Joan Ellison, Songstress and Judy Garland Restorationist, Joins the Club

Joan Ellison, Songstress and Judy Garland Restorationist, Joins the Club

In 2016, she embarked on a mission to restore Judy Garland's original orchestrations, culminating in a song-for-song recreation of Garland's 1961 Carnegie Hall concert. At Michael Feinstein's invitation, she serves as Editor of the Judy Garland Carnegie Hall Concert Restoration Project for the Judy Garland Heirs Trust. Recently, she was given the privilege of restoring the newly-discovered MGM film arrangement of Over the Rainbow. And now, she will be performing these incredible arrangements with the Pops Orchestra of Bradenton and Sarasota.
Join Robyn and Joan Ellison as they talk about Joan's amazing life and career, the painstaking recreation of the orchestral arrangements of Judy Garland's songs, and why she's never seen Renée Zellweger's movie JUDY.
Then, go get your tickets to the Pops Orchestra's performances with Joan on Sunday, March 26 at 3:00 p.m. at the Riverview Performing Arts Center in Sarasota and Monday, March 27 at 7:30 p.m. at the SCF Neel Performing Arts Center in Bradenton.
You can get your tickets at or by calling 941-926-7677.
Come along and join the club!

• Joan Ellison Website & Facebook & Instagram & YouTube & Twitter

The Pops Orchestra of Bradenton and Sarasota Website & Facebook & Instagram

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Robyn Bell: The Pops Orchestra has had an incredible season this year, one of which I'm very proud of, and one in which we have one final show to present called Come on, get Happy, a tribute to Judy Garland on Sunday, March 26th and Monday, March 27th. And today I have invited our guest artist for that grand finale to join me on the podcast to talk to us about her life, and her passion as an ethnomusicologist in the recreation of these Judy Garland orchestral arrangements. So Joan Ellison, welcome to the club. 

Joan Ellison: Hello. It's so lovely to be here. 

Robyn Bell: Now Joan, a quick perusal of your massive bio tells us that you grew up in Iowa, you went to the Oberlin Conservatory of Music for your bachelor's and master's degree, and now you teach at the Cleveland Institute of Music. But take us back to those days in Iowa and tell us about the young Joan. How did this whole singing thing get started with you? , 

Joan Ellison: well, my earliest influence was the Wizard of Oz album. I'm dating myself now that my parents got me. And really Judy's rendition of Over the Rainbow was what made me want to become a singer. And I'm told that when I was two, I said, , you know, when people would ask me what I wanted to be, when I grow up, I would say either I wanna be a chicken and lay eggs. I have no idea, but, you know, two year olds or I wanna be a singer. So at least one of those career goals worked out . 

Robyn Bell: Were you in your church choir? Do, were you in like junior high, high school chorus? How, how did your singing. Pedagogy get started?

Joan Ellison: Yes, I did all of those things. There were a lot of cultural opportunities growing up in Des Moines. I started private voice lessons when I was nine, which is a little bit younger than most people start. But my teacher Eugene Wilson shortly after I started taking lessons with him, he founded the Des Moines Children's Chorus. Which has grown into a pretty big thing. So I was in the, you know, in the first class of that group and sang with them. I did musicals at school and then at the Des Moines Community Playhouse. I did an opera at Des Moines Metro Opera. The turn of the Screw, I played Flora when I was 16. So, you know, I, I, I took private voice lessons all, all along with various people. There, and that was all before College I studied piano as well with Cheryl Smith starting in kindergarten and basically all the way up through high school with her. 

Robyn Bell: That's a great skill to have as a singer, to be able to play the piano. Were you ever asked to, like accompany for your high school chorus or anything like that? 

Joan Ellison: I did. I started doing statewide piano competitions, I think in about third grade. So I was a pretty serious pianist for a while. But yes, I, I accompanied church choir, the mountains choir at Plymouth Church and my high school choirs did all that stuff.

Robyn Bell: and all this time you're learning and taking lessons and singing in course, sort of classically trained and popular style, or do you differentiate between the two?

Joan Ellison: Well, they are different styles. I was doing classical piano, but then of course I was sight reading musicals and all kinds of things. And the vocal training, I, I was mostly working on musical theater and classical reper.

Robyn Bell: Okay. And so when it comes time you're graduating from high school, you're looking for a college to go to, you decide you wanna follow music as your career, what were some options you had and why did you land at Oberlin?

Joan Ellison: Ah, Well, I wanted to go somewhere that had really good academics and. Music conservatory. So the options were somewhat limited at that time. I did look at Carnegie Mellon in their music theater program. 

