Judith Marjorie Collins (born May 1, 1939) is an American singer and songwriter known for her eclectic tastes in the material she records (which has included folk, show tunes, pop, rock and roll and standards) and for her social activism.
Collins’ debut album A Maid of Constant Sorrow was released in 1961, but it was her cover of Joni Mitchell‘s “Both Sides, Now“, the lead single from her 1967 album Wildflowers, that gave Collins international prominence. The single hit the Top 10 on the Billboard Pop Singles chart and won Collins her first Grammy Award for Best Folk Performance. She enjoyed further success with her covers of “Someday Soon“, “Chelsea Morning“, “Amazing Grace“, and “Cook With Honey”.
Collins experienced the biggest success of her career with her cover of Stephen Sondheim‘s “Send in the Clowns” from her best-selling 1975 album Judith. The single charted on the Billboard Pop Singles chart in 1975 and then again in 1977, spending 27 nonconsecutive weeks on the chart and earning Collins a Grammy Award nomination for Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female, as well as a Grammy Award win for Sondheim for Song of the Year.
Collins was born the eldest of five siblings in Seattle, Washington, where she spent the first ten years of her life. Her father, a blind singer and radio disc jockey, took a job in Denver, Colorado in 1949, and the family moved there. Collins studied classical piano with Antonia Brico, making her public debut at age 13, performing Mozart’s Concerto for Two Pianos. Brico took a dim view, both then and later, of Collins’ developing interest in folk music, which led her to the difficult decision to discontinue her piano lessons. Years later, after she became known internationally, she invited Brico to one of her concerts in Denver. When they met after the performance, Brico took both of Collins’ hands in hers, looked wistfully at her fingers and said, “Little Judy—you really could have gone places.” Still later, Collins discovered that Brico herself had made a living when she was younger playing jazz and ragtime piano (Singing Lessons, pp. 71–72). In her early life, Collins had the good fortune of meeting many professional musicians through her father.
It was the music of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger and the traditional songs of the folk revival of the early 1960s, however, that kindled Collins’ interest and awoke in her a love of lyrics. Three years after her debut as a piano prodigy, she was playing guitar. Collins’ first public appearances as a folk artist after her graduation from Denver’s East High School were at Michael’s Pub in Boulder, Colorado and the folk club Exodus in Denver. Her music became popular at the University of Connecticut, where her husband taught. She performed at parties and for the campus radio station along with David Grisman and Tom Azarian. She eventually made her way to Greenwich Village, New York City, where she played in clubs like Gerde’s Folk City until she signed with Elektra Records, a record label she was associated with for 35 years. In 1961, Collins released her first album, A Maid of Constant Sorrow, at age 22.
At first she sang traditional folk songs or songs written by others – in particular the protest poets of the time, such as Tom Paxton, Phil Ochs, and Bob Dylan. She recorded her own versions of important songs from the period, such as Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” and Pete Seeger‘s “Turn, Turn, Turn“. Collins was also instrumental in bringing little-known musicians to a wider public. For example, she recorded songs by Canadian poet Leonard Cohen, who became a close friend over the years. She also recorded songs by singer-songwriters such as Eric Andersen, Ian Tyson, Joni Mitchell, Randy Newman, Robin Williamson and Richard Fariña long before they gained national acclaim.
While Collins’ first few albums consisted of straightforward guitar-based folk songs, with 1966’s In My Life, she began branching out and including work from such diverse sources as The Beatles, Leonard Cohen, Jacques Brel, and Kurt Weill.Mark Abramson produced and Joshua Rifkin arranged the album, adding lush orchestration to many of the numbers. The album was a major departure for a folk artist and set the course for Collins’ subsequent work over the next decade.
With her 1967 album Wildflowers, also produced by Mark Abramson and arranged by Rifkin, Collins began to record her own compositions, beginning with “Since You’ve Asked”. The album also provided Collins with a major hit and a Grammy award in Mitchell’s “Both Sides, Now“, which reached Number 8 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Collins’ 1968 album, Who Knows Where the Time Goes, was produced by David Anderle and featured back-up guitar by Stephen Stills (of Crosby, Stills & Nash), with whom she was romantically involved at the time. (She was the inspiration for Stills’s CSN classic “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes“.) Time Goes had a mellow country sound and included Ian Tyson‘s “Someday Soon” and the title track written by the UK singer-songwriter Sandy Denny. The album also featured Collins’ composition “My Father” and one of the first covers of Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on the Wire“.
By the 1970s Collins had a solid reputation as an art song singer and folksinger and had begun to stand out for her own compositions. She was also known for her broad range of material: her songs from this period include the traditional Christian hymn “Amazing Grace“, the Stephen Sondheim Broadway ballad “Send in the Clowns” (both of which were top 20 hits as singles), a recording of Joan Baez‘s “A Song for David“, and her own compositions, such as “Born to the Breed”.
In the 1970s Collins guest starred on The Muppet Show, where she sang “Leather-Winged Bat”, “I Know An Old Lady who Swallowed a Fly”, “Do Re Mi”, and “Send in the Clowns”. She also appeared several times on Sesame Street, where she performed “Fishermen’s Song” with a chorus of Anything Muppet fishermen, sang a trio with Biff and Sully using the word “yes”, and even starred in a modern musical fairy tale skit called “The Sad Princess”. She sang the theme song of the Rankin-Bass TV movie The Wind in the Willows. Collins’ 1979 album Hard Times for Lovers gained some extra publicity with the cover sleeve photograph of Collins in the nude.
In more recent years Collins has taken to writing, producing a memoir, Trust Your Heart, in 1987 and a novel, Shameless. A more recent memoir, Sanity and Grace, tells of her son Clark’s death in January 1992. With help from her manager Katherine DePaul she started Wildflower Records. Though her record sales are not what they once were, she still records and tours in the U.S., Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. She performed at President Bill Clinton‘s first inauguration in 1993, singing “Amazing Grace” and “Chelsea Morning“. (The Clintons have stated that they named their daughter, Chelsea, after Collins’ recording of the song.) In 2006, she sang “This Little Light of Mine” in a commercial for Eliot Spitzer.
In 2008 she oversaw an album featuring artists ranging from Dolly Parton and Joan Baez to Rufus Wainwright and Chrissie Hynde covering her compositions; she also released a collection of The Beatles covers, and she received an honorary doctorate from Pratt Institute on May 18 of that year. In 2010, Collins sang “The Weight of the World” at the Newport Folk Festival, a song by Amy Speace.
Collins joined the judging panel for The 7th, 9th, 10th, 11th,12th, 13th and 14th Annual Independent Music Awards , and in doing so, greatly assisted independent musicians’ careers.
In July 2012, Collins appeared as a guest artist on the Australian SBS television programme RocKwiz.
Like many other folk singers of her generation, Collins was drawn to social activism. Her political idealism also led her to compose a ballad entitled “Che” in honor of the 1960s Marxist icon Che Guevara.
Collins sympathized with the Yippie movement and was friendly with its leaders, Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. On March 17, 1968, she attended Hoffman’s press conference at the Americana Hotel in New York to announce the party’s formation. In 1969, she testified in Chicago in support of the Chicago Seven; during her testimony, she began singing Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” and was admonished by prosecutor Tom Foran and judge Julius Hoffman.