Of the artists who enjoyed success in the folk music boom of the early '60s, very few had a career as long and varied as Judy Collins, in large part because she displayed a stylistic range matched by few of her peers.
While Collins was a gifted songwriter who penned a few of her best songs, including "Since You Asked," "My Father," and "Secret Gardens," it was her talent and versatility as an interpretive vocalist that brought her lasting success. Collins had a strong, clear voice that was adaptable to everything from Appalachian folk (1961's A Maid of Constant Sorrow), pop-inflected folk-rock (her hit cover of Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now" from 1967's Wildflowers), show tunes ("Send in the Clowns" from 1975's Judith), artful a cappella ("Amazing Grace" and "Farewell to Tarwathie" from 1970's Whales & Nightingales), ambitious narrative pieces ("Marat/Sade" from 1966's In My Life, "Che" from 1973's True Stories & Other Dreams), and the work of contemporary songwriters such as Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, and Jacques Brel. The unifying factors of Collins' work have always been the maturity and depth in her performances and a commitment to quality songwriting, and she's upheld her high standards through a career that has spanned six decades.
Judith Marjorie Collins was born in Seattle, Washington on May 1, 1939. She was the oldest of five children, and her father Charles Thompson Collins was a vocalist, radio host, and pianist. When she was ten years old, her family left Seattle and settled in Denver, Colorado. Collins had developed a strong interest in music, and she began taking piano lessons from Antonia Brico, a pioneering classical musician who was one of the first women to conduct a major symphony orchestra. Brico believed Collins had the potential to become a celebrated professional pianist, and at 13, she made her public debut with a performance of Mozart's Concerto for Two Pianos. However, to Brico's chagrin, Collins became fascinated with folk music after embracing the songs of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, and gave up her piano lessons to focus on learning the guitar. (In 1974, Collins produced and co-directed with Jill Godmilow a documentary about Brico, Antonia: A Portrait of the Woman, which was nominated for an Academy Award.)
By the time Collins had graduated from high school, she was playing folk music at clubs in Denver and Boulder. In 1958, the 18-year-old married Peter Taylor, and less than a year later, she gave birth to a son, Clark Taylor. Collins supported the family by playing at a pub in Boulder, where she earned $100 a week and all the pizza and beer she wanted. The family moved East when Taylor accepted a teaching position at the University of Connecticut, and Collins became a fixture on the local folk music scene, making a name for herself on the East Coast. After regular appearances in New York City, Collins was approached by Elektra Records, a forward-thinking label that was enjoying success with several contemporary folk artists. Collins and Elektra struck a deal, and her first album, A Maid of Constant Sorrow, was released in 1961.
A Maid of Constant Sorrow and its follow-up, 1962's Golden Apples of the Sun, were dominated by traditional folk material, but for 1963's Judy Collins 3, she started including the work of current singers and songwriters, including Bob Dylan and Shel Silverstein, and it included a version of Pete Seeger's "Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is a Season)" arranged by Roger McGuinn, two years before McGuinn would turn the song into a hit single with the Byrds. After releasing a live album in 1964, 1965's Fifth Album was filled with songs from the new school of original and often topical songwriters who were dominating the folk scene, including Dylan, Phil Ochs, Gordon Lightfoot, Richard Fariña, and Eric Andersen. While the album featured spare acoustic arrangements on most tunes, Collins walked away from the strict confines of folk on 1966's In My Life, which included sophisticated production and arrangements from Joshua Rifkin, as well as narrative songs from theater pieces ("Pirate Jenny" and "Marat/Sade"), and two tracks from a Canadian poet and novelist Collins had befriended, Leonard Cohen. (It would be a year before Cohen would release his debut album). The album was made while Collins was also going through personal changes, as she and Taylor divorced in 1965.
1967's Wildflowers marked a turning point for Collins. Once again arranged by Rifkin (with Mark Abramson producing), the album featured three songs from Cohen, two from the then-little-known Joni Mitchell, and three compositions from Collins herself, marking the first time she had recorded her own material. One of the Joni Mitchell songs, "Both Sides Now," became a Top Ten hit, and helped Wildflowers make a significant dent in the pop charts, winning Collins her first gold record. 1968's Who Knows Where the Time Goes found Collins dipping her toes into country rock on "Someday Soon" and "First Boy I Loved," and featured guitar work from Stephen Stills, who would be Collins' collaborator and sometimes romantic partner over the next few years. (She was the inspiration for the Crosby, Stills & Nash classic "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.") 1970's Whales & Nightingales scored two hits with truly unusual material -- an a cappella version of the popular spiritual "Amazing Grace" with Collins accompanied by a choir, and an interpretation of the classic whaling ballad "Farewell to Tarwathie" that paired her vocals with recordings of the sounds of humpback whales.
