Judy Collins has entertained audiences for five decades, and on May 21, she returns to her New York roots for an evening at Suffolk Theater in Riverhead. “I’m a New Yorker at heart, and I love to be on Long Island any time of year,” she says.
“I’ll be singing old songs, new songs, ‘Amazing Grace’ and of course ‘Both Sides Now,’” says Collins, who covered the iconic Joni Mitchell song on her 1967 album Wildflowers, and which lives on in the Grammy Hall of Fame. The song was her first big hit.
Collins has released 50 albums over the course of her career. Her most recent, Silver Skies Blue, with Bronx-based singer/songwriter Ari Hest, was released this year. It received a Grammy nod for Best Folk Album. “It’s the first time in 40 years that I’ve been nominated. [Ari’s] not yet 40,” she laughs.
Born in Seattle and raised in Denver, Collins always had music in her life. “I was born to a family where ‘Danny Boy’ was performed in the womb,” she says. She was deemed a piano prodigy at 13, but was soon drawn to the sound and storytelling of folk music. “One day, I was listening to the radio, and I heard two [folk] songs, one of which was ‘Barbara Allen.’ I just went crazy—I had to sing those songs,” she says.
Her first gig was in Atlantic City, where she sang at the Kiwanis Club International. “You’re looking at the American Idol of 1956,” she says. Collins released her first album, A Maid of Constant Sorrow, in 1961. She soon became known for her powerful vocals and honest lyrical storytelling. Her biggest hit came in 1975, when she recorded “Send in the Clowns.” The song spent 27 weeks on the Billboard Pop Singles chart and won a 1976 Grammy for Song of the Year.
Like most folk singers of her generation, Collins blended her career with social activism. In 1973, she penned the song “Che” as a tribute to Marxist icon Che Guevara. Today, Collins is heavily involved in UNICEF, among other causes. In 1996, she married fellow activist Louis Nelson, who is best known for designing the mural wall for the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.
As with her songwriting, Collins has always been honest about her personal life and struggles. Throughout the years, she has recounted her struggles in raw, moving memoirs. Sanity & Grace, released in 2003, chronicles her pain and path toward healing after her son Clark committed suicide in 1992. Sweet Judy Blue Eyes, released in 2011, details Collins’ journey through show business, including her struggle with alcoholism. Her latest book, Cravings, will be released this year, where she documents her struggle with overeating and bulimia, and how she ultimately overcame her demons.
“I write. I sing. I travel. I’m very lucky,” says Collins. She has continuously stayed in the spotlight, even performing at Cafe Carlyle on an episode of Girls during the millennial-centric show’s fifth season. Girls played off of real life events—Collins has played Cafe Carlyle multiple times, most recently in a residency this past fall. Collins is touring the U.S. this summer, and plans for another album with Stephen Stills of Crosby, Stills & Nash fame are underway.
“My career is a quartet of writing books, writing songs, performing and recording. I like them all,” she says of her multi-faceted calling. “I’m very lucky.”
Judy Collins performs at 7 p.m. at the Suffolk Theater, 118 East Main Street, Riverhead. Door, bar and restaurant open at 5:30 p.m. For tickets and more info, call 631-727-4343 or visit suffolktheater.com