|JUDY COLLINS: an Intense Look at and
Exclusive Interview with Empire:ZINE
by : T. Fennel Crenshaw
"Writing is a voice that calls us from dreams, that peeks out of the corner of our eyes when we think no one is looking, the longing that breaks our hearts even when we think we should be happiest, and to which we cannot give a name."
Page 1 I first saw Judy Collins perform during the hustling-bustling Christmas holiday season of 1995. Her performance, I will never forget. In a quaint setting, surrounded by colored stained glassed windows of a old church turned performing arts center, and amidst a sold out gathering of 500 guests, Judy Collins reached out with her silvery voice and let loose her soul to do what it does best... heal hearts and spirits with music and song. I could sense the old church that use to be, come alive again with the fires of conviction and good will towards all, as she closed with an emotionally charged Amazing Grace. She invited us to sing and we did, our voices lifted together and became one. The old building served its originally intended purpose well that night. I came away from her performance with a new found sense of peace and comfort and Christmas took on a deeper meaning than it had held before. For me, and millions more who have followed her career, Judy Collins defines the words others seem to toss about so randomly when they speak of "Passion" and "Giving." Her extraordinary passion for music and song, and her long held commitments to such causes as UNICEF for children world-wide, women's issues, civil rights, and non-violence have forged together making her a spokesperson not just for this country, but for all human kind. We, her fans always know of her ability to touch people intimately with her music and of her heart of gold. She is among the company of a select few artists that have given so much of themselves in fulfilling the intent and purpose God has chosen for them. Judy has the unique ability of transforming space and time through her music, interpreting her gift of song with a magical quality that can only come from the heart. From her beginnings as a classically trained pianist, followed by troubadour wanderings with guitar in hand through the coffee shops of the 60's folk movement, then "sudden success" with "Both Sides Now" in 1967, through 29 albums later to her latest Elektra Records release-Judy Collins Forever: An Anthology, Judy graciously spans the annals of the last 4 decades. Judy was born in Seattle, Washington and was raised in a musical family. Her father was a professional singer, composer, philosopher, and radio star during the golden age of the wireless. Mentioning he was blind also serves no purpose other than giving background, for it seems he achieved everything in life he set his heart on. Judy began playing piano at age 5 and was mentored beginning at age 10, by the famed conductor Antonia Brico. Dr. Brico, who had made her name by conducting major symphony orchestras in the United States and Europe, saw that Judy had her first grand piano soon after because she felt Judy was,"...destined to become a great classical pianist." At the tender age of 13, under the watchful eye of Dr. Brico, Judy made her public debut performing Mozart's "Concerto for Two Pianos." She was a smashing success. By age 15, however, Judy had met many great singers through her father and she convinced him to buy her first guitar. The folk revival music of Woody Guthrie, and Pete Seeger, along with a newly found love of lyric's were to shape her future more than she could have imagined. Judy found her way to the local folk clubs and coffee shops of Denver and there, first started performing the great songs of the day. She fell in love with a childhood sweetheart, married, and at age 19 gave birth to her son, Clark Taylor. A whim of an idea on how to support her household while her husband attended classes led Judy to her first "professional" appearance at a local folk club. This brought her to the attention of other club owners in the area and eventually throughout Colorado and the mid-west. It wasn't long before Judy was heading east to perform at the famed Gate of Horn in Chicago, and in New York City at various Greenwich Village nightspots. The folk movement was in full swing and Judy fit the bill to a T with her renditions of the classic songs of the era. "My recording Career began on an overcast, chilly Sunday afternoon in Greenwich Village in the winter of 1961... " In 1961, after an appearance at The Village Gate, Judy met and began her life-long friendship with Jac Holzman, the president of Elektra Records, when he approached her and said, "...you're ready to make a record, dear!" So began a 24 year long relationship with Elektra that night. Judy soon after recorded her first album of folk standards entitled Maid Of Constant Sorrow, at a studio in Manhattan in a little more than 5 hours time. Her second album, The Golden Apples of The Sun followed and made her a familiar face to folk music fans across the country. By the time Judy's third album came, she was separated from her husband and fighting for the custody for her son. It was during this time Judy was invited to perform for President Kennedy in Washington, D.C. The times were beginning to change rapidly and the songs of singer-songwriters such as the likes of Bob Dylan, Pete Seegar, and