An ethereally voiced singer on the folk and pop scenes of the 1960s and 1970s, Judy Collins gained fame as an insightful and impassioned interpreter of popular songs, including her Grammy-winning signature tune, Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now," during the course of an award-winning, four-decade career. Initially aligned with the coffeehouse folk movement of the early 1960s, Collins began exploring the songs of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, as well as more pop- and rock-oriented acts like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. Her crystalline voice and willingness to experiment with genre and sound made her a favorite of listeners and audiences alike, who flocked to her in the 1970s with her take on Stephen Sondheim's "Send in the Clowns." Personal issues derailed her career in the late 1970s, leaving her struggling to regain her footing in the subsequent decade, but her persistence and wide body of accomplished recordings kept her a perennial favorite among audiences who had grown up listening to her music, as well as younger fans who received her records from older family members. Still prolific as a recording and touring artist in the 21st century, Collins' career was a rare and enduring instance when folk and pop sensibilities merged with seamless beauty and style.
Born Judith Marjorie Collins on May 1, 1939 in Seattle, WA, she was the first of five children of Charles Thomas "Chuck" Collins, a radio singer and popular disc jockey, and his wife, Marjorie. Collins' father helped inspire her interest in music, and she began taking piano lessons at the age of five. After moving to Denver, she began studying piano with Dr. Antonia Brico, the acclaimed pianist and conductor. Collins showed promise as a concert pianist, but as she grew into her teens, she developed a fascination for folk music, and took up the guitar. In 1958, she dropped out of MacMurray College in Illinois to marry Peter Taylor, a student at the University of Colorado. The following year, she gave birth to their son, Clark Taylor.
To help her new family make ends meet, Collins enlisted her father to help her land a singing job at a club in Boulder. Her lilting alto voice and earnest presence gained her an audience, and by 1960, she was performing throughout Colorado. That same year, her husband received a teaching fellowship at the University of Connecticut, forcing Collins to begin commuting to New York to perform at Greenwich Village clubs. In 1961, she signed with Elektra Records, which saw her as its answer to Joan Baez. That same year, she released her debut album, A Maid of Constant Sorrow, which featured her voice and guitar on an array of traditional folk songs and traditional material from Ireland, which she had learned from her father. Its follow-up, Golden Apples of the Sun (1962), featured a similar list of songs and spare arrangements.
The demands of her performing career took its toll on Collins' marriage to Taylor, leading to a separation in 1962 and a divorce two years later. Her career, however, continued its upward momentum with an appearance at Carnegie Hall in 1962 among the highlights. She gained further ground with Judy Collins No. 3 (1964), which saw her move away from traditional folk material and delve into covers of more politically and socially committed performers as Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Shel Silverstein. The album marked her debut on the Billboard Top 150, and was immediately followed by The Judy Collins Concert (1964), a live album comprised of previously unrecorded material, including songs by Dylan, Seeger, Tom Paxton and Fred Neil. An international tour of Europe and Asia in 1965 and 1966 bookended her fifth album, appropriately titled Judy Collins' Fifth Album (1965), which featured such established folk music figures as Richard Farina and John Sebastian. It broke the Top 100 and further elevated her into the public consciousness.
Collins changed the formula again with her sixth album, 1966's In My Life, which featured sweeping orchestral arrangements of songs by Dylan, Randy Newman, The Beatles, and an up-and-coming Canadian composer named Leonard Cohen, whose profile received a considerable boost from Collins' cover of "Suzanne." The album, which also featured Collins' take on show tunes by Bertolt Brecht and Jacques Brel, was her first to receive gold sales status. The true turning point in Collins' career was Wildflowers (1967), which reached No. 5 on the pop charts on the strength of her cover of Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now." The song earned her a 1968 Grammy for Best Folk Performance, as well as became a radio staple. Now firmly established as one of the top pop artists of the 1960s, she further broadened her horizons with 1968's "Who Knows Where the Time Goes, which took her in a country-rock direction. Participating musicians included the veteran guitarist James Burton, pop iconoclast Van Dyke Parks, and Stephen Stills, with whom she was romantically involved, and who penned the Crosby Stills and Nash classic "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes" for her.
The 1970s were a prolific period for Collins, who continued to tour and release albums at a steady clip, including 1970's Whales and Nightingales, which generated a surprise Top 40 hit with her version of "Amazing Grace." In 1974, she paid homage to her early mentor, Antonia Brico, by directing "Antonia: A Portrait of the Woman" (1974), which earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary. The following year, she scored another iconic hit with a 1975 cover of Stephen Sondheim's Grammy-winning "Send in the Clowns," which was featured on her album Judith. The song enjoyed a second round of popularity when it was featured on So Early in the Spring (1977), a double-LP celebration of her first 15 years in the music industry. During this period, Collins also appeared on "Sesame Street" (PBS, 1969- ), and would continue to do so throughout the 1970s. Her guest shots, filled with gentle humor and grace, won her a new audience among its young viewers, who purchased her albums as they grew into their teenaged and adult years.
Unbeknownst to many, Collins' relentless schedule of recording and touring was taking its toll on her physical and emotional wellbeing. She struggled with bulimia after quitting smoking in the early part of the decade, and also suffered from alcoholism and depression. In 1978, she entered a rehabilitation program, and later found love with industrial designer Louis Nelson, who would become her longtime partner and eventual husband. Her attempts to rebuild her career were initially met with disinterest by her label, which had become a division of a larger entity, Warner Bros. The lack of success generated by 1979's Hard Times for Lovers and Running for My Life in 1980 eventually led to her parting ways with Elektra in 1984. She later signed with a pair of British labels, Telstar and Gold Castle, and worked on a memoir, Trust Your Head, which saw publication in 1987. Three years later, she returned to a major label with Fires of Eden (1990) for Columbia.
In 1992, Collins' son, Clark Taylor, committed suicide. She exorcised her grief through a variety of mediums, including frequent touring, a 1995 novel, Shameless, and a series of further memoirs, including 1998's Singing Lessons: A Memoir of Love, Loss, Hope and Healing. In 1993, she performed at President Bill Clinton's inauguration, where her set list including a cover of Joni Mitchell's "Chelsea Morning," the Clintons' acknowledged inspiration for the name of their daughter. She launched her own record label, Wildflower Records, in 1999, and produced an astonishing number of new albums and repackaging of her classic material. In 2007, she made her debut as a cabaret singer at the Carlyle Hotel in New York City.