Stephen Stills and Judy Collins, Vogue Theatre, Friday, Oct. 5, Doors: 7 p.m. Show: 8 p.m. Tickets available at Ticketfly.com and Red Cat Records.
Judy Collins has been on Stephen Stills’ mind for quite some time.
After a romance between the two musicians ended in 1969, Stills couldn’t keep his former lover out of his head or his music. Not just the iconic “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” but several other songs he contributed to Crosby, Stills and Nash’s debut album were about Collins.
Despite remaining friends the two never got the chance to record or perform together as a duo until last year with the release of the album, Everybody Knows. The sessions featured classic and new material, such as the title track from Leonard Cohen, that the two recorded together for the first time and used as a template for live shows they’ve been doing over the past year.
Collins talked to the North Shore News earlier this week about her career, its many Canadian connections and what fans can expect from the duo in concert.
NSN: You were born in Seattle but moved early on to Denver. Do you still feel any attachment to the Pacific Northwest?
Judy Collins: Very much so. I have relatives and have spent a lot of time there. I have a sister, brother-in-law and a couple of nephews in Vancouver, so I love the city.
NSN: Was your father a big influence on your music?
Judy Collins: He certainly taught me a lot. He was a great performer and a great musician. A determined individual, very political, very savvy, a great reader. He was a genius in a lot of ways. He was blind from the age of four and raised five of us kids. He was a very powerful man and an influence in a lot of ways, musically, personally. I don’t know if my parents recognized my musicality or need for discipline but both seemed to benefit and I was structured musically from the age of five – that meant I was always performing, always playing the piano, singing in the choir, doing school shows. I don’t think I had any notion what I was being groomed for but the discipline certainly stuck.
NSN: You mention your father’s political activism.
Judy Collins: Oh yes, he was very political. He spoke out on the radio all the time. He’d be rolling over in his grave right now.
NSN: What was the Greenwich Village scene like when you arrived?
Judy Collins: It was exciting and filled with just what I needed. I landed there in the late ’50s with all these incredible songwriters. I moved to New York in ’59/60 and to Greenwich Village in early ’63. I was in and out all the time. My manager managed The Weavers and Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Arlo Guthrie, Theo Bikel and even Alan Arkin, of all people. I was in the midst of this incredible talent pool of singer-songwriters.
NSN: Had you written any songs before you went to Greenwich Village?
Judy Collins: No, and that was a good thing for me because right away I was a performer, I was a singer and what I needed was songs. I had a repertoire of traditional (material) and songs of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie and Eric Anderson and Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan but I didn’t write songs. So when I had a visit from Mr. Cohen in 1966 I was the only person in the Village that didn’t write songs and he knew that.
I think that’s in great part why he came to see me. I had already recorded Dylan and the others and I had a record contract and was always on the lookout for great material. (Cohen) landed in the right spot. I did a great favour for him but he also did a great favour for me which was to ask ‘Why aren’t you writing your own songs?’ He added another dimension to my career which I’ve now done for 51 years.
For him, I recorded “Suzanne” which was the initial big favour, and then everybody else recorded it. Everybody Knows, is the name of our new CD – I never stopped recording his songs and I never stopped being a friend of his. His death was a great shock a couple of
(When we met) he said, ‘I’m never going to sing in public I’m going to be a songwriter behind the scenes.’ I said, ‘No you’re not going to do that. You’re not going to deny your audience your voice.’ He said, ‘I have a terrible voice.’ I said, ‘No, it might be a little bit obscure but it’s not terrible,’ and I pushed him on stage at a big fundraiser in New York. I made him go out on the stage and sing. He said, ‘I can’t do that,’ and I said, ‘Yes, you can.’ As you know, he became an incredible performer. (Leonard Cohen) was an amazing man. Top to bottom, he was everything you’d expect: generous, brilliant, kind and faithful.
NSN: Another Canadian musician you helped listeners discover was Joni Mitchell.
Judy Collins: I loved Joni. I had already recorded Canadians even before Leonard. One of the first songs I ever sang was (American-born, Vancouver-based) Ed McCurdy’s “Last Night I had the Strangest Dream.” I also recorded Gordon Lightfoot very early on (and Ian & Sylvia’s) “Four Strong Winds.” Maybe there are artistic and genetic reasons: I have a whole passel of relatives who came to Canada from England on my father’s side. My father’s mother was descended from immigrants on the West Coast of Canada. Joni’s a genius and so is Leonard. I ran into two geniuses in 1966 and 1967.
