New information changes history of Judy Garland’s early years with Decca Records

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Judy Garland signs with Decca Record December 1935

Newly discovered information has revealed that Judy Garland first entered into a contract with Decca Records in late 1935, not August 1937 as previously assumed.

On December 4, 1935, Variety published an article that noted that Judy Garland had been signed as a new artist with Decca Records by the label’s president, Jack Kapp.  This information contradicts the previous “official” Decca Records timeline of Judy’s early association with the label.

Decca’s official story is that Judy signed her first contract with the label after Kapp saw a screening of Broadway Melody of 1938 at the Village Theater in West Los Angeles in August 1937.  He was so impressed with Judy’s performance that he drew up a contract that same night.  That contract was for six months.  On August 30, 1937, Judy signed the contract (being a minor the contract was co-signed by her mother, Ethel) and also recorded her first singles under that new contract, “Everybody Sing” and “All God’s Chillun Got Rhythm.”

Judy Garland at a preview of "Broadway Melody of 1938" at the Village Theater in West Los Angeles in August 1937
Judy Garland at a preview of “Broadway Melody of 1938” at the Village Theater in West Los Angeles in August 1937

The implication is that Kapp either did not remember Judy (explained below) or just wasn’t enthusiastic about signing her until his “ah-ha!” moment when watching Broadway Melody of 1938 in 1937.  According to this 1935 Variety notice, however, Kapp was in Hollywood signing new talent in November 1935 including Judy Garland.

Just a week before that Variety notice, on November 27, 1935, Judy recorded two test songs for the label, “No Other One” and “All’s Well.”  That places Kapp at Decca’s Los Angeles studios when those tests were made.  Although they were “rejected” by the label, they were given catalog numbers and tucked away.  To date, the recordings remain lost.  The official story from Decca about their fate is that they were “part of the label’s contribution to the wartime metal scrap drives” in 1942.*  Since at least the 1940s, Decca has maintained that these tests were rejected and did not result in any action on the label’s part to add Judy to their roster at that time.  Now we know that’s incorrect.

However, those were not Judy’s first tests for the label.  Eight months prior, on March 29, 1935, while still going by the professional name of “Frances Garland” 12-year-old Judy made two test solo recordings and one recording with her two sisters (they were currently performing as The Garland Sisters).  The song “Moonglow” that the three sisters made is lost, but Judy’s two solos (“Bill” and a medley, “On The Good Ship Lollipop/The Object of My Affection/Dinah“) have miraculously survived (read about their discovery here).  Judy’s “Bill” solo was sent to Kapp in New York by Decca’s Los Angeles executive Joe Perry.  Perry was enthusiastic about Judy and on the surviving log, he wrote a note to Kapp, “12 yr. Old Girl I Wrote About, 3/29/35 – Joe.”*  Kapp was either not impressed or maybe he didn’t hear the record at all, because at that point Judy did not receive a contract.

March 29, 1935, Decca Records memo regarding Judy Garland

Getting back to December 1935 and the Variety notice, the question is why would Decca list Judy Garland as one of their new artists if she was not?  She was still mostly unknown to the general public, especially outside of Los Angeles.  She hadn’t made a film yet and to date had only a few national radio appearances to her credit.  In other words, her name wasn’t big enough to be a marketing tool to sell records for the still-new label or to brag about in a trade paper.  But still, Decca specifically noted her as one of their new artists not just by name but also with a quick identification as to who she was.  That identifier is a reflection of the fact that Judy Garland wasn’t yet “a name.”

It should be pointed out that most of the notices in Variety were provided to the paper by the labels, theaters (for Vaudeville), studios, or press agents/departments, and this one from 1935 wouldn’t have been any different.  In other words, this notice came from Decca.  Note that Judy’s listed at 12-years-old when she was really 13 (the year difference was perpetuated by MGM to make Judy seem more precocious).

It’s obvious now that Kapp was impressed with Judy in November 1935 as well as in August 1937.  In 1935 he was visiting Los Angeles and part of his business was to sign or approve the signing of new talent.  He was either at that test recording session or heard the discs later and signed Judy before leaving to go back to New York.  This 1935 trip was likely routine, something Kapp probably wouldn’t have remembered as anything out of the ordinary, but he definitely remembered her impact on him on the big screen in 1937 singing “Everybody Sing” and “(Dear Mr. Gable) You Made Me Love You” (the former was her first recording for Decca after Kapp saw the film).  Considering the impact Judy had on all moviegoing audiences with Broadway Melody of 1938, it makes sense that this is the event that would stick in his mind.  It also makes for a better story: The president of a record label sees a film with a new young singer and signs her.  She becomes a big film star and popular recording artist with the label for a full decade.  Kapp tragically died in 1949 at the age of 47, so it’s unclear if he remembered any details about the 1935 events or not.

