Judy Collins, one of the most beloved musical artists of the 20th century, is sitting at the piano in her Upper West Side apartment in New York City, where she has lived for more than 43 years.
The piano is a Steinway, an ebony Model M grand, and she’s owned it since 1964. “I’ve written nearly every song I’ve ever recorded on this piano,” she says. “I play it every day. I played it this morning. And it still sounds good, doesn’t it? Listen.” She tickles her fingers across the keys, and, like a bolt of lightning, the extraordinary energy of two legendary American icons—Judy Collins and Steinway & Sons—comes together.
Yes, Ms. Collins. It sounds good.
The Classical Connection
Though Judy Collins is best known for her enormous contribution to the American folk genre, she began her musical career as a student of classical piano, studying under the famed conductor Antonia Brico, the first woman to conduct a symphony orchestra. At age 13, Collins debuted in Denver as part of a duet performing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 10, and it was not until years later—to the chagrin of Brico—that Collins added the guitar to her quiver and began her notable career as a lyricist and folk artist.
“When I was a kid I practiced classical piano all the time,” she remembers. “The practicing kept me out of the chaos that was sometimes around me. I practiced every day then, and I still do today. In fact, if I don’t practice every day, I don’t feel right. It’s like something chemical is off.” She laughs, remembering a funny moment: “I asked my mother once if she ever had to force me to practice piano, and she said no. But she said she did have to force me to wash my hands.”
Collins has always revered Steinway & Sons pianos. As a young girl in Denver, she practiced in a nearby Steinway showroom and in Brico’s studio, a wondrous place filled with Steinway pianos and art depicting great classical artists. The love Collins has for Steinway runs deep, and she remembers that the first thing she did after moving to New York City in the early 1960s was buy her own Steinway, the same Model M she still has today.
The piano has had its own storied life. It, like all Steinway & Sons pianos, was made at the original factory in Queens, but soon departed for a stint at a private residence in Boston before coming back to its native city and finding a permanent home with Collins. She tells a harrowing story of the time she left her apartment for a weekend performance. When a housekeeper entered on Monday, she discovered a massive water leak in the apartment. “There was steam all through the house,” Collins says. “There was water everywhere. It was running down the lid of the piano. It was a horrible thing to see.”
She examined the Steinway’s ruined paint and waterlogged rim. The famed tuner and tone regulator William Hupfer, who toured with Rachmaninoff for 13 years, came to inspect. “It’s wrecked,” Collins told him, heartbroken. “Take it away.”
“It’s not wrecked,” Hupfer said. He had the Steinway transported to the factory in Astoria, where it was painstakingly restored, down to the last drop of paint. Today, Collins says, you’d never know it had been damaged.
She has owned and loved three Steinway pianos in her lifetime, though now she’s down to two: her favored “axe” the Model M, and a vintage 1928 grand that has also been meticulously restored. “I don’t play that one as much,” she admits. “But it’s such a presence here.” At one time she had three Steinways in the apartment. “Hard to believe,” she says, laughing. “But yes, I suppose I did.”
From Both Sides Now
Many times, journalists have written that Collins “turned away from classical” to begin her folk career, an assertion she refutes. “I never turned away,” she says. “Classical music has always been the foundation of my career.” Her cat, a blue Persian named Rachmaninoff, may be one testament to this. “I suppose if anything I’ve combined both types of music,” she says, adding that the daily classical piano practice always provided her with the rigor and discipline she needed to commit to an energetic songwriting career.
“It’s not true that I turned from piano to pick up guitar. I played—and I still play—folk songs on the piano.” (Watch this 1987 performance of “Both Sides Now” as just one example.)
Judy Collins might come at her craft from the proverbial both sides—folk and classical—but she has a simple, singular reverence in her heart for her first love: the grand piano.
“I go all over the world, meet many people, see different places, play different songs,” she says. “But I’m always, always near a piano.”
Can’t Miss: Watch Judy Collins perform “In the Twilight,” a tribute to her late mother, on WNYC Radio’s Spinning On Air program earlier this year.
About Judy Collins
Judy Collins musical career has spanned more than 50 years. At 13, she made her public debut performing Mozart’s Concerto for Two Pianos, but it was the music of such artists as Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, as well as the traditional songs of the folk revival, that sparked Judy’s love of lyrics, and she soon moved toward folk music. Her rendition of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” on her 1967 album Wildflowers has been entered into the Grammy Hall of Fame. Judy’s version of “Send in the Clowns,” a ballad written by Stephen Sondheim for the Broadway musical “A Little Night Music,” won Song of the Year at the 1975 Grammy Awards. In addition to her own large catalog of recordings, Collins has been instrumental in bringing other singer-songwriters to a wider audience including poet/musician Leonard Cohen and musicians Joni Mitchell and Randy Newman. She is an author, film director, music producer, and social activist. Now in her seventies, she is still writing, performing, and nurturing fresh talent. She plays 80 to100 dates a year around the country. www.judycollins.com