BRADENTON, Fla. - Judy Collins sounded quite excited about sharing a stage with the Smothers Brothers in Sarasota, Fla., recently. The folk singer explained that she first met the duo at a gig in 1959. A friendship was formed and she was a guest on the popular “Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” television program that aired from 1967 to 1969.
“It was wonderful, one of the greatest shows ever,” Collins said. “I love their humor, they’re just wonderful. I always have a great time with them. Watching them work is just hilarious.’‘
She added: “Most people don’t know this, but they’re awfully good musicians, too.”
Folk music was at the forefront of pop culture and Collins was one of the genre’s leading ladies when she appeared on the Smothers Brothers show. Collins’ recordings of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” and “Chelsea Morning,” which is how the Clintons’ daughter got her name, were an essential part of the soundtrack of those heady times.
“There were so many great experiences,” Collins recalled wistfully.
Not only did Collins introduce Mitchell to the world, she also was responsible for kick-starting the career of another legendary Canadian singer/songwriter, Leonard Cohen. Already a published poet and novelist, Cohen approached Collins with songs he didn’t think were recordable.
She thought otherwise and included Cohen’s “Suzanne” on her 1966 album “In My Life” and several more Cohen originals on “Wildflowers,” which was met with great acclaim when it came out the following year. Cohen’s influence on Collins was profound. Before meeting him she had never tried to write her own songs.
“I was the first one to record his songs and tell him to get on stage,” she said. “He’s a hero of mine.”
Cohen, who made his first public appearance in more than a decade earlier this year, has recorded a version of the Collins original “Since You’ve Asked” for an upcoming tribute album, Collins said. Fans can also look forward to hearing Chrissy Hynde, Emmylou Harris, Rufus Wainwright, Allen Toussaint and Dar Williams to appear on the album, which will be issued by Collins’ independent record label Wildflowers. She’s hoping to have it out by May.
In addition to helping the careers of Mitchell, Cohen and others like Randy Newman, Collins is also credited with inspiring one of the all-time great love songs. She was dating Stephen Stills in the late 1960s when the relationship went awry. Desperate to get her back, Stills wrote “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” for her.
“I loved the song,” Collins said with a laugh. “But it didn’t work.”
Collins’ popularity continued to grow through the 1970s with her hit interpretations of “Amazing Grace” and “Send in the Clowns.” The 1980s found the songstress continuing her music career while also turning her hand to writing, with the memoir “Trust You Heart” published in 1987. More recent works include her memoir about coping with the suicide of her only child (“Sanity and Grace: A Journey of Suicide, Survival and Strength”) and the self-help book “Morning, Noon, and Night: Living the Creative Life.”
“Working and being productive means you have to be disciplined,” said the 66-year-old.
Has Collins ever had trouble being disciplined?
“I asked my mother once if she ever had to make me practice the piano,” Collins remembered. “She said ‘No, I never had to force you to practice, but I did have to force you to wash your hands.’”