NSN: Did Joni contact you about her music?
Judy Collins: In a way she did. I didn’t know who she was. Tom Rush had recorded “The Circle Game” and I think “Urge for Going” too but I did not know her at all, had never met her. One night in 1967 I was fast asleep and the phone rang at 3 a.m. and it was Al Kooper, who’d started Blood, Sweat and Tears. He was a friend. He said, ‘I know it’s 3 in the morning but now that you’re up I was down at the club tonight and there was this girl who came up to me and said she was a songwriter.’ He put Joni on the phone and she sang ‘Both Sides Now.’ I said, ‘I’ll be right over.’
I called Jac Holzman, then the president of Elektra Records, the next morning. We were just finishing up my sixth album, which was called In My Life. It had all kinds of things on it like, ‘Pirate Jenny’ from Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera and ‘Marat/Sade,’ a Peter Brook production. It was orchestrated, it was ready to go, we were just about done. Jac had said, ‘I think something is missing here,’ and I called up him up and said, ‘I found what was missing.’
The next day we both went to Joni’s apartment and heard the song again and I said, ‘You know, I’ve got to sing it.’ That’s how I met Joni.
It seems to me almost everything that has come to me in that kind of circuitous manner - around the corner, on the phone. One of my best friends, Mary Martin, calling me and saying Leonard Cohen wants to come and see you, when nobody knew who he was.
(Mary) was from Montreal and we’re still friends, she was Leonard’s best friend. She was the one who brought me ‘Send in the Clowns’ in 1973. She sent it over to me on live cast album and said ‘You have to hear this.’ (After we recorded it) there was a phone call from Frank Sinatra’s office on the eve of our release of ‘Send in the Clowns’ saying, ‘We’d like you to hold the release. Mr. Sinatra would like to be the first.’ You probably know what my record company said. We won’t use that language.
NSN: We’ve heard different versions of how you met Stephen Stills.
Judy Collins: I went out to California to make an album. My producer said I want to put a new band together and Stephen was one of the people that he rounded up. Stephen tells a different story, he says he saw me sitting with (producer)David Anderle at the Whisky. He’d gone there to see Eric Clapton and Cream. Apparently he’d been listening to my records for years so he convinced David to put him on the date. That’s his story. That’s when we met and that’s of course when he wrote ‘Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.’
NSN: When did you first hear the song?
Judy Collins: I didn’t hear it until 1969 – we were already breaking up. He came to my hotel room on my birthday and brought me a gift, an old Martin guitar. I still have it. He sang me ‘Suite: Judy Blue Eyes’ and I said ‘Well, that’s beautiful but it’s not going to get me back.’
We’re out on this tour now and people will come with all kinds of records for us to sign. Last night somebody brought a copy of C, S and N’s first album which has a number of songs that he wrote about me – not just ‘Suite: Judy Blue Eyes’ but a bunch are on there. I’ve always (suspected) ‘Helplessly Hoping’ and ‘You Don’t have to Cry’ but now I know he admits it and talks about it so it’s very funny.
NSN: It’s surprising that up until recently you’ve never performed as a duo. How and why did it finally come about?
Judy Collins: When we split up in early ’69 we were just both starting out on our careers – he with Crosby, Stills and Nash, and mine was all-consuming at the time. I think we both knew that it was not going to work. I lived in New York, he lived in California. His idea of what was going to happen in a relationship was very different from mine and I was not about to cave and move to L.A. I would never live in L.A. quite frankly. We could always talk, we always did and then a couple of years ago we were both at an AARP convention in Orlando – it was the last show that Richie Havens did before his death. We were all happy to be out on stage and Stephen came up to me and said, ‘What are we chopped liver? We can do this.’ It took a number of years before it really happened. We’d talk in different time zones and he’d list a bunch of songs he thought would be OK and I’d edit and return the list. My manager said, ‘You’ve got to do this,’ and our agent put together the first tour.
We went out last year and did 50 shows around the country and this year we’ll do another 50. We’re doing each other’s songs and adding new material and telling stories. We’re having a great time.