Singer Judy Collins was, along with Joan Baez, one of the two major interpretive singers to emerge from the folk revival of the late '50s and early '60s. Like Baez, she began singing traditional folk songs, then moved on to popularize the work of contemporary singer/songwriters, even writing her own songs occasionally. Unlike Baez, she used her classical music training to evolve into being a singer of art songs and show tunes, sometimes employing semi-classical arrangements. In a career that began at the end of the 1950s and was still going strong more than 50 years later, she consistently performed 50-80 concerts a year, and she recorded extensively, her commercial success reaching its apex from the late '60s to the mid-'70s, as six of her albums from the period achieved gold or platinum sales. Although she was primarily an albums artist, she also enjoyed a few hit singles, notably her Top Ten, Grammy-winning cover of Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now," which helped establish Mitchell as a songwriter; an a cappella version of the hymn "Amazing Grace"; and the show tune "Send in the Clowns," which led to a Song of the Year Grammy for its composer, Stephen Sondheim.
Judith Marjorie Collins was born on May 1, 1939, in Seattle, Washington, the first of five children of Charles Thomas ("Chuck") Collins, a local radio singer and MC, and Marjorie (Byrd) Collins. In the summer of 1943, the family moved to Los Angeles, where Collins' father had gotten a job at NBC. She exhibited an early interest in music and began taking piano lessons before her fifth birthday. In 1949, her father took a job in Denver, and the family moved there. The following year, just before she turned 11, Collins became a piano student of Dr. Antonia Brico, a noted conductor. Although Brico felt she had the potential to become a concert pianist, Collins gave up her classical studies in her mid-teens as she became infatuated with folk music and took up the guitar. After she graduated from East High School in Denver in 1957, she began attending MacMurray College in Illinois, but she dropped out in 1958 to marry Peter Taylor, a student at the University of Colorado, and the following year gave birth to a son, Clark Taylor.
At the suggestion of her husband that she help the young family make ends meet by singing, Collins took an engagement at Michael's Pub in Boulder, Colorado, arranged by her father, beginning on March 2, 1959. Soon, she was performing there five nights a week, and over the next year she appeared in other clubs around Colorado, including the Exodus club in Denver, where she made an informal recording that was sold locally. Her husband graduated in June 1960 and was awarded a teaching fellowship at the University of Connecticut; on their way east, the family stopped in Chicago, where Collins spent six weeks as an opening act at the prestigious folk club The Gate of Horn. Based in Storrs, Connecticut, as of the fall of 1960, Collins began commuting into New York to appear at such venues as Gerdes Folk City, and she also performed up and down the East Coast. In 1961, she was signed to the independent folk label Elektra Records as its answer to its rival Vanguard's popular female folksinger Joan Baez. She recorded her debut Elektra album, A Maid of Constant Sorrow, in August 1961, and it was released on October 15, 1961. The following year came her second LP, Golden Apples of the Sun. Both albums featured traditional folk songs that she sang over simple acoustic instrumentation.
Collins' increasing success in her career put a strain on her marriage, and she and her husband separated at the end of the summer of 1962; they divorced in 1964. In October 1962, coincident with the release of her second album, she opened for Theodore Bikel at Carnegie Hall, her first appearance in a venue where she would come to perform annually. Her third album, Judy Collins #3 (January 1964), included politically oriented songs by Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, and Pete Seeger, among others, along with traditional material; it became her first recording to reach the charts. On March 21, 1964, she made her concert debut as a headliner at Town Hall in New York, and Elektra recorded the performance for The Judy Collins Concert (October 1964), an unusual live album in that it consisted almost entirely of previously unrecorded songs, among them compositions by Dylan and Tom Paxton. Collins began to perform internationally, appearing in Poland and the Soviet Union in 1965 and in Europe and Asia in 1966. Meanwhile, she released Judy Collins' Fifth Album (November 1965), on which she sang more songs by Dylan along with ones by Eric Andersen, Richard Fariña, and Gordon Lightfoot; the album was her first to reach the Top 100.
For her sixth album, In My Life, Collins hired arranger/conductor Joshua Rifkin to create chamber pop settings for a collection of songs including show tunes (a suite drawn from the off-Broadway show Marat/Sade, Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's "Pirate Jenny" from The Threepenny Opera) and two songs by Canadian poet and novelist Leonard Cohen, "Suzanne" and "Dress Rehearsal Rag." Released in November 1966, In My Life helped establish Cohen as a singer/songwriter; it also reached the Top 50, eventually going gold, and spawned Collins' first chart single in a cover of Fariña's "Hard Lovin' Loser." Wildflowers (November 1967) did even better. Although it took Elektra nearly a year to recognize the significance of Collins' cover of "Both Sides Now" and release it as a single, the result was that both it and the LP made the Top Ten at the end of 1968, with Wildflowers becoming her first gold album and "Both Sides Now" winning her the 1968 Grammy Award for Best Folk Performance. Meanwhile, she had gone on to record the more pop/rock-oriented Who Knows Where the Time Goes (November 1968), which made the Top 30, went gold, and spawned the chart single "Someday Soon" (by Ian Tyson).
