Judy Collins turns 85

When the Dakota announced a few months ago that Judy Collins would be appearing on April 30, I jumped on the tickets to get a table up against the front of the stage. Tickets for the first show sold out quickly. The Dakota then arranged for a second show, this one on April 29. Tickets again sold out quickly. We bought tickets for the April 29 show as well, up against the stage to her left. I snapped the photo below from our table.

Judy established herself in the first wave of the folk scare in the early 1960s. She came up on the scene with Tom Rush, Tom Paxton, Phil Ochs, Joan Baez, and, of course, Bob Dylan. She tells the story in her her terrific memoir Sweet Judy Blue Eyes: My Life in Music. In addition to everything else, she is a gifted writer and vivid memoirist.

How good a writer is she? Last night she told the story of an essay she wrote on the T.S. Eliot play The Cocktail Party. She listened to the play as performed on a recording her blind father had obtained. She felt she understood the play deeply and wrote up her interpretation for a high school book report. She was proud of the report and expected her teacher’s commendation. Instead, her teacher had her stay after class and asked her, “So who wrote it?” (That is one story she does not tell in her memoir.)

Having seen Judy both nights this week, I want to report that the setlists for her two shows barely overlapped. Although she uses a notebook to consult the lyrics for the songs she performs, the two shows were almost entirely different — different songs, different stories, same vibe. You had to be there both nights.

Judy’s electrifying lover and Elektra producer Walter Raim took her to see Bobby Darin perform in Las Vegas in the late summer of 1963. She writes in her memoir: “I was unprepared for Darin’s sophistication, his down-to-earth humor, and his wonderful voice. He came onstage, dark haired, slender, almost like a boy, and showered us with gentle humor between songs and a light touch in his manner….his manner was very personal and direct.” That is a good take on her own show, with the exception of the “dark haired” and “almost like a boy” parts.

Backing herself on guitar, Judy was supported by Stu Lindemann on piano. He told me he has been playing with her over the past two years. Having seen Judy perform solo a few years ago, I can tell you he adds immeasurably to the show. Lindemann’s work on piano provides the perfect setting for the songs. As for Judy, especially in the upper reaches of her register, her voice retains its crystalline beauty.

The timing of the shows was lucky. Judy turns 85 today. She introduced herself as the American Idol of 1956. Without bidding on either night, fans in the audience sang her “Happy Birthday.” We celebrated her, her birthday, her career. I thought I would take this brief look back via recordings dating to the early stages of her career.

On her first two albums Judy explored the traditional ballads that had attracted her to folk music. Judy then sought out the work of her contemporaries on the scene in Greenwich Village. By the time of Judy Collins 3 in 1963, Judy had seized on the work of a young Bob Dylan. Her version of Dylan’s “Farewell” is below. Walter Raim had taken her to see Darin in order for her to hear the work of Jim (later Roger) McGuinn, who backed Darin on guitar. They recruited McGuinn to back her on 3.

By the time of Fifth Album (1965), Judy was covering Dylan’s “Tomorrow Is a Long Time.”

And “Daddy You’ve Been On My Mind.”

And “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Judy had stood outside Dylan’s room in the middle of the night as Dylan finished writing it in 1963 at Albert Grossman’s Woodstock home (a story she tells in the memoir and also told last night).

Judy couldn’t get enough of Leonard Cohen. She recorded “Suzanne” soon after he played it for her in 1967, before he had ever performed in public or obtained his own recording contract. “Leonard never broke my heart,” she writes, “but his songs have, every time I sing or hear one of them.”

Judy’s friend Al Kooper woke her from a drunken stupor with a 3:00 a.m. phone call to tell her he had met Joni Mitchell. Mitchell had sought Kooper out to play a song for him. He put her on the phone to play “Both Sides Now.” Elektra producer Joshua Rifkin added the harpsichord part on the 1967 recording for Wildflowers. Judy rates it one of the greatest songs of all time.

Judy performed “Send In the Clowns” on both Monday and Tuesday night. In her memoir Judy writes that “this song completely took hold of me. I didn’t care that two hundred other people had already recorded it. I knew I had to sing it.” She adds: “I treasure the letter that Stephen Sondheim wrote me, thanking me for giving him his first top 10 single.” What a song. What a performance. What a career.

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