The Best Albums Recorded at Carnegie Hall

On December 3, 2021

At some point in the last century-and-a-half, some wiseacre wrote the best bon mot that’s ever been coined in relation to a performance venue when they answered the question “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” with one word: “Practice.” That one-liner symbolizes the importance of Carnegie Hall, a venue in midtown Manhattan commissioned by the steel magnate Andrew Carnegie to house orchestras he was fond of, in the American imagination. You didn’t get to play Carnegie because you were famous, or because your audience demanded it: You could only play Carnegie Hall if you were good. 

Eventually, Carnegie became famous for more than just orchestras; every musical form, give or take, has been performed from its stages. JAY-Z has played Carnegie Hall, and so has Bruce Springsteen. It was inevitable that many, many albums would be recorded there, or partially recorded there and billed as Live at Carnegie Hall, to the point where “Albums Recorded at Carnegie Hall” has its own (incomplete) Wikipedia page.   

In honor of this month’s VMP Country Record of the Month, Carnegie Hall Concert by Buck Owens and His Buckaroos — one of the most important albums in country history for how it proved that there was an audience for the genre in New York City — here we breakdown some of the best albums recorded in Carnegie’s hallowed rooms. These selections run the gamut from folk to jazz, blues to R&B, progressive rock to Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz

Jazz Greats 

It seemed inevitable that jazz would become a regular genre featured at Carnegie; it is, after all, the American younger sibling of classical music in a lot of ways. Every major jazz figure of the first half of the 20th century released an album from Carnegie Hall, more or less, from Brubeck to Ellington to Billie Holiday to Charles Mingus. You could pretty much throw a dart at the jazz section of Live at Carnegie Hall and hit a compelling album, but for sheer interest, you can’t top Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall, a performance recorded in 1957, and stored at the Library of Congress for almost 50 years before anyone realized it was there, and was revelatory. Coltrane’s time with Monk was protracted as he spent just a few months playing with him in 1957 in New York as he built up his own style and evolved into the John Coltrane. This is probably the lost crown jewel of Carnegie Hall concerts, and that it’s available widely now is a gift to us all.   

Another band leader of Coltrane’s, Miles Davis, has his own stunning Carnegie Hall album, Miles Davis at Carnegie Hall recorded in 1961, which features a stunning orchestral-backed take of Kind of Blue’s “So What.” And not to show a bias toward woodwind jazz, George Benson’s In Concert-Carnegie Hall, recorded in 1975, is a stunning album worth seeking out; its cover of “Take Five” and Hubert Laws’ flute work worth the price of admission alone.

And as far as vocal jazz is concerned, you can’t do any better than either of Nina Simone’s Carnegie Hall concerts — 1963’s At Carnegie Hall and 1964’s In Concert — which showcase not only her classical piano and standards singing mastery, but also the beginnings of her important protest songs, like “Mississippi Goddam.” 

Folk Overtakes Carnegie

Folk music has a storied history at Carnegie Hall, but that came almost by accident: The Weavers booked the first folk show at Carnegie for Christmas in 1955 when their original building was already claimed and wouldn’t break the communist blacklist to book them. The show sold out quickly, and the Weavers’ triumphant concert turned legendary when it became The Weavers at Carnegie Hall, the first folk album on the Vanguard label — which would be home to virtually every important folk artist of the ’50s and ’60s. The sequel, recorded in 1960, isn’t as vital as the first, but their cover of “Amazing Grace” is worth finding the album for. 

