Judy Collins is a true Renaissance woman. She’s a singer-songwriter, accomplished painter, respected author, record label head, UNICEF representative and in-demand speaker on mental health issues.
Add to that: Collins plays a sold-out concert tonight at 8 p.m. at the Kent Stage.
Though audiences are used to seeing her strumming a guitar, Collins was actually a child prodigy on piano. When she was 13, she made her public debut performing Mozart’s Concerto for Two Pianos.
As a teenager she eventually moved away from classical piano, gravitating toward the socially conscious folk music of artists such as Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. The Seattle native made her way to New York City’s Greenwich Village – ground zero for the folk revival of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s.
Collins released her first album, Maid of Constant Sorrow, on Elektra Records in 1961. In her early years, she earned a reputation as a keen interpreter of other artists’ material – folks such as Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs and Tom Paxton. Throughout the 1960s, Collins was also instrumental in spotlighting the work of then-little-known writers such as Randy Newman, Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell.
She scored a huge hit with her version of Mitchell’s Both Sides Now, released on the 1967 album Wildflowers, and earned a “Song of the Year” Grammy in 1975 for her take on Steven Sondheim’s Send in the Clowns.
Collins was romantically involved with David Crosby for a period in the late 1960s, and she inspired the classic Crosby, Stills, and Nash tune Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.
She eventually began writing her own material, and she has maintained an impressive decades-long career of recording, performing, writing and social advocacy.
Jim Blum, longtime folk music host on Kent’s WKSU-FM, has a special relationship with Collins. He has interviewed her numerous times, introduced her on stage, booked her for shows and remained in touch with her through the years.
“Judy continues to sound as good as ever because she takes care of herself and continues to work with a voice coach,” Blum said. “She also realizes her place as a living legend and uses this platform for many good causes, including battling alcoholism, suicide prevention and fundraising for arts organizations. Above all, it’s a joy to see and hear her. She makes you forget about your troubles, and that’s a gift.”
The 71-year-old still maintains a healthy performing schedule. Her current tour has her playing 12 more concerts in the U.S and Canada this month before heading to Britain, Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
Collins’ last Kent performance was at the Kent State Student Center ballroom as part of the 2001 Kent State Folk Festival. Since he opened the Kent Stage in 2002, owner Tom Simpson has wanted to bring her back to town.
“Judy has been on my wish list from the very beginning,” Simpson said. “And she has always been one of the most-requested artists by our patrons.”
Collins regularly performs in venues much larger than the 640-seat Kent Stage. Since the concert sold out on Monday, Simpson has been deluged with ticket requests. “In the last couple of days I’ve taken nearly 200 calls,” he said. “I could’ve filled the theater twice.”