There is something to be said about the timeless quality of The Great American Songbook, and for California vocalist, author, pilot, psychologist and theatre producer Judy Whitmore, it was the music show grew up with. Raised in Studio City, CA, Whitmore’s parents were lovers of the symphony and musical theatre, instilling a love of Broadway music and the classics of The Great American Songbook in her and her brother from an early age. Named after the infamous Judy Garland, Whitmore’s grandfather played violin for the MGM Studio Orchestra and came to know many of the old Hollywood greats, such as Judy Garland and Fred Astaire, like family. At 19, she was given her first opportunity to sing and perform as a background singer for Capitol Records in Hollywood, an experience that solidified her dream of becoming a singer. She soon married and put that dream on hold, having children and moving to Aspen, Colorado where she became neighbors with Annie and John Denver. While in Aspen, Whitmore overcame her fear of flying and got her pilot’s license, working for a while doing search and rescue flights for Pitkin County Search and Rescue, and later practicing the determination and perseverance needed to obtain her certification as a Learjet pilot. She later moved back to LA, and in 2014 she, her brother Billy Grubman and neighbor Lynn O’Hearn Wagner formed the cabaret group ACT THREE, bringing timeless standards to life at legendary venues such as The Ritz Hotel in Paris and the legendary Carnegie Hall in New York City. ‘Once Upon A Dream’, the award-winning documentary film, chronicled their journey to Carnegie Hall. Aside from being a singer, Whitmore holds a Masters Degree in Clinical Psychology and is a licensed commercial jet pilot—as well as an award-winning best-selling author. Her romantic-adventure Come Fly With Me, penned in 2013, topped the Amazon Kindle Bestseller List, and she was then recognized with “First Place for Women’s Fiction” at The Santa Barbara Writer’s Conference and the “Editor’s Choice Award” at the San Diego State University’s Writer’s Conference. Other literary credits include All Time Favorites: Recipes From Family and Friends and an illustrated retelling of William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. She is also a member of the Board of Directors and serves on the Executive Committee of the world-renown Pacific Symphony.
After performing with ACT THREE for several years, Whitmore decided she wanted to restart her dream of a music career. In 2018, she started performing her solo cabaret act ‘Feinstein’s at Vitellos’ and will be releasing her debut album Can’t We Be Friends on November 18th. Recorded at Capitol Studios alongside collaborators John Sawoski, GRAMMY® and Emmy Award-winning composer Michael Patterson, her music director Nick Petrillo, and Peisha McPhee, together they’ve created a love letter to the Great American Songbook featuring classics such as “It Had To Be You,” “S’Wonderful,” “Can’t We Be Friends,” and many more. Whitmore recently released the first single, “My Favorite Year”, along with an accompanying music video. “When I put together the song list for this album, “My Favorite Year” was at the very top of the list. Who hasn’t reminisced about their favorite year, their first love, or a time in the past when they were younger or more carefree?,” she says. “I chose it for my debut single because I believe people will relate to the song. It speaks to the poignant experience of remembrance…not to mention that Michele Brourman’s music and Karen Gottlieb’s lyrics are gorgeous.” With a sense of responsibility to keep these classic songs alive in an era of many different genres, Whitmore is off to a great start. “I don’t want people to forget about the Great American Songbook,” she says. “It’s the music I grew up with, and I think it’s one of the most extraordinary bodies of work ever created. When you hear this album, I hope you’ll say, “Wow, that was a great time”. The songwriters from the forties—those guys really knew how to write music. I’m happy to keep it alive.” With plans to record another album of classics in the future, rework her solo act and redo the show ‘Two For The Road’ that she and her brother perform, she has left us plenty to look forward to. You can connect with Judy Whitmore and stay up-to-date with all album news via the following links. Photo credit: Amy Cantrell.
You were born in New York City and raised in Studio City, CA and were named after Judy Garland, who was a friend of your Grandfather. He had played violin in the MGM Studio Orchestra. Did you know him growing up and what kinds of stories did he tell?
