Judy Collins shares her life from ‘Both Sides Now’

UPDATE: Due to illness, Collins’ appearance has been rescheduled for 7:30 p.m. on June 20. Tickets will be honored for the same seat on the new date. For more information, visit overturecenter.org or call 608-258-4141.

Incomprehensible as it sounds, there was a time when Judy Collins didn’t know she’d grow up to be a singer. Fortunately for fans worldwide, a song Collins heard by chance on a radio broadcast while in high school set a course for the woman who has become one of the industry’s most prolific folk and pop music artists.

A 15-year-old Collins walked into the family home in East Denver after school one spring day in 1954, ready to sit down at the Baldwin grand piano to practice for what she’d planned to be a classical music career. On the family’s old Emerson upright, a radio announcer was discussing the recently released Alan Ladd film The Black Knight while “The Gypsy Rover,” a song from the film, spilled into the living room.

“[The song] stopped me in my tracks. It literally made me tremble,” recalls Collins in her 2011 autobiography Sweet Judy Blue Eyes: My Life in Music. “I knew it was meant for me.”

Her family and music teacher, the famed conductor Dr. Antonia Brico, did not approve of her sudden change in course. But the budding musician heard the clarion call of her heart and headed off on a career that would eventually earn her four Grammy Awards and an honorary doctorate in fine arts from the Pratt Institute.

“You have to become an activist in your own life,” says Collins, who turns 77 on May 1. “The lessons come from inside you, and you’re the one who’s going to have to take action.”

Collins plans to share that and other life lessons as part of the latest installment in the Unique Lives program coming to Madison’s Overture Center on April 25. Billed as North America’s foremost women’s lecture series, Unique Lives will also make stops this year in San Jose, California, and Toronto, Ontario.

To paraphrase from Collins’ 1967 Grammy-winning hit single, the singer/songwriter/activist has looked at life from both sides now, managing incredible highs and debilitating lows to emerge as a spokeswoman both for her gender and for humanists everywhere. Both the good and bad will provide fodder for the singer’s 60-minute lecture, which will be followed by a Q&A session, but during which there will be no singing.

Collins, best known for her eclectic choice of musical material, released her first album A Maid of Constant Sorrow in 1961, toward the end of what comedian Martin Mull once referred to as “the Great Folk Music Scare” of the 1950s and ‘60s.

Over the next 51 years, Collins released a total of 53 albums, including last year’s Strangers Again, comprised of duets with singers like Willie Nelson, Jimmy Buffet and Marc Cohen. Her newest album Silver Skies Blue, recorded with Bronx singer-songwriter Ari Hest, will be released June 3.

Throughout her career Collins has risen in the pantheon of folk-rock music, introducing audiences to the music of Canadian artists Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen, appearing on Sesame Street and The Muppet Show, and turning Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns” and the old Christian hymn “Amazing Grace” into Top 20 hits.

Former lover Stephen Stills wrote “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” one of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s first hits, about his of hopes of heading off a breakup in their relationship. She admired Stills’ song, but broke up with him anyway.

Collins sang Mitchell’s “Chelsea Morning” at President Bill Clinton’s 1993 inaugural (the Clintons claim to have named their daughter after the song) and for the next eight years was a frequent White House guest. She also has been a political activist and today represents UNICEF and campaigns against landmines.

“I learned my work ethic from my father,” Collins remembers. “He was a Type A as well as a singer and radio personality. I learned as much about professional discipline from him as from anything else in my life.”

Unfortunately, Chuck Collins also was blind and an alcoholic. Collins, who survived polio at age 11 and tuberculosis at age 23 shortly after her Carnegie Hall debut, inherited her father’s taste for the bottle. Despite experimentation with other drugs, she suffered for years from what she calls her drug of choice, finally entering a Pennsylvania rehab program in 1978. She’s been sober ever since.

Collins also attempted suicide at age 14 and in the 1970s quit smoking, only to launch headlong into bulimia. She married and divorced Peter Taylor, a union that produced her only child, Clark Taylor, who also became an alcoholic and suffered from clinical depression. Clark Taylor committed suicide in 1992, resulting in Collins joining suicide prevention advocacy efforts.

Long before sexting, Collins even posed nude –twice, in fact – for potential record album covers. However, her label, Elektra, felt the image conflicted with the purity of her crystalline sound and chose more discreet alternatives.

Collins plans to offer the secrets of her survival and overcoming such odds to lecture audience members.

“It’s all about being a person of action,” Collins maintains. “Don’t listen to people when they say you shouldn’t talk about your troubles. You need to tell it like it is so you can get comfortable in your own skin.”

Collins, who is now married to designer and fellow activist Louis Nelson and lives in Manhattan, follows a strict diet regime, as well as daily exercise and meditation to keep the demons at bay and stay focused on her work. Fortunately, that hasn’t shown any sign of abating.

Collins maintains a rigorous international touring schedule, including dates in Germany and Norway, that would tire a performer half her age. On May 8, Mother’s Day, she will depart from the usual schedule to perform in A Love Letter to Stephen Sondheim at the Boettcher Concert Hall in Denver. The concert, which will be filmed for a PBS special, focuses on the Broadway composer’s musical catalog and his contributions to music.

In addition to “Send In the Clowns,” Collins has recorded and regularly performs “Green Finch and Linnet Bird” and “Pretty Woman” from Sweeney Todd and “I Remember [Sky]” from Evening Primrose.

“I’d like to be the one to give Stephen his next Top 20 hit,” Collins says. “He’s a remarkable talent.”

Describing herself as “an unbridled optimist,” Collins still sees her life as a work in progress and plans to continue evolving both as an artist and a person.

“My life as a singer/songwriter leads me to new and unexpected places, which is what it is supposed to do,” Collins says. “I still believe in things like peace, women’s rights and equal pay, and I still have faith in what’s going on in the world. Many people are doing wonderful things and I am extremely grateful to have had this career, which shows no signs of stopping.”

The current political environment is not among those wonderful things, but the former ‘60s activist declined to comment further on the ongoing presidential race.

“I have nothing to say because they have said it all, including some things that shouldn’t have been said,” Collins quips. “I leave them to (be) hoist (on) their own petards, as they say, and maybe fall on their swords.”

The Unique Lives series presents Judy Collins at 7:30 p.m. on April 25 at Overture Center, 201 State St. Tickets run from $49 to $85 and can be purchased by calling the Overture box office at 608-258-4141. For additional information, visit overturecenter.org.