others were beginning to take root in the country. Judy was now living in Greenwich Village, New York and associating with songwriters who had their fingers on the pulse of the nation and its turbulent times. New and exciting anthems featuring bold lyrics about politics and people were to shape forever how the 60's would be defined for generations to come. In 1964, Judy surrounded herself with other civil rights activists and headed to Mississippi to work with the movements there to register black voters and support their right to vote. Judy took a lot of comfort from singing and traveling with Fanny Lou Hammer drawing from her inspiration the ability to carry on and do what needed to be done. In 1965, Judy recorded her first "Live" solo concert in New York at The Town Hall. She also lost custody of her son. She found her world come crashing down with this weight and buried her anguish and grief in her work. "I think of great songwriters as Gods and Goddesses. Bringing me gifts, as surely tagged with my name as though they had been written for me." In 1966, Judy met Leonard Cohen, a published poet, and writer from Canada who had just written his first songs, "Suzanne," and "Dress Rehearsal Rag." Judy fell in love with them and recorded both. Since then she has recorded 10 of his songs and in the process, helped made Leonard's name famous in its own right. Richard Farina also was a poet, artist, and friend who happened to pen songs that caught Judy's ear. "Hard Lovin' Loser" and "Pack Up Your Sorrows" (co-written with his wife Mimi, who is the younger sister of Joan Baez) found their way onto Judy's albums. Peter Brook and Richard Peaslee's theater piece Marat Sade sparked Judy's interest and she flew off to England with her producer, Mark Abramson, to record a suite she had arranged of the music from the acclaimed play. Dylan's "Tom Thumb's Blues," and "Masters Of War," (eventually a whole album of Dylan songs) Randy Newman's "I think It's Going To Rain Today," Lennon & McCartney's "My Life," Seeger's "Turn, Turn, Turn," Sandy Denny's "Who Knows Where The Time Goes," Steven Goodman's "City Of New Orleans", Mick Jagger and Keith Richard's "Salt Of The Earth," Stephen Sondheim's "Send In The Clowns," The Eagle's "Desperado,"...the list could go on and on. But by far the most important songwriter Judy was to meet and record was Joni Mitchell, and the song that launched Judy to "over-night success" and earned her first of 4 Grammy Nomination was "Both Sides Now." 1967 saw Judy launched to the forefront of popular music, known now not just as another folk singer, but as an important artist in her own merit. Her album of that year, Wildflowers, included the top ten hit "Both Sides Now" and Judy's own songs, her first attempts at writing. Wildflowers included "Since You've Asked," "Albatross," along with "Skyfell," and featured the distinctive orchestration of Josh Rifkin throughout every song. Wildflowers, was a total departure from anything else Judy had previously recorded, and its success opened up a whole new realm of possibilities. The next 12 years were to be Judy's crowning years in the spotlight. As the 60's disintegrated with the murders of Dr. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, and the war in Vietnam raged on, Judy continued to record magical and turbulent songs of her own, and others. Judy regained custody of her son, toured, and marched and sang at anti-war rallies. Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison all died from too much, too fast, and the Country struggled on into the 70's, with hopes of peace and love, all set to the back-beat of music from the great singer-songwriters of the day. Judy found top-ten success again in 1971 with a recording of "Amazing Grace" and captured her concerts of that year on another live album called Living. Colors Of The Day, a compilation of Judy's hits followed in 72 with such greats as "Chelsea Morning," from which President and Mrs. Clinton named their daughter, "Someday Soon," and "Who Knows Where The Time Goes." Colors Of The Day, has remained one of the WEA's Top 50 catalogue albums for the past 26 years straight. In 1974, Judy produced and co-directed a prize- winning documentary on the life of her former piano mentor, Dr. Brico entitled, Antonia: A Portrait Of The Women. The film received an Academy Award nomination and Time Magazine named it one of the top 10 films of the year. 1975's platinum album Judith, marked the departure of long-time friend and Elektra Records President Jac Holzman and found Judy working closely with the new president, David Geffen and engineer Phil Ramone. Judith included her hit written by Steven Sounheim, "Send In The Clowns" and further marked her place as one of pop's leading voices of all times. But in 1977 Judy began to notice an ever-growing problem with her magical voice. Further diagnosis found the need for surgery on her vocal chords and Judy was told that it might mean the end to her singing career. Judy faced circumstances squarely in the face and came out of surgery to the Doctors verdict of complete success with an expected full recovery. Her voice was stronger and clearer than ever. In 1977 Elektra also put out a fifteen year collection of Judy's best entitled So Early In The Spring. Her last album for Elektra, Home Again found Judy facing the world a changed place with