He told fabulous stories! He told such fabulous stories that I got the impression that all of these people he would tell stories about, like Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney and Fred Astaire and all of the old MGM stars, were like his family. Anything that was done at MGM from the late 1930s until the late 1950s, he’s on the soundtrack for all of those movies. He would never say “Oh, Judy Garland was so sweet”. He would say “Oh, Judy was so sweet”. He would refer to them all by their first names.
What kind of influence did he have on your decision to pursue music for a career?
I think that, because of him, music was very important in my life and in the lives of my family. Today, I don’t know if violinists are that well respected. I think they are, because I happen to be on the board of directors of Pacific Symphony and although I appreciate all of the musicians, I have a special place in my heart for the violinists. When I was growing up, I remember going to a movie that he was on the soundtrack of and I thought he was a superstar! You know, he was in the background and nobody saw him and he was just one of the first violins, but in my mind he was a superstar. I would go to his house and he had a studio in his house with all of his music there and his music stand, and I would sometimes be in the room while he practiced and to me it was like magic was happening in there. He had a lot to do with it.
Your parents had a passion for the symphony and musical theatre and your mother believed that exposure to the great musicals of the 40s and 50s was just as important as learning your ABCs, telling you “Your algebra can wait. Singing In The Rain is on tv”. What can you tell me about those early years for you and how that environment and music shaped you and led to your deep love for that era of music and for theatre?
My parents always had music going in the house. When I was very young, around 8 or 9 years old and my brother was 5 or 6, my parents would drive from Studio City to downtown Los Angeles to go to the theatre. They had LA Civic Light Opera and the music center. My parents would always take us with them, so we started going to the theatre when we were very, very young. We would get dressed up and go out to dinner and we thought that was really fabulous. We developed a great love for Broadway show music and also what is known as The Great American Songbook of these old, classic American standards that were constantly going on the record player in our house.
Your first foray as a vocal artist and performer came during your college years when you sang background vocals for Capitol Records in Hollywood. What was the atmosphere like in Hollywood at that time and what was the experience like for you?
You know what? It was so much fun! I got a call from a friend of mine, I believe in my second year of college, who worked in the periphery of the music business. She said that Capitol Records was looking for a background singer to record with this band up in San Francisco. She gave me a number and said “Call this number and go for an audition”, so I remember that I made the appointment and was so nervous. I went to the Capitol building and on my way out of my house I picked up a piece of music off of my piano, because I didn’t know about taking a pianist to an audition. I didn’t know anything. I was so naive. I got to the Capitol Records building and to the office of one of the vice presidents of Capitol, which was on the top floor. I got up there and went into his office and I thought I was in a dream come true. I was in this office where I was looking out all over the city of LA and talking to the Vice President of Capitol Records. He was very nice and told me they were looking for a female vocalist. He had a piano in his office and he pointed out the piano and said “Ok. Show me what you can do”, and I had grabbed a piece of music off of my piano that was way too high and really out of my range. I sat down and played the piano and I sang and he was very nice and gave me the job. I walked out of that building like I had wings on my feet. I was so thrilled. What a thrill, to be 19 years old and working for them!
You were well on your way to a full-time career as a singer at that time, but your journey took a detour when you got married and had kids and moved to Colorado. What was it like for you to leave that burgeoning singing career? As someone with a love for life and adventure, was that hard for you or did you see your move to Colorado as a new adventure?
As soon as I decided to get married, I knew that my future husband was not going to like that. I knew right then that I would be giving it up and it was really, really hard. I thought about it a lot and longed for it, but I thought “Well, it’s ok. I’m going to be doing something else. I’m going to live in Beverly Hills and it’s going to be fun and I’m going to have kids” and we did. When we got to Colorado, although I didn’t perform, I was very lucky. When I lived in Colorado, it wasn’t like it is today. It was not quite so glitzy. There was a theatre company in town and somehow, because it was a small town, they knew that I had fundraising experience and these two guys called me and asked if they could come see me. They were looking for somebody to organize a board of directors for a theatre company, so I ended up doing that with them. I got to work on the periphery of the performing arena by being involved with the theatre company. We did really interesting shows and we made it easy for people who were working in television at that time to come to a small town in Colorado and do live theatre without ever having to face the New York critics. We had…it was such a long time ago, but I just remember the most famous person we had come up there was John Travolta. He came a did a show for us for three weeks. I had a good time doing that and performed in community theatre up there. When I would do a show, and even after I divorced my husband and moved back to LA and was still, at that point, a theatre producer, I would sit in the back of theatre and would watch these people on stage and I would ache to be up there. It was just something that I had given up and I knew it was never going to happen and I figured I was just going to live with it. I made choices in my life and I did lots of really exciting things and had a very exciting life, but that performing piece of the puzzle was missing, and I always felt like it was missing.