Robyn Bell: So that was an option. You thought maybe you'd be on Broadway one day? Kind of,

Joan Ellison: maybe. However, I had just, when I was applying for colleges, I had just done the turn of the screw with the Des Moines Retro Opera and. I loved the experience. It was an amazing cast with Soprano, Lauren Flanagan and a, Metropolitan Opera star named Kay Griffel. So it was, it was a really wonderful experience and I thought, oh, I wanna do opera. So, really Oberlin was the place, and I was admitted pretty much right off the bat, very early. And then that was that. So I didn't do a lot of auditions. . 

Robyn Bell: And when you went to Oberlin, was there still a focus on piano or was it all singing from that point forward? 

Joan Ellison: Yeah, I studied with Robert McDonald, who now teaches at Julliard. I think I was his worst student ever, probably because I, I think I maybe was one of two secondary students he taught, and I didn't practice a lot. And I, again, this is one of the regrets I have that I didn't take better advantage of such a wonderful teacher. But I did learn a lot from him. So I, yes, I, I studied, I think, three years with him As well as voice with Dawn May. Yeah. 

Robyn Bell: Oh, and that, that's one of my interesting questions because when we normal people think about conservatory, you, you do think kind of a, well, you know, high brow hoy toy education. So when you went there and you said, Hey, I wanna study popular style singing, were they open to that?

Joan Ellison: No. 

Robyn Bell: No, I didn't think so. 

Joan Ellison: No. In fact, , I had to kind of fight to get to do an all 20th century American senior recital, but if anything even slightly smacked a musical theater, it was off the program. So it, it was really it, you know, Aton. So I didn't do any pop music there. 

Robyn Bell: And now here you are teaching at the Cleveland Institute of Music, and you teach popular singing, right? 

Joan Ellison: Yes. 

Robyn Bell: This is your curriculum. . Okay. And so how did your experience as a young undergrad student at Oberlin, how has that affected your teaching and, and what you do now at the Cleveland Institute of Music and how you approach these kids?

Joan Ellison: Well, The interesting thing about Oberlin was they had a very science-based approach to technique, and that has carried over. after college, I, I immediately went back to my first love, which was music theater. And then spent a few years in Minneapolis and there was a wonderful teacher there named Leon Thurman, who wrote a book called Body, mind and Voice. And he actually had a, his studio was in a hospital and he did voice therapy as well. And I learned scientific belting technique from. as well as many other tweaks. And I mean, he's a wonderful, wonderful pedagogue and, and is really into, you know, how do people learn new skills and how do we teach them? And it was really a, a terrific sort of graduate level. Okay. You learned all this stuff and you know, of course the breathing is the same, you know, but there are many other things that you do. For pop singing that you absolutely don't do. It's very different than classical. So 

Robyn Bell: I, I would think breathing, yes. Maybe diction. Does that hold over from classical to pop? 

Joan Ellison: No. . The awareness of that, you can pronounce things differently. Does carry over. So like what? You learn how to learn that. But then you know, many things are very different. 

Robyn Bell: So it's interesting you said when you left Overland, you went to Minnesota. So that was gonna be one of my next questions. Take us down your professional timeline of places you have been and, sung to get you where you are today. 

Joan Ellison: Well I did, I did I was music directing when I graduated, so I was doing a bit more of what you do. Um, Yeah, grabbing the baton and conducting the orchestra of for shows because I could get paid to do that in Cleveland.

Robyn Bell: wait, you can get paid to do this. What? 

Joan Ellison: Yeah. You really can. . And at the time I couldn't get paid to perform, so I was conducting and music directing. And then my husband and I moved to Minneapolis and we started performing. He was an actor tap dancer. He was my tap dancing teacher actually. And a colleague, I had music directed him and. We said, let's stop learning all this new music and just throwing it away after the show is over, let's get a permanent repertoire and perform it. So we basically were doing classic American popular song from the, you know, twenties, thirties, forties, fifties, . And taking it at, we started out, you know, $60 and I had to schlep my own. Audio equipment in, three and a half inch heels to nursing homes. So we did a lot of that. Just, kind of getting, the act going. 

Robyn Bell: This was in Minnesota? 

Joan Ellison: Yeah. Mm-hmm. . 

Robyn Bell: Okay. And then somehow you went back in Ohio? 