In 1971, Collins dropped her second concert album, Living, and the compilation Colors of the Day: The Best of Judy Collins followed a year later. 1973's True Stories and Other Dreams found her in a contemplative mood, featuring an original song about a friend who took his own life ("Song for Martin") and another about the life of Che Guevara ("Che"). For 1975's Judith, Collins teamed with producer Arif Mardin, who gave the album a polished, sophisticated sound; Judith spawned a massive hit single with her mournful version of Stephen Sondheim's "Send in the Clowns," and it would become her best-selling work, eventually going platinum. As Collins stepped up to a higher level of stardom, the longtime activist put political themes at the forefront of 1976's Bread & Roses. Following the release of the album, Collins underwent treatment for damaged vocal cords, and after years of struggling with alcoholism, she sought medical help to give up drinking. In 1978, while at a fundraising event for the Equal Rights Amendment, she met Louis Nelson, an artist and designer. He would soon become her partner, and in 1996, they married.
In 1979, Collins returned to music with Hard Times for Lovers, a pop-oriented album in the same vein as Judith; she originally intended the cover to feature a fully nude portrait of herself by photographer Francesco Scavullo, but Elektra opted for a discretely cropped version instead. 1980's Running for My Life and 1982's Time of Our Lives were well-crafted exercises in adult pop and soft rock, but as tastes changed, Collins' sales were on the decline. 1984's Home Again found Collins exploring some new musical avenues, including a synth-based cover of Yaz's "Only You" and a duet with country star T.G. Sheppard on the title cut. While the "Home Again" single was a minor hit, the album was not, and after 23 years, Collins and Elektra parted ways. Wasting no time, Collins traveled to England and struck a one-off deal with Telstar Records to record 1985's Amazing Grace, in which she recut several of her better known songs and numbers with an inspirational bent with the accompaniment of an orchestra and a choir. In 1987, Collins signed with the independent Gold Castle label, and her first album for them, Trust Your Heart, pulled seven tracks from Amazing Grace and added three new selections. 1987 also saw the publication of her first book, a memoir also called Trust Your Heart.
1989 saw the release of two albums, a live set titled Sanity and Grace and a collaboration with clarinetist Richard Stoltzman, Innervoices. The following year, Collins was back in the major-label game with the release of Fires of Eden, her first (and last) album for Columbia. 1990 also saw the release of a pair of children's albums, Baby's Morningtime and Baby's Bedtime. In 1992, Collins suffered a severe personal blow when her son Clark committed suicide; like his mother, he struggled with alcoholism, and was said to have fallen into a deep depression after he slipped back into drinking. For her next album, Collins turned to a project that was both personal and familiar, a set of Bob Dylan covers titled Judy Collins Sings Dylan: Just Like a Woman. Released in 1993, the album was a commercial success and reminded fans she was still active and in fine voice. In 1994, Collins released her first Christmas album, Come Rejoice! A Judy Collins Christmas. It would prove to be the first in a series, with other holiday releases following in 1997 (Christmas at the Biltmore Estate), 2000 (All on a Wintry Night), and 2003 (Christmas).
Collins combined her interests in music and literature for her next project. In 1995, she published a novel, Shameless, that took place against the backdrop of the music business, and she also released an album of the same name that was a de facto "soundtrack," featuring songs that she wrote for the fictive artists in the story. In 1998, Collins published her third book, Singing Lessons: A Memoir of Love, Loss, Hope and Healing, which focused on her struggles with alcoholism, depression, and the emotional trauma of her son's death. 1999's Classic Broadway was, as the title suggests, a collection of vintage show tunes, and that same year, Collins launched her own label, Wildflower Records, with the album Live at Wolf Trap. She published her fourth book in 2003, Sanity and Grace: A Journey of Suicide, Survival and Strength, in which she revealed her battles with depression and self-harm in the wake of her son's passing. Her journey through grief would be the subject of another book, 2007's The Seven T's: Finding Hope and Healing in the Wake of Tragedy.
Collins maintained a busy release schedule via Wildflower, issuing numerous live albums and reissues as well as new material such as 2005's Portrait of an American Girl, 2008's Bohemian, and 2010's Paradise, all of which focused on her continued strength as an interpretive vocalist. 2011 brought another memoir from Collins, Sweet Judy Blue Eyes: My Life in Music, which put its focus on her career as an artist. Collins paid homage to some of her favorite songwriters as well as her favorite vocalists with the 2015 album Strangers Again, which featured duets with Willie Nelson, Jackson Browne, Jeff Bridges, and Glen Hansard. The album also included a track with singer and songwriter Ari Hest, and Collins and Hest joined forces again for a full album together, 2016's Silver Skies Blue. Collins returned to the work of the songwriter who gave her "Send in the Clowns" with 2017's A Love Letter to Stephen Sondheim, and the same year, she and her longtime friend Stephen Stills collaborated on an album, Everybody Knows. It was a busy year for Collins; in addition to the two albums, she bared her soul in another book, Cravings: How I Conquered Food, where she opened up about her difficult relationship with food and her years of dealing with eating disorders. ~ Mark Deming, Rovi