(Video of Judy Collins performing is at end of post.)
Judith Marjorie "Judy" Collins was born and raised in Seattle, Washington. As a child, Collins studied classical piano with Antonia Brico, making her public debut at age 13, performing Mozart's Concerto for Two Pianos. Dr. Brico took a dim view, of Collins's developing interest in folk music - especially the music of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, and the traditional songs of the folk revival of the early 1960s - which led her to discontinue her piano lessons. She met many musicians through her blind father, a Seattle radio disc jockey.
Three years after her debut as a piano prodigy, she was playing guitar at the University of Connecticut where her husband taught. She eventually made her way to Greenwich Village, New York City, where she busked and played in clubs until she signed with Elektra Records; which she was associated for 35 years.
In 1961, Collins released her first album, A Maid of Constant Sorrow, at the age of 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, Collins recorded songs by Canadian poet Leonard Cohen, who became a close friend over the years. She also recorded songs by singer-songwriters such as Joni Mitchell, Randy Newman, Robin Williamson and Richard Fariña long before they gained national acclaim.
While Collins' first few albums comprised 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. The album was regarded as a major departure for a folk artist and set the course for Collins' subsequent work over the next decade.
With her 1967 album Wildflowers, Collins began to record her own compositions, the first of which was entitled "Since You Asked." The album also provided Collins with a major hit, and a Grammy award, in Mitchell's "Both Sides, Now," which reached #8 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Collins' 1968 album, Who Knows Where the Time Goes, 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"). 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 "I Know An Old Lady who Swallowed a Fly," "Do Re Mi" and "Send in the Clowns." Collins 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."
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.
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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 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.