Joan Ellison: Yes. We wanted to buy a house and house prices were going up and up and up and you couldn't get a garage for a hundred thousand dollars. This was back in 2000, we moved back to Cleveland. And because a, a friend, a director friend had moved back from New York and said, you know, an artist can afford a house here. And so we, we moved back and, we kept performing and also this director started the theater and we were both working there. At some point I joined the Actors Union Actors Equity. I was, finally getting paid to do shows in Cleveland. and one thing led to another and doing one of those shows I was playing Julie Jordan in Carousel and the Carl Tolo, the founder and conductor of the Cleveland Pops, happened to come see a show. And his wife, Shirley Morgan Stern, who's the c e o, and they hired me to do my first Pops concert, which was opposite of Broadway star at Severance Hall.

Robyn Bell: And that's how all of this got started with you singing with orchestras 

Joan Ellison: yep. In I think. 

Robyn Bell: Okay. You're almost 20 years in, 18 years in to doing this. 

Joan Ellison: Yeah. 

Robyn Bell: Wow. Okay. So one of the things that I think the audience is gonna be really interested at our performances with you is this, relationship you have built with Judy Garland, honestly, right? And so, take us back to the time when you said, here's all this great musical output, this needs to be reworked, we gotta find these originals, and, you sort of becoming this Judy Garland ethnomusicologist, as I would like to call it. How, how did all that happen, Joan? 

Joan Ellison: Performing with my husband. We were doing various shows that were basically set up, like period radio shows. And in 2009 I finally bit the bullet and said, I've loved Judy Garland forever. We're gonna do a Judy Garland show. It's now or never. And we were performing that at performing arts centers and theaters, and I decided to get my own arrangements because I loved singing with orchestras. I mean, that was my first influence was those MGM orchestrations on the Wizard of Oz album. And I thought, okay, let me commission 10. Judy Garland. Orchestrations that at least match the vocals that are similar to the, orchestrations and see if I can get this going. And my parents helped me with that. I mean, it was a big undertaking. Paul Ferguson did the first arrangements for me. He's a wonderful trombonist here in town and arranger ranger and I was doing that and then, I had corresponded with Michael Feinstein on and off, you know, the singer, pianist, archivist. And I'm went to his concert at Blossom Music Center with the Cleveland Orchestra and met him afterwards. And I had commissioned some more arrangements and I had just been wrestling with one of the, the, not from Paul Ferguson, but from another arranger and a lot of the harmonies weren't correct. It was come Rainer Come Shine, which we will be doing on this concert. And I mentioned to Michael that I had just been doing that because they knew I, I had been transcribing piano parts. recordings for our, shows for years. That was sort of the gimmick that they would match the orchestrations. And he said, oh, I, I think I have that arrangement, the original arrangement. And of course you could have picked me up off the floor, but within a few days he had, scanned the whole thing and sent. High quality copies and I was restoring, and it was a hu, I mean, I had restored a couple of orchestral arrangements before that, but it was a huge learning curve for me. I was a music ed Masters student, so I did learn transpositions for saxophones at some point, but, you know, it had been a while. 

Robyn Bell: Some monster on note of itself there. 

Joan Ellison: Yes. And reading the handwritten scores and they're all scratched over and things are scratched out and taped over and pages are missing, parts are missing. Because Judy toured with these arrangements. So, I mean, you know, they may have been cut for something and then they put it back in and, you know, come Rainer, come shine as a bear. And I mean, that was the one I started. 

Robyn Bell: And people might not realize this music, and I'm a real stickler for our music library for this reason. And when we make a change in an arrangement that I've done, I go back on the computer and I edit it. And I reprint because 

Joan Ellison: Oh wow.

Robyn Bell: Kinda things. Yeah. Yeah. I take that crime to do it, unfortunately. But it is a puzzle to put together and I found it really interesting when I was reading you, you have a wonderful. I was reading about what happened at MGM Grand in 1969 that kind of caused this kerfuffle with all of this missing music and we have this, but not this. Share with us that wonderful story. Well, not wonderful, tragic story, I guess. 

Joan Ellison: Tragic 

Robyn Bell: the right word. 

Joan Ellison: Yes. Yeah. Yeah. In around 1969, the new owner of MGM movies, the film company got rid of the entire musical archive and a lot of it was used as landfill under the freeway in la

Robyn Bell: was it just taken up too much space?

Joan Ellison: Yes. It takes up a lot of space. I mean, you know how much space these things take up and, and it was years and years, so basically saved the conductor scores, but not for everything necessarily for all the shows. So it was like a four staff conductor score, not the full, you know, manuscript scores. And then threw away all the parts and the manuscripts and everything. 

