, but also caress a lyric with a whisper, as she did on Stormy Weather.

(Soundbite of Judy Garland singing, Stormy Weather)

JUDY GARLAND: (Singing) Everything I had is gone, stormy weather.

WAS: She didn't abuse an audience with mere power, nor jiggle notes for the sake of it. Contemporary singers like Christina Aguilera would do well to listen to Judy and emulate her cardinal virtues, taste, and restraint.

(Soundbite of Judy Garland singing, Stormy Weather)

JUDY GARLAND: (Singing) All the time.

WAS: Judy Garland rose from the mat so often she dubbed herself, The Comeback Kid. This self-deprecating star might have enjoyed the irony of her latest revival, which belies her oft-quoted reflection, that behind every cloud, there's another cloud.

(Soundbite of Judy Garland)

JUDY GARLAND: I know, we'll sing them all and we'll stay all night.

(Soundbite of crowd cheering)

BRAND: Judy Garland, from her 1961 concert at Carnegie Hall.

JUDY GARLAND: I don't ever want to go home. I never…

BRAND: Our reviewer, David Was, is half of the musical duo, Was (Not Was).

(Soundbite of Judy Garland singing, Somewhere Over the Rainbow)

JUDY GARLAND: (Singing) Somewhere over the rainbow, way up high. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Was