Judith Marjorie Collins, Born May 1, 1939 in Seattle
Initially a classical pianist whose public debut at 13 was a performance of Mozart’s “Concerto for Two Pianos,” Judy Collins became part of the core of the folk movement, forsaking the piano for the guitar although her real instrument was her flawless soprano voice. In 1961, Judy Collins released her first album, A Maid of Constant Sorrow, at the age of 22. Her renditions of songs like “Send in the Clowns,” “Both Sides Now,” and “Amazing Grace” have become so ingrained in the consciousness of at least my cohort that she has been called “the voice of the century.”
Judy Collins Plays Well With Others
In addition to singing her own compositions, Judy Collins has habitually produced versions of songs by an impressively eclectic group of musicians that respected the original and were masterpieces in their own right. Her takes on Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” and Pete Seeger’s “Turn, Turn, Turn” were more widely played than were the original pieces. And, while she no doubt increased the audience for already established singer-songwriters like Dylan and Seeger, she was largely responsible for introducing other musicians, such as Joni Mitchell and Randy Newman, to the public at large.
Judy Collins is an especially important figure for Leonard Cohen fans because of her role in inaugurating his career as a singer. In a 1992 interview,1 Cohen describes how Collins came to be the first to record his song, “Suzanne,” in 1966.
Cohen: A friend of mine introduced me to Judy Collins. I went to her house and sang her a couple of songs that didn’t interest her and she said to me “Come back if you have something I might like.” A few months later after having finished “Suzanne”, I called her from Montreal and sang it to her on the phone. She wanted to sing it right away. Mary Martin, who became my manager, called John Hammond, who knew Judy Collins’ record company. He took me to lunch near the Chelsea Hotel and asked me to sing a few tunes. He said “You got it!”, I could start to record a record. It was a very good time for songwriters/singers. Record companies were looking. They were very lenient with the voice… Me, I sang a bit worse than the others but that wasn’t an obstacle. Much later, after the Newport festival, I said to my lawyer, “Listen Marty, I can’t sing, I know now that I can’t sing.” He responded “But none of you can sing! When I want to hear singers I go to the Metropolitan opera.” (laughs)
Interviewer: During your famous first appearance on stage, you still had never recorded, you left the stage right in the middle of “Suzanne”.
Cohen: It was a concert for a New York radio station. Judy Collins asked me to come on stage and sing. There was a big temperature difference between the stage, where it was cold, and back stage where it was warm. I had that fine Spanish guitar that went completely out of tune. I remember my panic as I was trying to tune it. Finally I left the stage (laughs)… I tuned it and I went back on.
[The following four-paragraph section, was added 13 May 2008:]
A week or two after publishing this post, I received an email from an “anonymous fan of Judy Collins,” politely pointing out that Judy Collins tells the story differently. Her version, which she has consistently reported since the time of her songbook in 1969 (a memory confirmed by Jac Holzman in Follow the Music), is that Cohen sang a couple of songs and she (Collins) then recorded Suzanne and Dress Rehearsal Rag almost immediately rather than instructing Cohen to come back when he had something she might like.
In addition, this fan noted that Collins “also recorded dozens of Cohen’s songs and is his biggest, if that is possible, fan.”
While I initially felt the differences between the stories was of modest significance, I now think adding the Judy Collins version to the original post is worthwhile because the implications of the fact that the incident is remembered differently are themselves interesting, and this is, after all, a post celebrating Judy’s birthday.
On the other hand, I am at fault for not elaborating on the extensive support that Judy Collins provided for Cohen, especially when he was making the transition from poet to singer. My only defense – and it’s inadequate – is that most regular readers of my posts are Cohen fans who know about the role Judy played in his career. I do occasionally forget that not everyone who, for example, finds one of my entries via Google, is aware of such background. I should know better.
- and for giving Leonard a hand
Judy Collins & Leonard Cohen – That’s No Way to Say Goodbye2
Judy Collins – Someday Soon3
- Throat Culture magazine, 1992. The interview was translated by Sophie Miller from its original publication in the French magazine Les Inrockuptibles. The interview was conducted by Christian Fevret. I accessed the interview and the information about the original source on 01 May 2008 at Speaking Cohen [↩]
- Judy Collins and Leonard Cohen, taped in 1976 for the PBS program “Soundstage.” [↩]
- Judy Collins singing “Someday Soon” by Ian Tyson on The Smothers Brothers Show in 1969. [↩]