While in Colorado, you overcame your fear of flying and got your pilot’s license and did search and rescue missions for the Pitkin County Search and Rescue. What was that experience like and do you still fly?
I decided to learn how to fly because getting to Aspen from LA and back was really difficult. My parents and brother and sister and all of my old friends lived in LA, so every time I would have to get on a plane, it was always like a crisis for me. I thought that if I could just understand how a heavy thing like an airplane could stay in the air, maybe I wouldn’t be so afraid. I decided to take flying lessons, and on my very first lesson, as I was going down the runway with my flight instructor in one of these teeny, tiny little planes, when the plane took off from the ground it happened instantaneously. I was so excited to be in that airplane that all the past fear that I had about flying evaporated in an instant. I just loved it and went flying every day. I did get my pilot’s license and was a member of Pitkin County Air Rescue and worked on a lot of search and rescue flights up there. I was also very good friends with Annie and John Denver, who were my neighbors in Aspen. They had a private Learjet and took us on flights several times, and on the first flight I went on with them, John’s father, who was the captain of that plane, invited me to come sit up in the cockpit. It was so exciting and I set a goal for myself. I said “I am going to become a Learjet pilot” and it took about two years. I think I went flying everyday for about two years to be able to do that. I’m sitting here in my office right now and have this certificate on my wall here that says I am a certified Learjet captain. I am so proud of that because it just took a lot of perseverence and determination and it was as much fun as singing, I have to tell you, flying a Learjet.
In 2014, you founded the cabaret group ACT THREE with your brother Billy and neighbor Lynn. What can you tell me about the cabaret group and what led the three of you to want to form it?
All of us had wanted to have a musical career and all wanted to be singers. The way it was for us, as it is for so many people, real life responsibilities got in the way. Finally, we were all sitting around, and we were all taking singing lessons from the same singing teacher, and we said “Oh. We should do a recital and sing in front of an audience”. We thought that was a fabulous idea and we did a recital at a local country club. There were about 100 people there and everybody had a great time. The following year, we decided to do two recitals and had twice as many people. And then one day, the three of us were in New York and Lynn says, “You know. We could do a recital at Carnegie Hall. They have a small theatre there.” We thought she was crazy. We said “Nobody knows us! Who’s going to come to this recital in New York?”. She said “No no. Trust me. We can make this happen”, so fast forward a year later, and we did a recital at Carnegie Hall and people came (laughs). It was really fun! When we got back from New York…we had been doing sort of a mix of classical and standards in these recitals…we thought we would up our game a little bit and we all started getting coaching from Peisha McPhee, who is Katherine McPhee’s mother. She’s a fabulous, fabulous vocal coach, and she started sort of molding our act. We started off by doing a big band show here in Orange County, and then we went back to New York to perform there again. After doing several cabaret venues, and we did a concert in the park for Beverly Hills, we decided it would be fun to go out on our own and see what that would be like. I was the first person to go do a solo show and it was called ‘Feinstein’s at Vitellos’. Michael Feinstein now owns this venue in Studio City. It was a great success and people loved it and the following year I did a show with my brother called ‘Two For The Road’. We were so disappointed because we were going to be doing our show ‘Two For The Road’ in London this summer and had to cancel it, but hopefully we can do that next summer.
You decided to restart the music career that you have always wanted to have and have talked a bit about your solo cabaret show in 2018. What was the catalyst for you in 2018 that made you decide to start to pursue that dream? What made you decide that was the right moment?
