Bufford and Blythe Celebrate Judy Garland’s 100th Birthday
by Alix Cohen . . .
On June 10, 2022, preeminent vocalists Carle J. Bufford and Stephanie Blythe will appear at Birdland Theater to celebrate Judy Garland’s 100th birthday and benefit the esteemed Mabel Mercer Foundation. Tickets include a 6:30 pm three course dinner and an 8:00 pm show. The combination of talent and opportunity to support cabaret is a win-win situation.
I asked each of the ladies about her relationship to Judy Garland.
Though she grew up in a house filled with instrumental jazz (her father was a jazz musician) and is a well known opera singer (and artistic director of the graduate vocal arts program at Bard College), mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe has always loved the American Songbook. It might surprise some to know she’s long presented concerts in the genre.
She reflects that “Many of the cabaret songs I most enjoy singing were made popular by Judy Garland,” apparently an initially unconscious choice Blythe attributes to their similar taste. She has yet to create a solo Garland show.
The vocalist’s first exposure to (then 17 year-old) Garland was annual television airings of The Wizard of Oz. An interest in classic movie musicals secured Garland’s place in her heart. The Pirate and A Star is Born “I still watch the latter all the time” are favorites. Though she loves “The Man That Got Away,” Blythe favors the nuance of “It’s A New World” (both Harold Arlen/Ira Gershwin). “I’ve collected her music, listened to and been influenced by her.”
An ear for less lionized material is reflected by appreciation of “Cottage for Sale” (Willard Robison/Larry Conley.) She particularly recalls a Garland performance of it from her television variety hour. Blythe is also a devotee of big band music and radio singers from the 1920s- 1940s. Singing “Zing! Went the Strings of my Heart” (James F. Hanley) and “The Joint is Always Jumpin’ (at Carnegie Hall)”, both made popular by Garland, are a pleasure. Blythe performed the last in Carnegie Hall concert.
You won't believe it, you'll think it's a dream
To hear them riffing it, right on the beam
But when you hear trumpets give out a call, you'll know
The joint is really jumpin' down at Carnegie hall
I ask the artist what particularly attracts her to the Garland’s performance. “What I enjoy most about her singing is the vulnerability. Phrasing is always exquisite, she has incredible rhythm, and this insanely beautiful sense of legato…She lets lyrics live in her in the moment, has an innate musicality, and makes excellent choices” – all qualities Blythe strives to maintain. “I don’t try to emulate her, but I notice there are some parts of my voice that sound very like her, it’s just there.” With opera, of course, there’s no opportunity for improvisation or, in fact much stylistic variation.
Did awareness of Garland’s life affect the way Blythe heard or performed the songs? The answer is “no.” The vocalist tries “to look at songs in a pure way.” She often explores the lives of people who wrote them, history at the time; context, other influencing factors, but thinks of material as “canvas for one’s own experience.”
Stephanie Blythe closes with anticipation of the event. “I can’t wait to sing with Carole J. Bufford. She has an unbelievable voice, is a colossal stage animal and she’s funny as hell.”
Carole J. Bufford
“There was never a time I wasn’t aware of Judy Garland. My dad was a big fan. Music filled the house. I received my first (Fisher Price) microphone on Christmas at the age of three and began singing Judy and Liza songs. The first song I sang in public was the Garland arrangement of “Rock-a-by Your Baby
with a Dixie Melody.” (Jean Schwartz/ Sam M. Lewis and Joe Young) Bufford has been performing professionally since childhood; this was likely as a precocious adolescent.
As with Stephanie Blythe, The Wizard of Oz was paramount. She favors Summer Stock and For Me and My Gal interestinglyfor the same reason as Blythe loves The Pirate- Gene Kelly.
“Judy strove for perfection. She had an out of this world voice, but I’d say she was perfectly imperfect. The voice was almost secondary to communication, her connection with an audience. I love watching videos of her live.” The artist prefers later Garland, especially the television show. “She’d been around the block and had grit in her voice.”
Bufford thinks she may have inadvertently picked up some gestures which “live rent free in my head”, but never imitates. “I sing as if the experience was mine.”
Because her dad also collected biographies of entertainers, the vocalist was aware of Judy’s struggles all along. Later, fully comprehending tragedy in the icon’s life didn’t influence the way Bufford performed Garland’s songs, but it did affect the experience of watching her.
I ask for examples of songs she requested to sing: “The Man That Got Away” (Harold Arlen/Ira Gershwin) “because it’s a perfect song” and “After You’ve Gone” (Turner Layton Henry Creamer) because I’ve been singing it since the beginning of my career. It’s a standby, a friend.” When the ladies exchanged preference song lists there were surprisingly no crossovers.
For years, Bufford wouldn’t perform “Over the Rainbow” feeling no one should touch it. (Julie Wilson felt the same way.) “The idea of being compared to garland terrifies me.” Asked to sing it at Lincoln Center with full orchestra, however, she found the opportunity impossible to refuse…and has followed up with an annual appearance including the number. “The only songs that I'd consider off-limits to me now are those that are out of range (either vocally or characteristically) for me. There are a few I know I'll eventually get to, I just haven't found my take on them yet."
Duets will include one that’s in the style of Garland’s television variety hour and a new medley perhaps featuring movie songs. Imagine the mutual admiration society sharing melodies.
“Stephanie Blythe gave the most enthralling nightclub performance- Tender Trap at 54Below- I’ve ever seen. Her voice and presence overwhelmed me completely. I literally (no joke) wept from the moment she opened her mouth to the very end of the show. I couldn’t be more of an admirer, more excited to work with her.” Carole J. Bufford
Birdland Theater 315 West 44th Street