The '50s were a good time for jazz singers, and although Judy Garland was hardly a jazz singer, she matched the work of the best -- Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Mel Tormé -- while she recorded for Capitol, from 1955 to 1964. Working with the best arrangers in the business (Nelson Riddle, Gordon Jenkins, André Previn), Garland crafted many of the best performances of her career, including "Come Rain or Come Shine" and "Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart," the latter a remake of an earlier hit that lost none of its joy and fervor for being recorded when the singer was closer to 40 than 20. The highlight of Garland's Capitol career, however, had nothing to do with studio arrangers; the 1961 double-LP Judy at Carnegie Hall wasn't just a live concert but a massive seismic event on the cultural radar, a critical and commercial smash quickly banishing any whispers that Garland was washed up after a quarter-century in the spotlight. The Essential Judy Garland compiles 20 tracks from her Capitol era, and it does a peerless job of distilling what made her music great during her middle age. "The Man That Got Away" and "Over the Rainbow" appear from her Carnegie Hall concert, while the legendary Riddle sessions at the Capitol Tower are represented with five songs. There's only one oddity about The Essential Judy Garland -- no less than six selections come from Garland's London sessions of August 1960 (some of which only appeared 12 years later). While the best of these, including a stunning "You Go to My Head," are gorgeous, the rest don't deserve pride of place to classic material from her early Capitol LPs like Judy or Judy in Love. Capitol also attempts to rope in collectors by including alternate performances of two songs, "It Never Was You" and "Why Was I Born," that were previously unreleased.
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AllMusic Review by John Bush