Whether singing her own words or those of others, the sublime vocal talent of pop/folk singer Judy Collins has been drawing audiences for over 50 years. But it's a career that might never have happened.
“I contracted polio as a child and later tuberculosis when I was in my early 20s,” recalled Collins from her home in New York. “My school teachers told me I was suffering from growing pains but when I was around 11 and the pain became severe, I went to the doctor who said I had polio. I spent two months in the hospital and recovered, and fortunately there were no lasting effects.”
At 23, while performing in Tucson, she was diagnosed with tuberculosis and quarantined for a month before being transferred to a Denver hospital that specialized in treating patients with TB.
“I got the right cocktail of drugs, so I was very lucky to have survived all that illness,” she said.
Collins would go on to brighten the world with over 50 albums worth of music that included pop hits such as “Send in the Clowns” and “Both Sides Now.” But her own world was overshadowed by a darker side as she dealt with eating disorders, alcoholism, and the death of her only son who committed suicide in 1992 at the age of 33.
Battling back again from those desperate challenges, Collins used her voice to promote awareness about social problems including suicide and mental health issues. Recognizing her contributions over the years, the Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services — a leading provider of services since 1942 for people dealing with mental health and substance abuse issues (see www.didihirsch.org) — will honor Collins with the 2017 Beatrice Stern Media Award on April 27 at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills.
“I’m pleased for the honor, but I still have a lot to say on the subject of mental health," said Collins. “We have to keep raising awareness in order to get the stigma removed so that people are not afraid to talk about their problems and get help. In addition to the award, I’ll be speaking at the event and we’ll be having a big dinner and hopefully raise a lot of money.”
Guests should be prepared for another treat, too.
“It’s not advertised as a concert but whenever I do a speaking engagement there are just moments that I may break into a song,” she laughed. “It’s very hard to prevent me from singing!”
Turning 78 in May, Collins is still on the road performing.
“This summer I’m going on a tour with Stephen Stills for four or five months and I still do around 120 shows a year,” she noted. “For example, I’ll be in Agoura Hills on June 2, and Pasadena June 3 (see www.judycollins.com for dates and locations). I also did a PBS special recently, ‘Love Letter to Stephen Sondheim,” which just came out on DVD and CD. And my latest book, ‘Cravings: How I Conquered Food,’ was released this year. I’ve survived a lot of difficulties, but I’m still hanging in there!”
Collins says she was able to channel her adversity into her art.
“Artists use their own experience to express what’s happened in their lives. Right now, I’m sitting in the same room where I learned of my son's death. I remember thinking then that I would never get over it and would never be myself again, but you have to somehow get through it even though it changes your life forever. In 2007, I even published a book about surviving tragedy — ‘The Seven T's: Finding Hope and Healing in the Wake of Tragedy.'"
Despite her successes as a singer, songwriter, author, speaker, and activist, there is one vocation Collins attempted but didn’t enjoy — acting. Since the late '60s, she's accepted small roles in several films.
“I lived with an actor for many years and have known a lot of actors, but I just didn’t enjoy acting,” she said. “I was in the (1994) film ‘Junior’ with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny Devito and I wasn’t nervous at all when I went to the audition. But then I was called back and was shaking in my boots for the second audition. In retrospect, I think it was good for me to attempt but acting wasn’t a career I wanted to pursue. I’m a singer!”
And for that, her fans are forever grateful.
“Music is an all-embracing art form,” she says. “I’ve written songs about love and war, as well as the loss of my son which not only helped me, but I hope others who faced similar ordeals.”
Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery, Ala., and has written features, columns, and interviews for over 600 magazines and newspapers. See www.tinseltowntalks.com