Judy at Carnegie Hall: Concert vs. Album

Manuel Betancourt on why Judy Garland’s concert at Carnegie Hall and the live recording are different animals.

“On the evening of April 23, 1961, 3,165 privileged people packed the world famous Carnegie Hall in New York beyond its capacity, and witnessed what was probably the greatest evening in show-business history.

Now YOU will join those privileged few and thrill to the very performance which has been captured live and undiluted in this album. Here is the complete concert. These two records contain rare show-business history, recorded permanently with all the excitement and electricity of that evening. The evening has gone by, but you will be able to relive it many times with this masterpiece.”

So reads the jacket copy for my copy of Judy at Carnegie Hall on vinyl. And therein lies the promise of this recording: You won’t just be getting Judy singing her standards (“Over the Rainbow,” “The Man That Got Away,” “Stormy Weather”) but the sheer vibrancy of what it felt like to be in the audience when the “world’s greatest entertainer” all but tired herself to death performing twenty-five songs that were punctuated by the ecstatic cheers from the crowd. 

Thus, to talk about “Judy at Carnegie Hall” necessarily requires talking about two separate cultural objects: the concert that took place on April 23, 1961 and the album that was released on July 10, 1961. In writing about concert and album alike, I often found I needed to remind myself that to talk about the latter was not the same as talking about the former. That in itself became a thread I explored in my book: what does it mean for a recorded live album to so promise such proximity to an icon like Garland and to a legendary night like the one that took place in Carnegie Hall (which in itself had taken place in various other cities across the U.S. as Judy toured)? 

But as Judy fans know, to talk about the album is already to talk about its many multiple versions. While the July 1961 vinyl promised “the complete concert,” modern listeners have been able to get access to an even fuller version of what happened that evening. With Capitol Records’ 2-CD release in 1989 (the album has never been out of print), some of the excised recorded content from that night was restored (the DCC Compact Classics 2000 release, meanwhile, presented the concert’s most uncut version to date). These later versions allow listeners to not only hear Judy sing but also revel in the various anecdotes and chatter she regaled her audiences.

What’s most intriguing about Judy at Carnegie Hall’s many incarnations is the impetus to get ever closer to that famed night, to that famed performer. Getting to hear her meandering anecdotes in between songs and even getting to listen in as her band slowly readies for the concert’s jazz section while Judy primes the crowd is now so baked into the spirit of Judy at Carnegie Hall, the album, that it does feel like you were there.

The promise of the album is already a failed one: you can’t ever be there but it’s a testament to Garland’s presence that these newer remastered versions inch us ever closer to that promise on the jacket copy to “relive it many times” in many and all its incarnations.

Perhaps you can never relive that famed night in 1961, but reading through Judy Garland’s Judy at Carnegie Hall will get you closer!

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