Remembering an Icon Through Her Music: Carol Channing

NEW YORK—Most younger people probably remember Carol Channing (1921–2019) as someone with a larger-than-life persona and a somewhat raspy, but all too distinctive voice. These made her a subject ripe for parody—something she herself took joy in. She once entered a Carol Channing look-alike contest and came in third! However, Ms. Channing was far more.

An undisputed star of the Broadway stage, she created two of the most enduring characters in the history of musical theater: Lorelei Lee in “Gentleman Prefer Blondes” (1949) and Dolly Gallagher Levi in “Hello, Dolly” (1964). Channing once estimated that she played Dolly over 5,000 times over more than three decades.

She earned three Tony Awards, including one for her performance in “Dolly,” was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame in 1981, and received the Oscar Hammerstein Award for Lifetime Achievement in Musical Theatre in 2004.

Though Channing’s professional home base may have been Broadway, she was quite active in other media. She received a Golden Globe Award and an Academy Award nomination for her work in the 1967 film “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” and in 1970 become the first celebrity to perform during the halftime of the Super Bowl.

Time Life is currently helping to reintroduce another side of this performer through the digital reissue of her final two albums: “For Heaven’s Sake” and “True to the Red, White, and Blue.” The albums were originally released in 2009 and 2011, respectively.

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“For Heaven’s Sake” was originally released in 2009. (Alan Mercer)

Love of This World and the Next

With a clear spiritual bent, Channing’s delivery in “For Heaven’s Sake” (18 tracks) calls to mind a veteran storyteller. She recounts a tale told many times before, yet she still makes the performance uniquely her own. This effect is clearly evident in the song “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” the words and music creating the image of a baptismal ceremony taking place beside a quietly running river. Other numbers calling forth a similar feeling include “He Ain’t Never Done Me Nothin’ But Good” and “Joshua Fit’ the Battle of Jericho.”

Channing also embodies a person at peace with her existence, with no fears about the life that is to come. “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “Old Time Religion” make this point.

Of her connections to this life, Channing reveals her deep connection to the city of New Orleans, which is represented in the tracks “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?” and “Saint James Infirmary.”

The album is also a declaration of Channing’s love for her husband, Harry Kullijian. Former classmates in middle school, the two renewed their acquaintance after 70 years, married in 2003, and remained together until his death eight years later. Channing refers to him by name several times and also offers a musical salute to the place they both called home in “Modesto, You’re My Hometown!”

Few Broadway tunes are on this album, but some of the renditions are reminiscent of those roots. The hopeful and forward-looking “I’m Just an Old Chunk of Coal” shows links to and provides an interesting counterpart to the far more materialistic “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” from “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.” The track “Roll Jordan Roll” calls to mind the jaunty “Blow, Gabriel, Blow” from Broadway’s “Anything Goes.” Channing also does great work with “Razzle-Dazzle,” a cynical number from the Broadway hit “Chicago.”

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“True to the Red, White, and Blue” was originally released in 2011. (Peter Zielinski)

Love of Country

Matters turn patriotic in “True to the Red, White, and Blue” (11 tracks). Channing’s interpretation of “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “America the Beautiful” are particular highlights, with both songs starting softly and gaining in strength and emphasis as they progress.

At the same time, the world of show business is also quite evident. “Grand Old Flag,” “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” and “Over There” are each linked to performer and songsmith George M. Cohan, himself a Broadway mainstay in the early part of the 20th century.

There’s also the show stopper “Before the Parade Passes By,” which Channing first sang in “Hello Dolly.” The number illustrates one woman’s determination to get off the sidelines of life and get back to the business of living. Another enjoyable offering is the World War II tune “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree,” originally popularized first by Glenn Miller and soon after, the Andrew Sisters. Channing also returns to matters more spiritual with a lovely rendition of “Amazing Grace.”

A particularly enjoyable aspect of both albums is that listeners are treated to a wide variety of musical motifs. The styles range from zydeco and jazz to marches and choral pieces. The instruments range from banjo to kazoo. There’s even an a cappella number included.

A must-have for any Carol Channing fan, these albums provide a well-deserved salute to a classy star of the theatrical stage.

Available on all major digital and streaming platforms.

Judd Hollander is a reviewer for Stagebuzz.com and a member of the Drama Desk and the Outer Critics Circle.

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