She paved the way for countless artists with a folk career to stand the test of time.
This Friday, Grammy winner Judy Collins will recreate her first solo performance at New York City’s Town Hall in a special Wolf Trap streaming event at 8 p.m.
“Before I ever got to Wolf Trap, I sang at Town Hall,” Collins told WTOP. “It was my first solo concert in 1964. … I was in the Village, surrounded by all these wonderful singer-songwriters — Bob Dylan, Tom Paxton and Shel Silverstein — so I had a batch of new songs to sing. … I’m doing Bob Dylan’s ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattiie Carrol.'”
Born in Seattle in 1939, Collins grew up in Denver as a classically trained pianist and singer thanks to her father, a blind man who hosted a radio show for 30 years.
“I was practicing my Rachmaninov when I turned on the radio,” Collins said. “There, on the radio, was ‘The Gypsy Rover’ [and] that was it. … I was off to the races.”
She began performing at Michael’s Pub in Boulder, The Exodus in Denver and The Gilded Garter in Central City, Colorado, where she first met Dylan, who was a fan.
“He was homeless and he looked raggedy,” Collins said. “He would sit on the floor and listen to me at that funky club. … I opened for a guy named Bob Gibson. … He called Jac Holzman, the president of Electra Records, and said, ‘I found your Joan Baez.'”
Holzman came to watch her in Denver but didn’t think she was quite ready for the long haul. Two years later, he came to see her again, only this time in New York City, where she had moved to join the vibrant Greenwich Village folk scene of the early 1960s.
“He said, ‘Judy, my dear, you’re ready to make an album,'” Collins said.
At 22 years old, she recorded her debut album, “A Maid of Constant Sorrow” (1961). She became a household name with “Wildflowers” (1967), featuring the Joni Mitchell-penned “Both Sides, Now,” which won Collins a Grammy for Best Folk Performance.
“I was very lucky,” Collins said. “My friend, Al Kooper, who started Blood Sweat & Tears, knew my phone number by heart. At 3 in the morning, he called me; I was sound asleep. … I had already been discovered by Leonard Cohen and had sung a lot of Canadian songs. … He put Joni Mitchell on and she sang me ‘Both Sides, Now.'”
Other hits followed: “Someday Soon,” “Chelsea Morning” and “Cook with Honey,” but her biggest was on her album “Judith” (1975) in Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns” from Broadway’s “A Little Night Music” (1973). Sondheim won Song of the Year, while Collins was nominated for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance.
“I didn’t know who Sondheim was,” Collins said. “I put the needle on the [record] and immediately called Hal Prince, who was his producer. I said, ‘You have a great song.’ He said, ‘Yes, 200 people have recorded it.’ I said, ‘I don’t care. I have to sing it.'”
Her relationship with Stephen Stills inspired him to write “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” which became a smash hit on the eponymous first album by Crosby, Stills & Nash.
“Yes, it was written about me,” Collins said. “About two years ago … we did a tour together, 115 concerts in a year and a half, Stephen and I did. … We had a wonderful time, and at the end of each of those shows, we sang ‘Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.'”
Today, the Library of Congress has inducted her Oscar-nominated documentary “Antonia: A Portrait of the Woman” into the National Film Registry, while inducting her rendition of “Amazing Grace” into the National Recording Registry.
“The Library of Congress bought my archives a number of years ago,” Collins said. “You get everything out the door and then, all of the sudden, it starts building up again over the past 10 years, so I have to get them over here to take the rest of this stuff!”
Outside of music, she’s an activist in alcohol, depression and suicide prevention, maintaining her sobriety when her only son, Clark, killed himself at 33 years old. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention gave her its Survivor Award in 2000.
“My main job after my son’s death was not to kill myself, because I had tried when I was a teenager; I was suicidal many years I was drinking,” Collins said. “I’m in my 43rd year now of being sober. I feel very strongly about recovery. I know it’s possible.”
Find tickets and more information here.