A folk-pop singer, Judy Collins rose to fame in the 1960s and 1970s with such hits as “Both Sides Now” and “Send In the Clowns.”
One of the leading singers of the 1960s and 1970s, Judy Collins was born on May 1, 1939, in Seattle, Washington. She grew up in Denver, Colorado, where she began studying classical piano at an early age. In her teens, Collins turned to folk music. She scored her first commercial hit in 1967 with "Both Sides Now." Now in her seventies, Collins continues to record and perform her music.
The oldest of five children, Judy Collins spent much of her childhood in Denver, Colorado. There she began studying classical piano with conductor Antonia Brico. At the age of 13, Collins made her debut with a local orchestra. She also performed with school groups and at church.
Her father, a blind radio broadcaster, proved to be a strong influence on Collins. He was a singer and musician as well. As a child Collins was exposed to many American standards, including the timeless songs of Cole Porter and Irving Berlin, through her father. She also learned such traditional tunes as "Danny Boy." Years later, Collins credited her father for teaching her how to pick good songs.
As a teenager, Collins went through her own musical revolution. She had been expected to become a classical pianist, but she broke away from her training to follow her passion for folk music, especially the songs of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. Collins soon learned to play the guitar and later began performing in local clubs around 1959.
Living in New York City in the early 1960s, Collins became a fixture in the city's folk scene, performing at famous Greenwich Village venues such as the Village Vanguard and the Gaslight. Collins landed a recording deal with Elektra Records in 1961 after the label's president saw her perform. She released her first album, A Maid of Constant Sorrow that same year, which featured several traditional songs.
Known for her clear, crisp soprano voice, Collins had begun incorporating more contemporary songs in her recordings by the release of 1964's Judy Collins #3. The album also marks the first time Collins recorded songs written by Bob Dylan. A critical success, the recording received a Grammy nomination.
Collins covered three more Dylan tunes for 1965's Fifth Album, including "Mr. Tambourine Man." She also recorded songs by Phil Ochs and Gordon Lightfoot as well. With a knack for picking songs, Collins also helped boost the musical career of Canadian writer Leonard Cohen with her 1966 album In My Life. Her version of Cohen's "Suzanne" became a minor hit. Collins also recorded a song by Randy Newman, another up-and-coming singer-songwriter.
While she was a popular live act for years, Collins did not have a commercial hit until the 1967 album Wildflowers. She broke into the top ten of the pop charts with the ballad "Both Sides Now," which was written by Joni Mitchell, a relative unknown at the time. The song proved to be a critical success as well with Collins winning a Grammy Award for it in 1968. Wildflowers also featured a number of tracks written by Collins herself, showcasing her growing confidence in her own abilities as a songwriter.
Collins scored another hit with her rendition of the gospel song "Amazing Grace" in the early 1970s. As the decade progressed, Collins's music evolved, taking on more of a pop sound. She enjoyed great success with her version of Stephen Sondheim's "Send in the Clowns" from the 1973 musical A Little Night Music. The song earned her a Grammy nomination and Sondheim took home the award for Song of the Year. Her recording of the song hit the charts twice, first in 1975 and then in 1977.
Other Creative Endeavors
In 1969, Collins made her stage debut appearing in a New York City revival of Peer Gynt with Stacy Keach and Olympia Dukakis. She later made other appearances on television, including guest spots on The Muppet Show and Sesame Street. Working behind the camera, Collins produced and co-directed the 1974 documentary Antonia: A Portrait of the Woman about her former piano teacher. The film received an Academy Award nomination.
Collins also took up writing. In her memoirs Collins has shared her many triumphs and tragedies. She has tackled such difficult topics as her only child's suicide in 1992 and her own battles with alcoholism, drug abuse, and bulimia. Her books include Sanity and Grace: A Journey of Suicide, Survival, and Strength (2006) and Sweet Judy Blue Eyes: My Life in Music (2011). Collins has also penned a novel, 1995's Shameless.
For much of her career, Collins has supported a number of social and political causes. She has been a champion for equal rights for women and civil rights. During the 1960s and 1970s, Collins appeared at numerous protests calling for the end of the Vietnam War. She also helped African Americans register to vote in the South.
Collins was a supporter of the Youth International Party, a liberal political organization founded by Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. In 1968, Collins went to Chicago to sing in support of the party's demonstrations during the Democratic National Convention. Hoffman, Rubin, and several others were arrested for their protest activities. Collins, along with writer Norman Mailer, Reverend Jesse Jackson, fellow folk singer Arlo Guthrie, and others, testified in support of the so-called Chicago Seven during their trial.
In the mid-1990s, Collins turned her attention to the needs of children. She became a UNICEF goodwill ambassador in 1995. In her role for UNICEF, Collins has traveled to Vietnam, Bosnia, Herzegovina, and Macedonia. She supports fundraising efforts for the organization's international programs and also campaigns to abolish landmines.
Now in her seventies, Collins continues to pursue her creative passions. She established her own label, Wildflower Records, in 2000 to release her own music and to support the work of other artists. Through Wildflower, Collins put out 2010's Paradise, which features appearances by Stephen Stills and Joan Baez.
Collins maintains a heavy tour schedule, playing more than 80 dates per year. She is also popular on the lecture circuit, giving talks about mental health issues and suicide prevention.
Judy Collins was married to Peter Taylor from 1958 to 1965. The couple had one child together, a son named Clark. In the late 1960s, she became involved with singer and musician Stephen Stills, and he turned their relationship and breakup into the 1969 song "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes." Collins also dated actor Stacy Keach for a time. She has been married to Louis Nelson since 1996.