the onset of the 80's and Disco. "Times were changing. The years at Elektra would be the foundation for the future. Nothing could replace the years of glorious work, the years of success. But it was time to move on." During the late 70's and 80's Judy continued to write, record, and tour the world singing her heart out for her millions of fans. But she also was battling against heartbreak, uncertainty, and the toughest foe of all, herself. The lifestyle of a pop icon had taken its toll over the years, and she was desperately searching for true love, and for inner healing. Judy had developed hepatitis and bulimia earlier in her career and found the courage to beat their effects. She battled with alcoholism, and found the will to overcome it, and she searched for that one lover in life who had eluded her all the many years...and found him. His name was Louis Nelson. Judy survived the 80's, unlike many artists of the times, and set out with Louis to design their lives together for the 90's. With the release of her autobiography, Trust Your Heart in 87 and her signing to Columbia Records in 1990 with the new album Fires Of Eden, and her command performance for President and Mrs. Clinton, times seem brighter than they ever had before. But ultimate heartbreak soon followed in 1993 with the suicide of her son, Clark. "I've gone through many, many things. I tell you something, that if it doesn't kill you, you get stronger. There is never a guarantee that it won't kill you. Because I think I've gone through the single most difficult thing that a person can survive." Her work and passion for living brought Judy through the single most trying time of her life. Although she stopped working briefly, Judy found the courage to get on with her life and went on to record an album of Bob Dylan's greatest hits. In 1994, she became a spokesperson for UNICEF and again spoke out against the harsh realities of war with "Song Of Sarajevo," written prior to her trip to Bosnia and Vietnam. Her first novel, Shameless, came out in 1995 and included a companion album of original songs which received rave reviews from the critics, with writers across the country citing her continued relevance and remarkable career. Judy also began acting again. In 1969, she had played the part of Solvieg in Peer Gynt opposite Stacy Keach with the New York's Shakespeare Festival. The CBS series "Christy" found Judy playing the recurring role of a blind folklorist set in an Appalachian town. She played opposite Arnold Schwarzenegger, Danny DeVito, and Ema Thompson in the film Junior, and will be appearing in the soon released remake of Rod Sterling's, A Town Has Turned To Dust, directed by Ron Nilsson. Soon to follow came Voices, an "unplugged" album featuring Judy alone with her piano, singing her own songs that held the most meaning, along with a picture book with autobiographical stories, a song book, and her watercolors. Arts & Entertainment Television recently featured Judy in a Christmas Special of traditional and original songs performed with the Charlotte Children's Choir at The Biltmore Estate in North Carolina. Judy Collins, Christmas At The Biltmore Estate, an album and home video, was released this past Christmas of 97. "I have tried, in all the ways I can, to make timeless music." Judy Collins Forever: an anthology, is the culmination of a golden career that goes back 35 years. Included in the 2 disc, 35 song collection are all of Judy's favorites...the ones she loves. Included are 4 new songs that blend in perfectly with the mixes of magic from long ago, but also speaks of a bright future for her-self and for all that choose to listen. Judy re recorded the classic "Chelsea Morning" to give us the best of, both worlds, the old and the new. "Walls" speaks of the horrors of war and the healing that comes afterwards, while the song "Fallow Way" gives us a glimpse as to how Judy has survived and how she looks towards the future. "Nothing Lasts Forever" features a fine collaboration with Jesse Valenzuela from the Gin Blossoms. I had the privilege and honor to interview Ms. Collins as a companion to this story and found her very accessible, charming, and wonderful to work with. Some of her responses to my questions could not hide her humbleness at being called "A Great," nor diminish her gratitude to all those that make it possible for her to do what she loves best. She will forever remain at the top of my list of influential artists and dreamers. I am eternally grateful that Ms. Collins found her own voice as a songwriter, for I would not be the same person I am without the beautiful songs she has written. I am carried away by love's possibilities when I hear "Since You've Asked" and marvel at her first feat in writing. I mourn her loss when I listen to "Born To The Breed." I rejoice in springtime's eternal promise of return while singing the "Fallow Way." In writing this story, I have heard from people of all walks of life; writers of prose, song, and lyrics, performers, business people, lay persons, mothers, fathers, young people, old, and they all say one thing in common about her music and her life.... Judy Collins is a survivor. She has overcome much to be able to give so much more. Her future is assured with generations to come, as her music will always last.... Forever.
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