Prolific singer and songwriter Judy Collins, whose music has spanned as many eras as it has genres, had a ready answer when asked if she finally understands her former lover and current touring partner, Stephen Stills, now that she can look at him from both sides now.
Pun definitely intended. So was her great big laugh.
“He says that the reason we remained friends is because we each married other people, and I guess that’s partly true,” Collins says. “We did stay in touch with one another for all these years, and we have remained friends. And we’ve had long talks and visits in New York and Florida. We both knew there was always something there, and we knew that it was about music. So it’s been a fortunate relationship.”
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Half a century after their romance made headlines for both its passion and volatility, Stills and Collins are making a much happier sound together today.
For the second summer, they’re touring together to promote their 2017 album “Everybody Knows.” The tour stops at 8 p.m. Saturday, June 23, at the Showroom at Tropicana Atlantic City, where only a handful of tickets remain in the 2,200-seat venue.
Collins says neither she nor Stills had any doubts they’d be compatible on stage. They’ve known one another for 50 years, have occasionally performed on special live shows and TV specials together through the years and — perhaps most importantly — have always maintained a solid friendship.
That wasn’t lost on the 73-year-old Stills. When he and Collins began rehearsing for the tour last year, Stills was so enchanted by the sound they made together that he lamented aloud they should have shared a stage together in the late 1960s, not a bed.
“I told him if that had happened, he never would have written ‘Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,’ which is a song I absolutely love, so that wouldn’t have worked,” adds Collins, whose voice still packs the power and enthusiasm that makes her sound far younger than her 79 years.
On her album with Stills, her voice still curls delicately around the edges of some notes and has the same clarity today that it had 50 years ago when she was just making her presence felt in popular music.
Stills had written “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” which appeared on the first Crosby, Stills & Nash album, in an effort to win Collins back after they’d split up. One listen to the number and Collins realized she’d broken up with a musical genius.
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But not even Stills’ Mensa-like musical abilities, on either that song or another please-come-back number, “Helplessly Hoping,” had the intended effect.
“The first time I heard (‘Suite’) I said, ‘Oh my God, this is so beautiful. But it’s not gonna get me back,’” Collins says with a laugh.
Today, the song is considered one of the key moments in their show, because she performs the tune with Stills.
“Even after (50) years, the song is just magnificent, and it’s so much fun to sing that with Stephen,” she says. “We actually see people dancing in the aisles because it’s just so wonderful. It’s delicious. Somehow, people are turning it around in their own minds, to their own relationships, their own histories, their own lives and how much fun the ’60s was when you weren’t (thinking about) the war in Vietnam. Everything else about (the ’60s) was great.”
That Collins would become a professional musician, singer and songwriter was pretty much pre-ordained by her family background.
The oldest of five children, Collins’ father was a blind singer and pianist and radio host who moved his family from Seattle, where Collins was born, to Denver.
That’s when she began studying classical piano and made her public debut at 13 performing Mozart’s “Concerto for Two Pianos.”
It was around that time that Collins, then a protégé of instructor Antonia Brico, was chastised by her teacher because of her developing interest in folk music. So Collins stopped taking piano lessons from her.
Brico would go to her grave thinking Collins’ career path was misdirected because of her interest in music other than the classics.
After Collins had achieved international fame, she invited Brico to one of her concerts. After the show, former teacher and one-time student met backstage, where Brico made it clear her feelings about Collins’ straying away from the classics.
She took Collins by the hands, looked down at her fingers and told her, “Little Judy, you really could have gone places.”
Years later, Collins discovered that Brico had also experimented with things other than the classics. Turns out that before she became a sought-after classical piano instructor, Brico earned a living playing jazz and ragtime piano.
By the early 1960s, Collins had picked up on the music of folk singers like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, and with that came her mastery of another instrument, the guitar, and her penchant for writing poignant lyrics.
By the end of the 1960s, she already had her first Top 10 single with the Joni Mitchell-penned “Both Sides Now,” which won Collins her first Grammy Award.
She also began experimenting with other types of popular sounds including show tunes, pop, rock ‘n‘ roll and standards.
Her 1975 recording of “Send in the Clowns” from the Broadway musical “A Little Night Music” also won a Grammy for song of the year. Although it remains one of Collins’ signature songs, the Grammy statuette went to composer Stephen Sondheim, who wrote the song.
But it was Collins’ Top 10 cover that made the song so popular and which many experts believe helped Sondheim win the Grammy.
Despite the various forms of music she performs, she won’t choose a favorite.
“It’s probably whatever I’m doing at the moment that’s my favorite,” she says.
When Stills and Collins come together at Tropicana, audiences will experience a greatest-hits moment. They’ll perform covers of CSN’s “Southern Cross” and “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” as well as a couple of tunes from Stills’ old group, Buffalo Springfield, Collins’ “Both Sides Now” and a few surprises.
One of the surprises is that Collins, a former piano prodigy, won’t be playing the 88s.
“I don’t do any piano playing in this show,” she says. “I’m just doing rock ’n’ roll, and I’ll sing a few of my brand new songs.”
Seats may be tough to find this close to the show, but it’s likely this won’t be a one-and-done moment.
“Everybody wants us,” she says with a laugh. “There are not enough days in the month to put in the concerts for the people who are requesting us. So we have a feeling that it may spill over in 2019. We might even be able to work this into an international thing. I don’t know exactly how, but it’s possible.”
Feuds & fallouts
For what it’s worth, there may have never been a Judy Collins-Stephen Stills album and tour without some bitter dissention among the ranks of Crosby, Stills, Nash and (sometimes) Young.
Fighting among core members David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash has been as well-documented over the past 50 years as their music.
Rumors of a split have been constant over the years. But it began taking on serious implications in 2014, when Young said he’d never perform with the band again because of comments Crosby made about Young’s girlfriend, actress Daryl Hannah.
Two years later, Nash said he, too, was done with CSN because of how poorly Crosby had treated him for years.
With no shows booked or albums planned, Stills formed his own bluesy group, The Rides. The CSN “hiatus” also created the opportunity for Stills and Collins make an album and then tour.
“There was a time when CSN was obviously just tired — we’d had it for a while,” Stills told the online music site Relix.com earlier this year. “So that was when (Collins) came in and said, ‘We’ve got to do this now.’”
The pair began creating the album “Everybody Knows.”
Despite both being exceptionally gifted musicians, Stills wondered if he and Collins could actually pull off the project. Fortunately, they had help from Collins’ longtime manager, Katherine DePaul.
“We’d have a three-hour rehearsal once a month for about three months. I went, ‘This is crazy. We’re not ready,’” Stills recalls. “And (Collins’ longtime musical director) Russell Walden also has an instantaneous appreciation for the fact that my lead guitar is one of the voices and how that should be placed. He really paid attention to what I played, which was a new experience for me.”
Collins was a patient teacher throughout the process.
“She taught me not to project all of the things that could go wrong, and say, ‘Let’s not do that. We’ll (screw) that up.’ We can be really bad for a few days, but we shouldn’t worry about it,” he adds. “That’s the secret of getting an ensemble together. I’ve been able to play much softer than I have been for years without Crosby’s hell rig of the Pacific (getting in the way).”