The late Carol Channing was never a traditionally polished singer — but as with every other aspect of her long, strange career, she took it as far as she could. “Performance is the only excuse for my existence,” she stated during her last Broadway appearance in 1995. “What can be better than this?”
Channing passed away today (Jan. 15) at 97, but her extravagant, gut-busting legacy lives on. In a career spanning eight decades, she sang, danced and sashayed through a slew of Broadway classics, like 1949’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, 1964’s Hello, Dolly! and 1974’s Lorelei.
In her breakout role as Dolly Gallagher Levi in Hello, Dolly!, Channing sang an even bigger slew of musical numbers — and picked up her first Tony Award in the process. Despite this success, a more traditional star would win out. For Hello, Dolly!’s 1969 film version, the producers opted not for Channing in the lead role, but for Barbra Streisand — effectively freezing her out of further success onscreen.
Still, Channing didn’t let a little discouragement affect her acting career — or her love of singing. She landed a role as the wealthy, batty widow Muzzy Van Hossmere in 1967’s Thoroughly Modern Millie, in which she memorably sang the standard “Jazz Baby” while dancing on a xylophone.
As she reached her prestige years, Channing leaned into her peculiar voice. In the mid-’70s, she recorded an entire country & western album with honky-tonk star Webb Pierce. She made a predictably bizarre appearance as the White Queen in a 1985 adaptation of Alice in Wonderland. As the 1990s and 2000s wore on, she played bit parts in Sesame Street, Touched by an Angel, The Drew Carey Show and Family Guy.
Channing touched pop culture in myriad ways during her long career — and her weird, effervescent, always joyful singing voice led the way. In honor of the late legend of TV, film and Broadway, here’s 10 of her greatest musical moments.
“Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” (from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, 1949)
Channing entered pop culture back in 1949 when she sang “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend,” as Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. It’s fun comparing her performance with Marilyn Monroe’s — in the iconic 1953 film adaptation, Monroe crooned the song as a vision in pink among a throng of suitors. On the other hand, Channing tackled “Diamonds” as unsexily as possible, intentionally playing up her wide-eyed affectations and mewling vocal register — and a much different kind of star was born.
“Bye Bye Baby (feat. Jack McCauley)” (from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, 1949)
This ballad from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes accompanies a parting scene, in which Lorelei Lee bids adieu to her “sugar daddy” Gus Edmonds and embarks for France via ocean liner. Channing’s original interpretation of Lorelei is almost aggressively ditzy: “What will you be doing when I’m all alone out on the great big ocean?” she chatters.
“Hello, Dolly!” (from Hello, Dolly!, 1964)
Channing nailed the role of the opportunistic matchmaker Dolly Gallagher Levi in 1964’s Hello, Dolly!. The show’s title track is now heavily associated with Louis Armstrong, who recorded his jazzy version of the show-tune that same year — but Channing introduced it to the world. In this 1965 footage, you can watch this legendary musical number in its joyous original form — and with Channing giving it her all.
“Before the Parade Passes By” (from Hello, Dolly!, 1964)
This contemplative ballad soundtracks Dolly moving on from her departed husband Ephram and deciding to marry the half-a-millionaire Horace Vandergelder. After the original Broadway run of Hello, Dolly! closed in 1970, Channing reprised her role at the 1971 Tony Awards and sang “Before the Parade Passes By.” Her monologue about Dolly’s daily life of rum toddies and putting the cat out through her trademark plastered smile is still a gas; this is the Channing we’ll remember.
“So Long Dearie” (from Hello, Dolly!, 1964)
In Act II of Hello, Dolly!, things don’t work out quite so well between Dolly and Horace; after a trip to night court over a flummoxed polka contest, Horace declares he won’t marry her after all. Ever the underdog, Channing was born for this cheeky showtune in which she needles Horace’s miserable destiny as an aging, single half-a-millionaire: “You can snuggle up to your cash register / It’s a bit lumpy, but it rings!”
“Jazz Baby” (from Thoroughly Modern Millie, 1967)
Though Channing’s film career never really caught fire, she had a smattering of memorable onscreen roles — especially in the 1967 rom-com Thoroughly Modern Millie. Perhaps owing to Dolly, Channing had begun to be typecast as eccentric characters who were widows or spinsters; in Millie, she’s a wealthy Long Island widow. During a party scene, Channing sings the “Jazz Baby,” a 1919 standard about being born with jazz so in your DNA that even your first steps are syncopated.
“Looking Back” (from Lorelei, 1973)
In 1973, Channing returned to her early success in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes with Lorelei, a musical reboot that was greeted with a tepid response. (Time’s review mostly took cheap shots, accusing Channing of being “too old for the part” and “expending her energy with utmost calculation.”)
Despite its cool reception, Lorelei fed Broadway fans another helping of a classic. In the opening number “Looking Back,” Lorelei recalls her wacky adventures in Blondes.
“Mamie is Mimi” (from Lorelei, 1973)
Lorelei starts a chain-reaction of hurt in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes when she dates an Olympic sportsman, Josephus Gage. When Gus returns from his trip to Little Rock, he gets revenge by dating a dancer named Gloria Stark. During a nightclub scene, Gloria sings the jazzy “Mamie is Mimi” onstage; in the Lorelei remake, Channing takes a suitably sassy verse, adding fuel to the fire of this love triangle.
“Back Street Affair” (feat. Webb Pierce) (from C&W, 1976)
“Unlikely” doesn’t begin to cover it when it comes to C&W, a 1976 duet album between Channing and country star Webb Pierce. The pair amiably saunter through a collection of Old West standards, but this is no Ernest Tubb and Loretta Lynn; Channing’s grasp of a tune is tenuous, and her singular pronunciation (“never” is “nyever”) overwhelms the production. Still, for its bizarro factor alone, their version of Billy Wallace and Jimmy Rule’s down-home standard “Back Street Affair” must be heard.
“Jam Tomorrow” (from Alice in Wonderland, 1985)
Did you know that Channing appeared in a 1980s film version of Alice in Wonderland and sang about jam? It’s true: Channing waltzes into this forgotten flick as the White Queen, looking tipsily flustered as a stunned-looking Alice fixes her shawl. Then, Channing delivers a spectacularly strange musical performance, flipping Lewis Carroll’s “jam today, jam tomorrow” passage in From The Looking-Glass into a ditty that must be heard to believed.
In a way, this weird curio sums up Channing: an artist who was never afraid to go out on a limb and achieve weird, singular transcendence. Today, we all mourn this Queen.