One of Weaver Pete Seeger’s finest albums, We Shall Overcome, was recorded at Carnegie Hall in 1963, too. His labelmate, Odetta’s own Odetta at Carnegie Hall, recorded in 1960 is one of the most powerful albums ever recorded at Carnegie, along with her mentor Harry Belafonte’s own Belafonte at Carnegie Hall (recorded in 1959). And no roundup of folk albums is complete without mentioning Bob Dylan, whose Live At Carnegie Hall 1963 wasn’t released until 2005, but captured him at the nexus between protest singer and folk-rocker. Which brings us to:

Rock Comes to Carnegie

Once the folkies were recording their albums at Carnegie, and Buck Owens brought country music, it was only a matter of time before rock hit the Carnegie stage. But there aren’t actually that many official rock albums from Carnegie Hall; Radio City Music Hall always seemed cooler to the rock set. That said, the gold-standard rock album recorded at Carnegie is Frank Zappa’s sprawling Carnegie Hall, which was recorded in 1971, but didn’t get commercially released until 2011. It opens with a full set by the stellar acapella group The Persuasions, before Zappa and the Mothers of Invention deliver takes of Hot Rats and Freak Out! cuts. 

Zappa would probably shudder to see himself lumped in with Jethro Tull, whose 1970 performance at Carnegie was released across a few albums, the most recent being the 2015 release, Live at Carnegie Hall 1970. The prog-rock icons were about to hit their commercial peak in 1970, but they almost out-freak Zappa on their Carnegie recordings. Unlike Tull, Chicago’s Chicago at Carnegie Hall isn’t a partial capture of their performance; their 1971 show has been available as a 4LP version you had to buy in halves for 50 years. Come for the blown out “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” and stay for the mammoth take of “25 or 6 to 4.”

If you want your rock at Carnegie less, well, maximal, head over to Stevie Ray Vaughan’s 1984 set, Live at Carnegie Hall (released in 1997). Listening to the presumably suited audience lose their shit to “Pride and Joy” backed by a horn section is chef’s kiss and the cover of the Isley Brothers’ “Testify” is righteous and powerful. 

And So Does R&B

Bill Withers was at the peak of his powers in 1972 when he rolled into Carnegie Hall for a concert in Midtown. R&B groups typically played the Apollo up in Harlem, but Withers playing at Carnegie is the genre’s finest showing, and is better than any greatest hits album of Withers’ music could ever be. His muscular band gives these songs a raw, crackling energy that lends stone cold classics like “Use Me,” “Ain’t No Sunshine” and “Lean On Me” a new urgency. All told, it’s in the running for the best album ever recorded at Carnegie Hall; it frames its artist in a new light, serves as a career compendium, and captures the audience in a way that makes you feel like you’re next to them, cheering Withers on during the “I know”s of “Ain’t No Sunshine.”   

The Most Important Album Recorded at Carnegie

Any list of albums recorded at Carnegie Hall would be incomplete without Judy at Carnegie Hall, a 1961 album and performance by Judy Garland that is inarguably the most important, and most notorious, album ever recorded at Carnegie Hall. Eight years before her untimely death, Judy Garland was having a hard time transitioning out of teenage film stardom, and was back, after a period away from the spotlight, performing on stage singing songs and cracking jokes for adoring audiences. These performances peaked in 1961, and were captured in a two-LP set that showcased basically all the charms Garland had to offer in its two hours. When people mourn Garland, they are mourning the Garland present on this album. Listen, and be charmed. 

Judy at Carnegie Hall became the No. 1 album in the country, and eventually won Garland the Grammy for Album of the Year, marking the first time a woman had won that award. It would become so beloved as a cultural touchstone that there was a book written about it, and Rufus Wainwright would record it, from the same stage at Carnegie, note for note for his own version, Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall. It’s the only Carnegie Hall album to spawn a cover album recorded at Carnegie Hall, which is the perfect place to leave this examination of Carnegie Hall albums.   

Profile Picture of Andrew Winistorfer
Andrew Winistorfer

Andrew Winistorfer is VMP’s Music Director and a writer and editor of their books, 100 Albums You Need in Your Collection and The Best Record Stores in the United States. He’s written Listening Notes for more than 20 VMP releases, co-produced VMP Anthologies The Story of Philadelphia International Records, The Story of Quincy Jones, The Story of Impulse and the VMP Classics release of Nat Turner Rebellion's Laugh to Keep From Crying, and executive produced The Story of Vanguard and The Story of Willie Nelson. He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

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