December 07, 2000
It was an odd scene for a small town. The tiny but spiffy art-deco Ritz Theater glowed in yellow and green neon. Pulsating bulbs flashed beneath a brilliantly lit marquee announcing: An Evening With Judy Collins. Across the street, downtown Talladega’s tiny courthouse square remained quiet, the townspeople perhaps reluctant to make a big deal about the presence of a star of Judy Collins’ magnitude.The parking spaces around the town square finally filled up a scant 15 minutes before showtime. Around the corner from the Ritz, a lonesome limousine waited patiently in front of the Talladega Water and Sewer Department to whisk Collins back to Atlanta for a midnight flight to Florida. A strange twist of destiny, indeed, that President Clinton’s favorite singer was scheduled to entertain controversial Palm Beach County the following evening, the same night the Sunshine State first certified George Bush for president.
Five minutes before the 6:30 p.m. show at the Ritz, a crowd of elderly customers suddenly invaded the quaint 1936 theater. Two-thirds of the well-behaved audience were local septuagenarian “patrons-of-the-arts,” silver-haired women who supported the local concert series regardless of the performance. They had no clue who this Judy Collins person was, and their collective, overwhelmingly perfumed fragrance threatened to exterminate the audience. The remainder of the 500 in attendance (almost a full house for the first of two shows that night) was a sprinkling of middle-aged, professional couples and reluctantly aging hippies, enthusiastically embracing Collins and the memories of decades past.
Gracefully strolling onstage in a pink satin suit and pink pumps, the attractive, 61-year-old Collins looked like anything but an aging folk singer. She smiled and picked up a 12-string acoustic guitar as her pianist played the bare, tinkling introduction to Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now.”
Collins was captivating. Her soaring soprano has aged little, and it effortlessly reached for and found all the high notes as she covered the songbook that defined her 40-year recording career. Arlo Guthrie’s “City of New Orleans” was a ragtime piano masterpiece, and her version of Leonard Cohen’s “Bird On the Wire” was a bluesy, solemn ode to Cohen, a composer that she has frequently referred to as her “mentor.”
Between songs, Collins told stories of childhood, tossing off bits and pieces of traditional Irish standards she had learned from her father. Sense of humor intact, Collins frequently interjected wit into awkward onstage dilemmas with remarkable comedic timing. While continually attempting to tune her uncooperative guitar, she apologized that she was unable to make tuning “a spiritual experience, like Ravi Shankar when he tunes his sitar.” Eventually making peace with her tuning efforts, Collins concluded with a shrug, “Well, it’s good enough for folk music.” She even told a favorite sacrilegious Christmas joke, and inquired of the overpowering perfume, “Is there something blooming in here that’s causing my allergies to act up?”
A sparse, almost sacred version of her 1975 hit “Send In the Clowns” ended the show. Accompanied only by her pianist, Collins offered up the endearing melody in hushed tones framed by the song’s climactic piano crescendos. The obligatory encore, an a capella campfire sing-along of “Amazing Grace” ended the evening.
Judy Collins’ Answering Machine Message to the World
The message on Collins’ cell phone voice mail the afternoon before her Talladega show offered a revealing glimpse of the singer’s contagious enthusiasm for life. “And we will fly beyond the sky. Beyond the stars. Beyond the heavens,” Collins sings into the telephone, her distinctive speaking voice sharing her home telephone number with the caller at message end. A second call attempt a few minutes later found her preparing for that evening’s Atlanta concert. Collins gladly agreed to take time out to reflect on her career, which started at age 10 with classical piano lessons from famed international orchestral conductor Antonia Bricoat. (Collins produced and co-directed a documentary on Bricoat, and subsequently received an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary in the mid-1970s.) Collins addressed a question about her ever-evolving musical endeavors: “I’m not so sure it’s about the changing of musical styles. I think it’s probably about being timeless, and integrating what I knew as a child with what I’ve learned as an adult, and sort of tying it all into one kind of music, which I can’t really define. I think it’s more like Judy Collins music than anything else. I’ve been called a lot of things-folk singer, country singer, classical pianist, and so on.”
Judy Collins’ father, Chuck Collins, was a blind singer and pianist who had a career in radio from 1937 to 1968-a fact about which the younger Collins is noticeably proud. She credited her father’s unique ability to spot good songs with her exposure to early songwriters, such as Rogers and Hart, and laughs about the subliminal presence of folk songs in her childhood home. “I grew up on folk without realizing it,” admits Collins. “My father was constantly singing traditional Irish stuff, things like ‘Kerry Dancers’ and ‘Danny Boy.’” Collins adds that “an element of timelessness” is what she looks for when choosing songs to record.
Collins believes her piano background is a primary resource for writing. She abandoned the piano in the early 1960s when her folk career blossomed, but soon returned to her first love. “I’m so grateful that I have this wonderful background in the piano,” noted Collins. “I do my writing on piano. I still practice, just like I used to. I practice and do my scales [laughs] and exercises every time I sit down to play.”
Send in the Clowns
“I was planning a new record, and was looking for material. The show, A Little Night Music, by Stephen Sondheim, had been out for a couple of years. Others have recorded the song, but my version seemed to strike a chord, and I’ve always felt it was because of that very, very sympathetic orchestration that Jonathan Tunic did,” Collins notes with pride when asked how she came to record the 1975 classic “Send In the Clowns.” She also doesn’t hesitate to briefly knock Frank Sinatra: “A lot of people, including Frank Sinatra, had recorded that song. I have a theory about Frank Sinatra’s version. He was working with Nelson Riddle at that time. And instead of taking Sondheim’s orchestration, Nelson Riddle did his own orchestration. And it doesn’t do the song justice, and I think that’s why Sinatra did not have a big hit with that song, in my estimation, because otherwise he would have. I think Sinatra got every single other song he ever sang [right], but he didn’t get that one [laughs]. So it was my good fortune that he didn’t.” She quickly adds that she saw Sinatra live a number of times, and always went to learn from the singer. “I had the privilege of seeing him work with Joe Pass and Ella Fitzgerald. And that’s the best.”
Songs That Go Bump in the Night
Collins has been awakened in the middle of the night by two of the greatest songs to emerge from the 1960s-a couple of soon-to-be-hits she heard while they were being created by their respective composers. Around 1966, noted musical sideman to the stars (and organist on Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone”) Al Kooper woke up Collins at 3 a.m. to put a young, unknown folk singer named Joni Mitchell on the telephone to sing her latest, “Both Sides Now.” Collins recorded the composition, and Mitchell was propelled from coffee house obscurity to household stardom.Collins’ slumber was also interrupted in 1963 while she was staying at a large house in Woodstock, New York, with Bob Dylan and a few other friends. “In the middle of the night I woke up, because I heard music playing. And I went hunting out through the house,” recalled Collins. “I could hear this voice singing, and hear this music playing. And I opened the door to the stairwell, and there was Dylan sitting on the staircase in this old house on the stairway to the basement, and he was just finishing [composing] “Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man.” &