Robyn Bell: And here we are many, many, many decades later, putting these pieces back together so that our audiences can enjoy the original versions of this. 

Joan Ellison: Yeah. 

Robyn Bell: And you know, people, they don't know when they're being shortsighted. I, I get that.

Joan Ellison: No, I mean, I don't know that, even the arrangers knew they were creating such wonderful art at the time. 

Robyn Bell: Yeah, that's true. And the, I mean, we have some good arrangers right now, living among us, but those back then and how they had to do it, handwriting everything without the use of technology, it's mind.

Joan Ellison: truly mind blowing. And, I've read about how fast I believe it was Conrad Salinger, you know, who did the, well, I know he did the trolley song arrangement, and I, I believe I'm thinking of the right person when I say that he usually tried to finish his work. By noon, so he could, I mean, he was just incredibly fast. He would just write out part, you know, all out of his head. Now we can play them back on finale and we can say, oh, does this sound right? No, it was all in his head. And he'd just write, write out part after part and just be throwing it on the floor. Okay. Next page. You know 

Robyn Bell: right. Yeah. Yeah. And then we'd just throw 'em away in 1969.

Joan Ellison: Yeah. 

Robyn Bell: Well, it's truly remarkable what you've been doing and through your efforts we now have at our disposal for performances and rental and such. And so, how did your relationship with the Judy Garland's Heir's Trust come in to play in all of this sequence? 

Joan Ellison: That was entirely through Michael uh, Michael Feinstein because he was a trustee at the time. And 

Robyn Bell: you should say, if people don't know, just listening to . This, tell us how did he get to be a trustee of the Judy Garland Heir's trust? 

Joan Ellison: Well, he's very good friends with Liza Minnelli. And that goes way back to his early days in la and of course he was ira Gershwin's assistant for several years. So you know, he just, knew everybody. He's a living link to this era, of the music that I love and that he loves. And he's always been a really passionate preservationist. I mean he, has gone through, he'll tell you, has gone. Trash heaps in LA to, to rescue music. You know, people will call him up and say, oh, the, I see some music by the curb. You know? And, and so, I mean, thank goodness and that, that he's been doing that for so long. 

Robyn Bell: Right. Pretty remarkable man. And you have a direct 

Joan Ellison: absolutely amazing, 

Robyn Bell: great relationship. Yeah, a hundred percent. So, This show obviously that you've done, that you're bringing to our audience. It's been years and years in the making, but what other doors has this opened for you? Have you been able to take this concept and move it along to some other projects? 

Joan Ellison: I am working on a new concert now called It's Magic. Joan Ellison Swings in High Fidelity and it will include some garland arrangements that just don't fit into the show because there's so many of them that survive. But It'll include songs recorded by Rosemary Clooney, Lena Horn, Ella Fitzgerald, Doris Day Edie Gourmet just really some of the greats.

Robyn Bell: And these, you'll also be doing orchestral arrangements too, so you can take the show on the road. 

Joan Ellison: Yes. 

Robyn Bell: Bring it to Sarasota one day. 

Joan Ellison: Love too. Yes, it's premiering in September. , 

Robyn Bell: one of the things I've found remarkable about your arrangements that you've put together as, as a conductor and as someone that you know, I'm a trumpet player, so I grew up in the band world and I played in jazz bands, and I've conducted jazz bands and you know, the, the saxophone section as we mentioned earlier, is its own unique entity and not in. The traditional instrumentation of a symphony orchestra. And so when you're listening to these recordings, and it was obvious to me, you know, we go back and listen to, there are strings, but, and there's brass, but there is a saxophone section. And so you had to find a unique way to recreate that saxophone sound within the orchestra. Tell me about that process and some decisions you had to make with that. 

Joan Ellison: Ah, Well, Larry Blank. Arranger and music director has, has really been a mentor to me from the beginning and , he helped me DAXs come, Rainer, come shine, 

Robyn Bell: DAXs. I love that term. . 

Joan Ellison: Yeah. And and just kind of walked me through, he would take my. Finale file and make some corrections on it and then, send it back to me. And, and so I could kind of see what he did, depending on what kind of sound you were going for. It makes for a tough play for some of the, the horn players. , 

Robyn Bell: well horn, french horn and saxophone are right in the same vocal range, but certainly different tams.

Joan Ellison: Yes. 

