BRIAN BRENNAN: BRIEF ENCOUNTERS
Before American Idol there was the Kiwanis International Talent Search. The year was 1956, the place was Denver, Colorado. Sixteen-year-old Judy Collins won first prize singing an English folk ballad, Pretty Saro, at a regional talent contest jointly sponsored by Kiwanis clubs in Colorado and three other American states. For accompaniment she used a rented guitar. The prize included a trip to Atlantic City for her first professional singing engagement.
One of the other contestants was an ambitious young violinist who had been conservatory trained. His father complained to the man sitting next to him, who just happened to be Collins’s father: “Isn’t that just the damnedest? Here I spend a fortune on violin lessons. My son is on his way to Juilliard and a New York career, and he gets beat out by a hillbilly singer.”
Some hillbilly singer. The blue-eyed winner of that talent contest was, in fact, a conservatory-trained musician who had been headed for a career as a classical pianist before she took a left turn and embraced folk music. For nine years Collins had studied with one of the best. Her piano teacher was Antonia Brico, a brilliant European-trained musician who in 1938 became the first woman to conduct the New York Philharmonic. In 1947, Brico became director of the Denver Businessmen’s Symphony. Six years later, Collins made her piano-playing debut with the orchestra at age 13. By that time, however, Collins had already decided she wanted to be a singer.
“The purity that Antonia wanted in my playing was a problem,” Collins told me in 1980 when she came to do a concert in Calgary. “Often I would spend my lessons crying. It became a bitter struggle between us and finally I told her I wanted to stop studying the piano. I can’t imagine what regrets she might have had for me. I only knew I was devastated and yet could do nothing else.”
Her decision to abandon piano lessons also caused what Collins called “stormy, stormy times” at home. Her father in particular was very disappointed. He was a pianist himself who took a job as a radio DJ in Denver after failing to make it as a professional musician. But at age 14 Collins’s mind was made up. “It would have been a heart-breaking career for me to be a concert pianist because I don’t think I would have been happy without the singing.” Her father, Chuck Collins, remained disappointed but eventually came to accept her decision.
By the time she got to Calgary, at age 41, Collins had moved well beyond the guitar-accompanied folk and protest songs of her early years to include cabaret material, art songs, Broadway show tunes and other forms of popular music in her concert repertoires. This didn’t sit well with some critics, who accused her of selling out. The reaction of The Globe and Mail’s Paul McGrath was typical: “I suspect she had a change of heart somewhere along the road. Rather than be topical and only mildly popular, she decided to become less topical and more popular.”
Collins explained to me that she had never been strictly folk even when she lived in Greenwich Village during her early 20s and hung out with the likes of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez. “I don’t know where these critics are living, probably on some other planet,” she said. “On my second album, I included a poem by Yeats, which can hardly be called folk music. So the lines were already fuzzy by that point. By the third record, I was already singing songs written by contemporary songwriters. And by the sixth record, I was breaking all the rules – supposedly – by including show music and songs by Kurt Weill and Jacques Brel.” Bottom line: “I ain’t a folksinger. I’m a singer.”
For her Calgary concert, Collins planned to include material from all phases of her 20-year career, including the enduring 18th-century hymn Amazing Grace, which had put her in the American and British pop charts in 1970. She also planned to accompany herself on piano, which Collins had resurrected for her concert performances in 1978 after 18 years of accompanying herself on 12-string acoustic guitar. “Going back to the piano was a difficult but necessary step to take,” she said. “I wanted to get even further away from the image that people refused to let go of: the image of a folksinger.” Collins had made her peace with her former piano teacher, Antonia Brico, in 1974 by producing a documentary film, Antonia: A Portrait of the Woman, which was nominated for an Academy Award. She also hoped to make peace with her father, by writing a song about him called My Father. He died, however, before she got a chance to sing it for him. “That was 12 years ago. I still miss him very much.”
Collins played piano as planned but never got to sing Amazing Grace in Calgary. She had every intention of doing so but left it too late in the show. She finished the main part of her concert with Leonard Cohen’s Bird on the Wire, did a false exit, and waited in the wings while the audience applauded madly for an encore. She then came out to finish off the show with three songs, concluding with Amazing Grace. However, after she sang the first encore – Ian Tyson’s Someday Soon– the lighting person turned on the house lights by mistake, and the audience exited from the theatre. As I wrote in my review, “that’s what happens sometimes when you save the good wine until last. Everyone leaves the party before getting a chance to taste it.”
Many in the audience, including me, were disappointed. I suspect Collins may have been disappointed too. Amazing Grace had become very special to her after she recorded it at St. Paul’s Church in Columbia University in 1970 and it became her first million-selling single. It continued to be important to her in the years following. She sang it at her son’s wedding in 1987. She sang at her granddaughter’s christening in 1988, and at her son’s funeral in 1992 when he took his own life at age 33. In 1996, she sang it at her own wedding when she tied the knot with longtime domestic partner Louis Nelson. And at age 72 in 2011, Collins sang it on Anderson Cooper’s daytime talk show when he talked about his brother’s suicide. New York Times writer Lois Smith Brady wrote shortly before the Cooper show aired, “When Collins sings Amazing Grace, she can still make even the most cynical hipsters cry.” I’ve heard it on recordings, of course, but I wish I could have heard her sing it live.
Copyright Brian Brennan © 2014
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