Collins' long and winding road
Music | Ageless Judy finds the Fab Four much to her liking
September 2, 2007
BY KEVIN NANCE Critic-at-Large
Judy Collins was a busy woman in the late 1960s, recording and performing heavily, winning a Grammy Award -- for her version of the Joni Mitchell classic "Both Sides Now" -- and opposing the Vietnam War. (Her testimony in the Chicago Seven trial, in which a courtroom guard famously put his hand over her mouth when she tried to sing "Where Are All the Flowers Gone?" on the witness stand, was a classic of a different sort.)
But even Collins wasn't too busy to pay attention to the phenomenon of the Beatles. "Their albums would come out and we'd all hunker down and listen to them for months at a time," Collins recalls in a phone interview. "I was crazy about them, simply because the songs were just so damn good."
She stood in particular awe of the songs written by the duo of Paul McCartney and John Lennon: "Yesterday," "When I'm Sixty-Four," "Hey Jude," "Long and Winding Road" and the like. But except for "In My Life" (which she covered in 1966), Collins stayed away from recording her own versions.
Until now. "Judy Collins Sings Lennon & McCartney" was released this year by her own label, Wildflower Records, and she's supporting it with a tour that includes a concert stop at Ravinia on Friday. In addition to the songs mentioned above, the CD includes covers of standards like "Blackbird," "And I Love Her" and "Penny Lane," along with slightly less familiar chestnuts such as "Golden Slumbers" and "Norwegian Wood."
"They're some of the most beautiful songs in any genre, in any decade, in any country," Collins says. "The pairing of Lennon and McCartney was just that rare, genius combination, like Rodgers and Hart -- a synchronicity of writing, an emotional core, that's just priceless."
She was struck by the rarity of the Lennon-McCartney magic last year, she recalls, at a concert by McCartney at Madison Square Garden. "When he was with Wings and for years after, Paul almost never did any of the old material. But at this concert in New York, he suddenly broke into the old songs. He started singing 'Blackbird' and 'Long and Winding Road,' and people just went nuts. Those songs have a real staying power, decade after decade, that's unique."
Some performers would have approached these monuments of the pop music canon with extreme caution, if at all. Not Collins. She has, after all, a track record of putting her own stamp on iconic songs widely recorded by others, including Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. The most famous case in point is Stephen Sondheim's "Send in the Clowns," which won her a second Grammy in 1975, even though about 200 other artists -- including Frank Sinatra, then working with arranger Nelson Riddle, no slouch himself -- took their own cracks at the song.
"Nelson Riddle didn't use Sondheim's harmonics and took the song to a whole other place," she says in a disapproving tone. "You have to make a song your own, of course, but you also have to respect and adhere to the basic structure that's already there. 'Send in the Clowns' was such a big hit for me because I was a folksinger and the song, melodically, is like the old folk songs. Maybe Stephen wouldn't like that, but it's actually a compliment."
The anecdote applies just as well to the Lennon-McCartney songs, which she approached first by listening to them repeatedly in their original recordings.
"Ninety-five percent of genius is form, and 5 percent is impromptu," she says. "What's impromptu, what I bring to it, is my voice."
Ah, her voice. Famously silvery, pure and effortless -- the word "angelic" has been applied so many times that it's gone past cliche into the realm of pop-cultural gospel -- Collins' soprano has the additional distinction of being seemingly frozen in time. Unlike, say, her contemporary Joan Baez, whose bronze voice has grown notably darker and huskier over the past 40 years, Collins produces a sound that's very nearly as angelic as it was in 1967. (This despite the fact that she underwent surgery to repair a damaged capillary on her vocal cords in 1977 -- the same procedure that would later produce less happy results for Julie Andrews.)
"It's been about learning how to pace myself, not singing material that I shouldn't do or don't want to do," Collins says, who has been candid about her various battles with alcoholism, bulimia and depression, all of which she seems to have licked. "I quit smoking in 1970, and I've been sober for about 30 years."
And so it is that she's able to tackle, at the age of 68, the songs of Lennon and McCartney. She hasn't changed a word, she says, except one. In her concerts, she changes the last refrain of "When I'm Sixty-Four" to "eighty-four."
"People go crazy," she says with a smile in her voice. "They're in their 40s or 50s now, or maybe even in their 60s, and it's not so far away."