Robyn Bell: And you know, when I look at the bassoon section with the pops and I'm like, you gotta play this like a bari saxophone. Mm-hmm. . And they're like, well I play the basson. You know, there's a little mental leap they have to make to become part of the jazz band and really, yeah. 

Joan Ellison: Yeah. And they have to dirty it up a little bit too.

Robyn Bell: That's it. That's it. I like that. 

Joan Ellison: it's like, let's get some bump and grind going here on, some of these days in the palace medley, you know, and that can be difficult for orchestral players, but usually they end up enjoying it. 

Robyn Bell: They do, and, and I'm gonna have to say the, the orchestra's doing a, a really great job on these arrangements. They're so well done. And immediately after the first rehearsal, they're like, wow, these are great arrangements. So the musicians know it from, a performance standpoint and the audience is gonna know it from the auditory standpoint. You know, just, just hearing how great these are and this show, Joan is so much more than you coming to town to sing with the pops, I think our patrons will see and feel that. And I'm really completely honored to be a part of it. And I wanna thank you for taking us along this wonderful ride with you. As people leave this performance arts hall after our show with you, what do you think they're gonna remember most about this? Two hours we're gonna spend together? 

Joan Ellison: I hope that the wonderful artistry of Judy Garland comes across through her music. And one of the things I often hear after a performance is, oh, I'm, I'm gonna go home and watch all of Judy's movies now, . And, and I love to hear that because, . I, I feel like there's been a bit of a cottage industry in trashing Judy or labeling her as a drug addict. Let's look at her artistry. Let's look at the joy she brought to this, and I think that that is what endures. , it's absolutely awe inspiring what she achieved in her lifetime over, films and recordings and live performances. I mean, her, artistic output was, huge. And so much of it has, become part of our cultural landscape and. I wanna bring that back. Her love for singing and all of that to the audience. And I, I hope it comes across,

Robyn Bell: oh, I am for certain that it will. Now we do have one very odd connection to Judy Garland here in our Sarasota and Bradenton area. Were you a fan of the Renee Zellweger, Judy? 

Joan Ellison: I have not watched it yet. I've seen the trailers. It's not a part of her life that I like to revisit. Because I feel so close to Judy, even though I never met her and she died before I was born. But I feel so close to her that I don't like to go.

Robyn Bell: Sure. 

Joan Ellison: I probably should watch it, but I haven't been able to make myself do it yet. I I have heard it's a sympathetic portrayal, however, did you see it? 

Robyn Bell: I did. I did and, and I did enjoy it and of course, understanding my dissertation. Joan is on the history of rock music as a high school curriculum, and so The Beatles, but also Elvis, and so along those same lines, I can really respect. what Elvis did and separate what he did to himself. Hmm. Right. And so I, I watched the Elvis movie as well, but what I want you to know, and this might inspire you to watch the Judy show after all, is Renee Zellweger's mother lives on Annamaria Island. 

Joan Ellison: Really?

Robyn Bell: Yes. I believe I'm correct about that. If not, I tend to make stuff up and people go, oh, that's right. 

Joan Ellison: isn't that interesting? Hmm. . 

Robyn Bell: If I knew how to reach out to her to come to the show, let me know. I don't know. So Garth Brooks and Tricia Yearwood also live here, so 

Joan Ellison: Really?

Robyn Bell: Yeah. 

Joan Ellison: Do they ever come to concerts?

Robyn Bell: I don't know. I've never seen them at one. , 

Joan Ellison: maybe incognito. However, 

Robyn Bell: that would be hard. That would, that would be hard.

Joan Ellison: Well, you know, everyone looks different in a hat and. . 

Robyn Bell: That's true. And those country music singers, they look different when they take their hats off. 

Joan Ellison: Oh right. . Yes. So true . 

Robyn Bell: Well listen, if you don't have your ticket to this show, you need to hurry. The second show is already sold out. And at time of this recording, there are only about 200 seats left for our Riverview Performing Arts show. These performances are on Sunday, March 26th at 3:00 PM at the Riverview Performing Arts Center in Sara. And Monday, March 27th at 7:30 PM at the S C F Neo Performing Arts Center in Bradenton. You can get your or by calling 9 4 1 9 2 6 7 6 7 7. Joan. I want you to know we have dialed up a beautiful weekend for you. When you come here to Paradise, there'll be no snow. There'll be no rain, only sunshine, and we absolutely cannot wait to perform this amazing collection of Judy Garland songs with you. Thank you so much for joining me today. 

Joan Ellison: Sounds brilliant, and I can't wait to sing with you all.