I thought to myself that I had, at that point, been singing with the group for about 5 years. I just thought I would have more control over my act if I did a solo act. Actually, that’s not even true. I just wanted to be onstage by myself. I remember the first time I performed in a bigger venue with the group, it was the first time I actually had a spotlight on me. It was really funny because I remember standing in the spotlight on the stage and I thought that was a totally new experience. I had never done that before and it felt so good. I remember coming off stage and I ran into my brother. Lynn was going onstage and I was talking to Billy backstage and I was so enamored with the feeling of that. I don’t necessarily need to have a spotlight when I sing but I like being on the stage by myself and being able to tell my story, because part of my act is storytelling. I wanted to be there and be able to talk to people in the audience and sing to them and just give them a good evening of entertainment and not have to depend on another performer. When performing with other people, sometimes you wait for a cue from somebody and they get it wrong and then you’re waiting and there’s a lull or something. When you’re on the stage by yourself, you’re constantly monitoring what you’re saying and making sure the pace is right and there’s more of a feeling of you having the reigns of what you’re doing and I like that.
You’ll be releasing your debut album Can’t We Be Friends on November 18th and it is a love letter to The Great American Songbook. What was the process like of recording the album and what was it like for you to be back at Capitol Records Studios?
I hadn’t been to Capitol Records in many, many years. I remember when I walked in there, I thought “I remember the building being so much bigger” (laughs). It seems smaller now. It was so thrilling. It was beyond thrilling. I couldn’t believe that my life had come full circle, that I had started out there and had started out with this dream of having this music career and here I was after I’d had children and so many other careers, being back there and being able to do a thing I always wanted, which was to record an album on my own.
What can you tell me about the album? With so many great songs to choose from, how did you decide which songs to include?
You know, it took a really long time to get the song list together. I would say it took about 4 months. I met twice a week with Peisha and with John Sawoski, who is one of the arrangers, and with Nick Petrillo, who’s my music director. We would talk about what songs work and would then come up with a song list and we’d go through it and actually play and sing through the songs to see how they sounded next to each other. Then we would eliminate a song and go “No, this song doesn’t sound right. It doesn’t go with the rest of them.” It took about 4 months until we came up with the final list and we all love the final list and think that these songs somehow are great partners with each other on this album.
What can you tell me about your upcoming single “My Favorite Year”, as well as the music video for the song?
I chose “My Favorite Year” because I think it’s a song that a lot of people can relate to, especially now during the pandemic. You’re reminiscing about things that used to be and everybody has a first love or a lost love and it’s a reminder of a time when maybe you were more carefree. I think that’s why it resonates with people. I played it for a couple of my friends and they were in tears afterwards. I think for some people it will really bring up a memory and I think that’s good.
What do you think fuels your love for life and adventure and experience?
I think that I’ve always had a yearning for adventure and different kinds of adventure and new things. I’ve lived in a lot of different places. I’ve lived in LA and in Aspen and I lived in London for a year and a half while I was working in the theatre over there. Even around LA, I’ve lived in Pacific Palisades and Malibu and Newport Beach and Irvine. I like moving and I just like new things and new adventures. I like to travel and meet new people and I’ve always been like that. I’m just one of those people that sort of craves adventure. I think that’s in a way one of the reasons that I became a pilot. After I had my pilot’s license I could just…like some people go to the store to get out of the house or something…I could just go and get into an airplane and go fly somewhere. I think that is sort of a metaphor for my life, that I just want all of these adventures. I want as many adventures as I can have for as long as I can have.
What’s next for you? Do you have any upcoming adventures planned?
I’m hoping to, as soon as I get that vaccine, go back into the studio and rework my solo show. I’m going to take some songs out and plan some new stories and do that again. And also redo the show ‘Two For The Road’ so my brother and I can do that in England next summer. I started working with Nick Petrillo, who is my music director, on a song list for a new album that we’re going to do next year.
Do you see yourself ever writing original material or do you feel that you will stick with covering all of the classic songs you love?
I see myself covering these classic songs. I feel like I’m part of the responsibility of people who are keeping this music alive. There are so many different genres of music now and I think it would be easy to forget about these great American standards. I want to help ensure that people will still listen to them.
They are just so timeless! I love them!
Well, I’m glad to hear that.
Thank you for taking the time to talk today!
Thank you. I really appreciate it.