Judy Collins is on the line from Kansas.
“What is happening in Kansas?” I ask. “Just visiting?”
“Oh, no, there is a concert,” she says, chuckling. “I don’t travel for a visit unless there is a concert attached. I never stop. I had a nice rest for 14 months during the pandemic. Now I’m back full force, and in Kansas now.”
The 82-year-old Collins is back in Las Vegas on Saturday, not for a concert but a celebration nonetheless. She’s being honored as Woman of the Year at the 38th annual Nevada Ballet Theatre Black and White Ball at Encore Las Vegas.
In February, Collins released “Spellbound,” her 29th studio album. Her transformative career spans six decades, back to when “Both Sides Now” hit the Billboard top 10 in 1967 and earned Collins the first Grammy, for Best Folk Performance. She followed up with the singles “Someday Soon”, “Chelsea Morning”, “Amazing Grace” and “Cook with Honey.” Her 1975 album, “Judith,” went to No. 1, boosted by her recording of Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns.”
More highlights from our chat:
Johnny Kats: You’re coming out here to accept the Woman of the Year award from the NBT. Obviously, you’re in line with some very impressive dignitaries and artists.
Judy Collins: This is a surprise, certainly. I’m very honored. It’s wonderful. I think it’s my connection to the National Dance Institute, with Jacques d’Amboise, who died not too long ago (in May 2021). He was such a great dancer with the New York City Ballet, he was so generous and he founded the institute.
You had written for them, right?
I did, I wrote songs for them. I even convinced him that those of us who were not dancers to dance in the finale for the one-year anniversary performance at the Lincoln Center! So then I had to dance in the finale every year.
The announcement mentioned your longtime campaign for mental health awareness. This issue has been gaining prominence over the years, with Jewel and Lady Gaga and many others advancing the cause. How does it feel to be at the front of that effort?
I have been involved in talking about mental health and, of course, participating in ways that are very public because I’ve written a number of books that are memoirs. I’ve talked about being in therapy, about making a suicide attempt at 14, about the fact that my son took his life 30 years ago. I’ve talked about this for mental health groups for decades.
Do you think that talking about this openly has inspired others to take up the cause?
Maybe that’s a prominent reason, because now a lot of people are coming out and talking about these issues, about bullying, about mental health, the necessity for clarity about who’s doing what to whom. I’m sure that’s true in the ballet community, as well as in other arts and sports. I consider dancing as art, but it is very physical, and a lot of things that can happen to people in physically demanding situations are all about mental health.
You came to Las Vegas very early in your career, right?
Oh, yes. I was in New York, working on my third album (“Judy Collins 3”). I was 23, I guess, and my producers were looking for guitar players, and we want to see this interesting guy who is from New York, but he is playing for Bobby Darin in Las Vegas. So we went to Las Vegas , to the Flamingo! And there was Jim McGuinn, playing guitar. He was doing a 15-minute solo turn and stole the show. I wound up working with him on the album. I didn’t hit the gambling tables, but it was very wonderful and delicious to be out there. I loved it. This was, what, 1963. It was so Hollywood in those days, very Rat Pack.
You’re in the non-drinking culture, right? I know that about you.
I’m sober. I’ll be sober 44 years in a few days, on April 20. I just say it’s a happy place to be. I’ll tell you, it’s the best of all possible worlds for me.
Is there a performance planned for you at this event?
I get to speak for about 10 minutes, about my life and about things. Of course, I’ll sing a few things because I always do, I’ll do an a capella turn … But a lot of it will be a surprise to me, which is wonderful.
“Send in The Clowns” is a pretty famous song in our city.
It was performed by Liberace with a marionette, yes, that’s right. I am kind of immortalized in that way.
You have been playing the “Spellbound” album in your live shows. How do you draw inspiration to write these days?
Mainly I sit down in private, and write and practice and play. The backbone of it, basically, is keeping up the writing of journals and poetry. I take my poems to the piano and see if I can fit them into the role of being a lyric rather than a poem, and when it does it is always exciting.
Hey, that sounds like a great time, even in Kansas.
It is. I’m back into the groove of writing and singing and concentrating on all my own new songs. It is wonderful.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-8255, provides access to trained telephone counselors, 24/7. The Crisis Text Line is a free, national service available 24/7. Text HOME to 741741.
John Katsilometes’ column runs daily in the A section. His “PodKats!” podcast can be found at reviewjournal.com/podcasts. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @johnnykats on Twitter, @JohnnyKats1 on Instagram.