"Stompin AT The Savoy" & "Swing Mr. Charlie" by Judy Garland

To further confuse things, a year before that August 1937 event, on June 12, 1936, Judy recorded “Swing, Mr. Charlie” and “Stompin’ At The Savoy” at the label’s New York studios.  She was in the city for an MGM promotional tour.  She was backed by Bob Crosby and his Orchestra.  The two songs were released as a single in July 1936.  These are considered to be Judy’s first “official” recordings made for Decca but the session and subsequent single release, per Decca, did not result in a recording contract.  It has always seemed odd that Decca would have Judy record two songs, release them, and still not put her under contract.  It’s also odd that considering his apparent previous enthusiasm (1935) for Judy and then his later enthusiasm (1937) Kapp wasn’t enthusiastic about her in the interim when she was in New York recording at their studios (1936).  Maybe he was out of town.

What might explain this anomaly is that her contract from November 1935 was “per-side” (per-song) but for whatever reason, she didn’t record anything until June 1936.  Later contracts Judy had with the label were indeed for a specific number of sides (see below) and not bound by any time constraints (excepting that 1937 six-month contract and a three-year/48-sides contract dated April 1, 1944).  If Decca had created a six-month contract with Judy in late November 1935, that contract would have expired before those June recordings were made, unless she had been signed per-side.

It’s also possible that from late November 1935 through August 1937, Judy was actually still associated with the label either through a succession of now-lost contracts for a number of per-side recordings or now-lost time-constrained contract(s).  Considering what else has been lost, especially from those early years (Decca was still a young company), this is a very likely scenario.

In summary, the real details of the timeline of events are this:

  • March 29, 1935:  Due to the enthusiasm of Decca Records executive Joe Perry (who has recently seen them perform on stage), Judy and her sisters (The Garland Sisters) make tests that are rejected but not before Perry sends a copy of Judy’s solo of “Bill” to Decca president Jack Kapp in New York.  See details of these recordings here.
  • November 27, 1935:  Judy has become a new contract player at MGM.  Decca has Judy come in to make a couple more test records probably at the urging of Perry because Kapp is visiting from New York.  Judy is signed to a per-side contract.  Decca’s press release notes Judy as a “new talent” with the label.  No recordings are made until seven months later (June 1936).
  • June 12, 1936:  Judy’s return to Decca at their New York studios.  She records two songs that are released the following month (her very first Decca single) allegedly without any prior or subsequent contract.
  • August 30, 1937:  Over a year since her initial contract had lapsed, Kapp is back in Hollywood, sees Judy in Broadway Melody of 1938, and is finally as impressed with her as Perry had been, allegedly drawing up her “first” contract with Decca that night, which was a six-month contract.  Judy stays with the label for ten years.

In light of this new information, it’s clear that Judy Garland signed her first contract with Decca Records in 1935, not 1937.  She was just 13-years-old which makes her one of the youngest singers ever signed to a record label, and probably the youngest at that time.

Judy Garland sings Over the Rainbow on Decca Records

Whatever may or may not have transpired between December 1935 and June 1936, and between June 1936 and August 1937, the fact is that Judy was originally signed to a Decca contract in late November 1935.  This earlier date is important not just to set the record straight but also as an example of just how incredibly talented she was at such a young age (13-years-old) and just how that talent was already casting its unique spell on stage audiences (and record executives!) long before she became a movie star.

The known Judy Garland Decca recordings are as follows:

  • March 29, 1935:  “Moonglow” (The Garland Sisters) “Bill,” and “On The Good Ship Lollipop/The Object of My Affection/Dinah” (Judy Garland).  These tests are rejected.
  • November 27, 1935:  Judy records “All’s Well” and “No Other One.”  The tests are rejected but Judy is given her first Decca contract.
  • June 12, 1936:  Judy records “Swing, Mr. Charlie” and “Stompin’ At The Savoy” while in New York for an MGM promotional tour.  The two songs are Judy Garland’s first single.
  • August 30, 1937:  Judy is given a new six-month contract with Decca and records “Everybody Sing” and “All God’s Chillun’ Got Rhythm.”
  • September 24, 1937:  “(Dear Mr. Gable) You Made Me Love You” and “You Can’t Have Everything.”
  • April 25, 1938:  “Cry, Baby, Cry” and “Sleep My Baby Sleep.”
  • August 21, 1938:  “It Never Rains But What It Pours” and “Ten Pins In The Sky.”
  • July 1939 (exact date unknown):  New contract for 12 sides.
  • July 28, 1939:  “Over the Rainbow,” “The Jitterbug,” “In-Between,” and “Sweet Sixteen.”
  • July 29, 1939:  “Zing! Went The Strings Of My Heart,” “I’m Just Wild About Harry,” “Swanee,” and “Fascinating Rhythm.”
  • October 16, 1939:  “Oceans Apart,” “Figaro,” “Embraceable You,” and “Figaro.”
  • April 10, 1940:  “I’m Nobody’s Baby,” “(Can This Be) The End of the Rainbow,” “Buds Won’t Bud,” and “Wearing of the Green.”
  • April 15, 1940:  “Friendship” (Duet with Johnny Mercer).
  • December 1940 (exact date unknown):  New contract for 12 sides.
  • December 18, 1940:  “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows,” “Our Love Affair,” “A Pretty Girl Milking Her Cow,” and “It’s A Great Day For The Irish.”
  • July 20, 1941:  “The Birthday of a King,” and “The Star of the East.”
  • October 24, 1941:  “How About You?,” “Blues in the Night,” and “FDR Jones.”
  • February 1942 (exact date unknown):  New contract for 12 sides.
  • April 3, 1942:  “The Last Call For Love,” “Poor You,” “On The Sunny Side of the Street,” and “Poor Little Rich Girl.”
  • July 26, 1942:  “For Me And My Gal” (Duet with Gene Kelly), and “When You Wore A Tulip” (Duet with Gene Kelly), “That Old Black Magic,” and “I Never Knew (I Could Love Anybody Like I’m Loving You.”
  • November 2, 1943:  “But Not For Me,” and “I Got Rhythm.”
  • November 4, 1943:  “Embraceable You,” “Could You Use Me?” (Duet with Mickey Rooney), and “Bidin’ My Time” (Featuring the Leo Diamond Harmonica Quintet).
  • December 22, 1943:  “No Love, No Nothin’,” and “A Journey To A Star.”
  • April 1944 (exact date unknown):  New contract for 3 years and 48 sides.
  • April 20, 1944:  “The Boy Next Door,” “Boys and Girls Like You and Me,” “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” “The Trolley Song,” and “Meet Me In St. Louis, Louis.”
  • July 31, 1944:  “You’ve Got Me Where You Want Me,” and “Mine” (Both duets with Bing Crosby).
  • January 26, 1945:  “This Heart of Mine,” and “Love.”
  • March 9, 1945:  “Connecticut,” and “Yah-Ta-Ta, Yah-Ta-Ta (Talk, Talk, Talk) (Both duets with Bing Crosby).
  • May 14, 1945:  “March of the Doagies” (with Kenny Baker & The Kay Thompson Chorus), and “Swing Your Partner Round and Round” (with The Kay Thompson Chorus).
  • May 15, 1945:  “On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe.”
  • July 7, 1945:  “On The Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe,” and “If I Had You” (Both duets with The Merry Macs).  These were Judy’s first recordings made at the New York studios since June 1936.
  • July 10, 1945:  “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” and “Smilin’ Through” (also recorded in New York).
  • September 7, 1945:  “It’s A Great Big World” (with Virginia O’Brien & Betty Russell) and “In the Valley (Where the Evening Sun Goes Down).
  • September 10, 1945:  “On The Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe.”
  • September 11, 1946:  “Aren’t You Kind Of Glad We Did?,” “For You, For Me, Forevermore” (Both duets with Dick Haymes), and “Changing My Tune.”
  • October 1, 1946:  “Don’t Tell Me That Story,” and “There Is No Breeze (To Cool The Flame Of Love).”
  • November 15, 1947:  “Nothing But You,” “I Wish I Were In Love Again,” and “Falling In Love With Love.”

1942 Decca Records ad

For more information about Judy’s Decca recordings, check out The Judy Garland Online Discography’s Decca Records Pages.

Disc label images from The Rick Smith Collection.  Thanks, Rick!

* Note:  Some of the information and photos included here provided by the excellent booklet written by Ron O’Brien for the 1994 CD boxed set “Judy Garland The Complete Decca Masters (plus).”

4 comments

  1. Thanks, Scott! Truly fascinating stuff. I had been a bit blue this weekend after reading (from a credible source) that Warner Bros. Is supposedly ending production of all new physical media this year to focus on the incredibly lucrative streaming. If true, it means no new Blu ray releases beginning in 2022 – which marks the the 100th anniversary of Judy’s birth. Talk about rotten timing!

    1. Thanks!

      Apparently, all of this worry over WB is overblown. They’re merging with Universal. It doesn’t sound like it’s going completely away. Here’s what the folks at WB said, yesterday I believe:

      “Finally today, a number of you have asked us about online rumors (over the last few days) that Warner Bros. Home Entertainment is basically shutting down their in-house physical media production operation. This is essentially true, but it’s also lacking important context. The reason they’re doing this, is that Warner Bros. and Universal are essentially merging their home entertainment operations. That new joint entity—Studio Distribution Services, which is now up and running after a slow ramp-up period in 2020—will produce and distribute Blu-ray, DVD, and 4K Ultra HD titles for both studios. None of this should come as a surprise to anyone; Warner and Universal essentially announced their intention to do this back in January of 2020 (see our report at the time here). (You can also read this Deadline report from the time.) The pandemic just slowed the process of getting it going down a bit. This, in theory, will allow them to do the same quality and level of work (in terms of releasing titles on disc) more efficiently and cost-effectively, allowing both Warner Bros. and Universal to stay in the physical media business for as long as possible. Unfortunately, it means that a lot of good people at each studio have been laid off (for example the dedicated Warner Archive Collection team at WB and much of the restoration team at Universal) as they combine their resources. But it can also be seen as a positive sign of each studio’s commitment to physical media in the long term.”

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