Full name, Judy Marjorie Collins; born May 1, 1939, in Seattle, Wash.; daughter of Charles (a radio master of ceremonies and bandleader) and Marjorie (Byrd) Collins; married Peter A. Taylor (a university lecturer) in 1958 (divorced, 1966); children: Clark Collin Taylor. Education: Studied classical piano with musical conductor Antonia Brico; attended MacMurray College and University of Colorado. Addresses: Office-- c/o Charles R. Rothschild Productions, Inc., 330 East 48th St., New York, N.Y. 10010.

For the past three decades, Judy Collins's clear, sweet soprano and meticulous phrasing have lent a classical elegance to the varied songs of her expansive repertoire. A major figure in the folk song revival of the 1960s, Collins began her vocal career singing traditional Anglo-American ballads, giving way to the urban protest songs that captured the era's idealism and unrest. As American folk music moved away from social protest themes, and gained more sophisticated musical arrangements (often combined with rock), the singer expanded her own repertoire, delivering folk-rock, pop, show, and cabaret tunes in addition to folk classics. Ignoring the criticisms of folk purists, the individualistic Collins's eclectic choices included the caustic theatre songs of Marat/Sade and Three Penny Opera, the introspective art-songs of Leonard Cohen, the bittersweet perceptions of composer Jacques Brel, and her own poetic, autobiographical ballads. Once observing that the search for material was her greatest challenge, the folksinger reflected: "I think there is a music coming out of this culture, a real kind of tradition being written. What I'm trying to do is find songs that are the key points of our civilization."

Growing up in Denver, Colorado, Collins enjoyed a close relationship with her father, a blind radio personality and bandleader. With his encouragement she began to take piano lessons at the age of 5; her prodigious talent led to years of discipline and solitude as she prepared for a career as a concert pianist (for much of that time she studied with conductor Antonia Brico, a former pupil of Jan Sibelius). In high school Collins rebelled against the rigors of her classical training, however, abandoning the piano, and picking out the folk tunes she had grown to love on an old guitar.

At 17 she made her singing debut before an international Kiwanis Club convention, having won the Denver chapter's "Star of Tomorrow" contest. Despite her lack of formal voice training, Collins began to sing traditional folk music in local clubs in 1959. Her success led to frequent appearances on the national "coffeehouse circuit," with regular performances in Chicago, Boston, and New York; while singing at the Village Gate in New York City she was approached by an Elektra Records executive, who soon signed her to a recording contract. Collins's first two albums, A Maid of Constant Sorrow and Golden Apples of the Sun, consisted of Anglo-American folk classics, but by the LP Judy Collins #3 the vocalist had turned to the work of contemporary songwriters addressing social issues, like Bob Dylan, Tom Paxton, and Phil Ochs.

Her political consciousness stirred by friendships with such urban folksingers/songwriters (and heightened by concerts on restless college campuses), Collins became a regular performer at political rallies throughout the decade, protesting racial inequality and the Vietnam War. (Her political causes have since included ecology, endangered species, and abortion rights.) Still, despite her critical and popular acclaim, Collins felt limited by the conventions of folk music, and her 1966 album In My Life showed the singer's burgeoning sense of artistic adventure. A Beatle ballad, a medley of theatre songs with orchestra and full chorus, two idiosyncratic Cohen pieces (one an operatic monologue of a potential suicide) were among its offerings--an eclectic mix that Collins pursued in subsequent albums. She advanced the careers of unknown songwriters like Joni Mitchell, Randy Newman, Sandy Denny, and Robin Williamson along the way.

Beginning to write songs of her own by the end of the decade, Collins also resumed playing the piano, in accompaniment, as an alternative to her six- and twelve-string guitars. The vocalist's first gold album, Wildflowers, was released in 1967, and contained the Grammy-winning cut "Both Sides Now" (written by Mitchell). A succession of top-selling LPs followed, with Whales and Nightingales introducing Collins's next surprising big hit--an a cappella rendition of the spiritual "Amazing Grace."

Through the seventies, eighties, and beyond, Collins has continued to forge her personal style and repertoire, tending towards pop, art-songs, and show tunes; in 1975 she had another hit single with Stephen Sondheim's "Send in the Clowns." Her increased sophistication has brought with it charges of inaccessibility, however: already known for her careful diction and sense of emotional control, Collins began to be perceived as too stately and chilly. "Collins distances herself from the material and her audience," wrote Alanna Nash in a Stereo Review critique of the 1984 album Home Again, "as if she's more concerned with delivering a recital than doing any kind of real communication." Others have found Collins's idiosyncratic selection of material offputting--a complaint turned on its head by admirers, who see the performer's independence as one of her greatest virtues. A People music reviewer suggested that when Collins effects the right balance of the popular and the experimental, as in the album The Times of Our Lives, her recordings are as warm and affecting as ever. "Collins' voice sounds as sweet, clear, and lovely as it did on 1961's A Maid of Constant Sorrow, " determined People critic Ralph Novak in his review of Home Again. "She also still seems to be an extraordinarily adventuresome singer and one who never coasts; there's a lot to be said for such musical integrity."

by Nancy Pear

Judy Collins's Career

Began classical piano training at age 5, made public debut at 13 with Denver Symphony; began playing guitar and singing folk music while in high school; folk performer in Denver coffee-houses and clubs, 1959; regular performer on national coffeehouse circuit and at colleges, universities, and political rallies throughout 1960s; recording artist, 1961--; songwriter, late l960s--. Performances have included international tours, folk festivals, television specials, and annual Christmas concerts at Carnegie Hall. Made acting debut as Solveig in New York Shakespeare Festival production of Henrik Ibsen's Peer Gynt, 1969. Has served on Newport Folk Festival's board of directors.

Judy Collins's Awards

Grammy Award for recording "Both Sides Now," 1968; Academy Award nomination for documentary Antonia: A Portrait of a Woman (as writer and co-director), 1974; silver medal from Atlanta International Film Festival; blue ribbon from American Film Festival in New York City.

Famous Works

Recent Updates

September 2003: Collins's book, Sanity and Grace, is released. Source: ABCNews.com, abcnews.go.com/sections/GMA/Books/GMA031001Judy_collins_excerpt.html?cmp=EM333, October 6, 2003.

Further Reading

Books

Periodicals

Visitor Comments Add a comment…

about 9 years ago

I have always cherished in my heart the songs of judy collins beginning high school days from her LP Wildflowers to her songs in cassettes. Now I am so glad I am able to find her through the internet because of the many write ups and updates I cannot find elsewhere plus I am able to watch her perform on the videos. I wish I could see her live performance. It's a dream for now. She is truly one who is a real treasure. She-her voice and her songs- will live in my heart forever.