Joan Ellison singing "The Boy Next Door."

Pluck Your Heart Strings Raw With Joan Ellison Singing Judy Garland March 25

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In 1935, teetering on the edge of an enormous Hollywood career, a 13-year-old Judy Garland performed an aching, haunting rendition of “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart” on the Shell Chateau Radio Hour. It was her first professional performance of the song, and it was from the last performance that her beloved father, Frank Gumm, would hear before he succumbed to complications from meningitis at the tragically young age of 49.

Garland is one of the great performers of the twentieth century, perhaps most famously known for her ethereal portrayal of Dorothy in the 1939’s iconic The Wizard of Oz. Aside from being remembered for her incredible pipes and charming demeanor, Garland’s memory is also shrouded in tragedy. She developed a lifelong dependency on (initially) studio prescribed amphetamines and barbiturates from an early age; she suffered from numerous nervous breakdowns; and attempted to take her own life more than once, passing away after an overdose of secobarbital in 1969 at the age of 47.

“It’s been said that (Judy Garland) had a lot of tragic things happen to her, but that she was not a tragic person,” said Joan Ellison, an instructor of popular song at the Cleveland Institute for Music. “Every time you hear the people who were around her talk about her, they say that she was bubbling over with joy all the time, that she was always joking. She brought that joy to her audience and to her friends and family.”

Saturday, March 24 at 7:30 p.m. Ellison will bring her renditions of Judy Garland classics to the Ariel-Ann Carson Dater Performing Arts Centre in Gallipolis, performing alongside The Ohio Valley Symphony. Ellison will open her portion of the show with “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart.” Tickets are $12 to $24.

Ellison has been a fan of Garland – and “old-fashioned things” in general — since childhood.

“I had a Wizard of Oz record when I was only two years old, and it’s the first album that I remember, and Judy is the first singer I remember,” she said. “I think even at two, somehow, I tapped into the sense of longing that you could hear in her voice on “Over the Rainbow,” and it just really hooked me and really defined to me what it was to sing a song at that age.”

Ellison’s father is a professional jazz guitarist, so she was surrounded by music constantly as a child, although most of it was of the bop variety of the latter part of the mid-century. She said that she is drawn to the music of the earlier portion of the twentieth century because of its structural and stylistic integrity.

“In my day job, I teach all kinds of popular music: punk and contemporary pop and country; but this particular era, from the ‘20s to the ‘60s, was a golden era for songwriting in so many ways,” said Ellison. “It’s an era in songwriting that is really comparable to the Shakespearean era of playwriting in Britain. For lots of reasons, songwriting just flourished, and the level of writing and the complexity of the music – both technically and emotionally — is a confluence of many types of wonderful things. Not that people aren’t writing amazing songs right now – it’s just that during that time period, some really great songwriting coincided with being the truly popular music of the day.”

Ellison has been working with vintage songs for over 20 years, and she said that Garland’s work continues to intrigue her.

“She evolved stylistically a lot from the mid ‘30s to the mid 60s; and didn’t die until 1969, and was singing up to the end. She sang a lot of styles, and a lot of styles came and went, but her vocal hallmark brought to these songs something no one else did,” she said. “There is an incredible amount of vocal athleticism going on – and when I listen to her, she’s acting the song and singing the song; and what she’s doing completely serves the acting of the song. She is really singing – and it has a really direct emotional, visceral effect on her audience.”