Collins included more traditional material on her ninth album, Whales & Nightingales (November 12, 1970), although the arrangements could be unusual, including a tape of whale sounds to accompany "Farewell to Tarwathie." Her choral treatment of "Amazing Grace" became a surprise hit, reaching the Top 20, as did the gold-selling LP. Living (November 2, 1971) was, like The Judy Collins Concert, a live album consisting mostly of songs she had not recorded before; along with the million-selling hits compilation Colors of the Day: The Best of Judy Collins (May 8, 1972), it filled a gap in new recordings while Collins took time off to write, formed her own company, and began working on a documentary film about her mentor, Dr. Antonia Brico. She returned with her 11th album, True Stories & Other Dreams (January 18, 1973), which featured five of her own compositions, although the hit single was Valerie Carter's "Cook with Honey," which reached the Top 40; the LP reached the Top 30. Antonia: A Portrait of the Woman, which Collins co-directed, opened in 1974 to positive reviews and went on to earn an Academy Award nomination for best documentary.
On her 12th album, Judith (March 24, 1975), Collins took more of a pop approach, employing arranger Arif Mardin and recording Sondheim's "Send in the Clowns" from the 1973 Broadway musical A Little Night Music. The result was her biggest-selling regular album, with "Send in the Clowns" initially making the Top 40. When the song was included on her two-LP compilation So Early in the Spring (July 19, 1977), it was re-promoted as a single and hit a new peak in the Top 20. Meanwhile, Collins had followed Judith with Bread & Roses (August 25, 1976), a typically eclectic set that reached the Top 30.
In the mid-'70s, Collins took time out from her career to settle personal and professional issues. In October 1977, she underwent successful laser surgery to repair her vocal cords. In April 1978, she spent time in a treatment facility to overcome alcoholism. The same month, she met industrial designer Louis Nelson, who became her life partner and, 18 years later, on April 16, 1996, her second husband. There was thus a break of two and a half years between Bread & Roses and her 14th album, Hard Times for Lovers (February 20, 1979), which reached the Top 100. Running for My Life (March 28, 1980) barely made the charts, and Times of Our Lives (January 22, 1982) was another modest seller. By this time, Elektra had gone from being an independent folk label to a division of a major label, Warner, and Collins was not a priority. The label initially rejected the next album she submitted, then agreed to release it with the inclusion of an added song, "Home Again," a duet with country singer T.G. Sheppard that made the Country and Adult Contemporary charts in the fall of 1984. The LP, also called Home Again, did not chart, however, and Collins and Elektra parted ways after more than two decades at the end of the year.
Collins contracted with the British Telstar label for an album of inspirational material named after a re-recording of "Amazing Grace" (which had been a huge hit in the U.K.), and it made the charts in Great Britain in December 1985. When she signed to the startup label Gold Castle in 1987, she used some of this material and a few new tracks to assemble Trust Your Heart (April 13, 1987), released to coincide with the publication of her autobiography of the same title. She followed it with a live album, Sanity and Grace. In 1990, she signed to Columbia Records and released Fires of Eden (October 9, 1990).
On January 15, 1992, Collins' 33-year-old son Clark Taylor committed suicide, a devastating event for her that she eventually dealt with by studying and writing about suicide in a series of books including Singing Lessons: A Memoir of Love, Loss, Hope and Healing (1998) and Sanity and Grace: A Journal of Suicide, Survival, and Strength (2003). Meanwhile, she continued to make occasional recordings, as Geffen Records released Judy Collins Sings Dylan...Just Like a Woman (November 20, 1993). In 1995, she simultaneously published a novel, Shameless, set in the music industry, and released an album of the same title featuring all-original songs. After the release of Classic Broadway on Platinum Records in 1999, she launched her own label, Wildflower Records, which issued concert recordings, re-packagings of older recordings, and new albums including Portrait of an American Girl and Judy Collins Sings Lennon & McCartney. She also continued to perform regularly. On February 13, 2007, she made her debut as a cabaret artist at the prestigious Café Carlyle in New York, launching an annual engagement there; her fourth stint ran from May 4 to June 12, 2010, and coincided with the release of a new album, Paradise. Another memoir, 2011's Suite Judy Blue Eyes, was paired with a new album, Bohemian, which featured four new original songs. Four years later, an album of duets called Strangers Again found Collins collaborating with a diverse group of singers including Willie Nelson, Glen Hansard, Jeff Bridges, and Jackson Browne. In 2016, Collins released Silver Skies Blue, a collaboration with singer/songwriter Ari Hest, featuring a mix of newly written and reworked songs. Her next record initially began as a live project exploring the music of famed composer Stephen Sondheim. The final release, 2017's A Love Letter to Stephen Sondheim, was an elegantly spare studio release with Collins' voice accompanied only by longtime pianist Russell Walden. ~ William Ruhlmann