Soon after their fiery two-year relationship ended, Stephen Stills wrote “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” about Judy Collins. The iconic multi-part track opened Crosby, Stills & Nash’s 1969 debut album. Collins and Stills remained friends over the decades, but only recorded together sporadically.
That all changed earlier this year, as Stills and Collins combined some of the best-loved songs from their catalogs into one of the most popular tours of the year, geared around their collaborative album, Everybody Knows. At the gigs, Stills reaches back to his days with Buffalo Springfield (“Bluebird”) and CSN (“Questions”). Collins performs “Chelsea Morning” and the heartfelt “Someday Soon.” Audiences understand the relevance today of “For What It’s Worth” and the pair close the show with a rousing take on what’s become known as “The Suite.”
Collins and Stills’ recently-released album is a blend of songs from the past (Stills’ “So Begins the Task”), new songs (Collins’ “River of Gold”) and songs written by others (“Handle With Care,” “Reason to Believe” and the title cut by Leonard Cohen). They again revisit their relationship with “Judy,” written by Stills in 1967 and Collins’ “Houses” from 1975.
We recently talked with Collins about the pair’s tour and new album, and learned that there is someone else she would have liked to perform with but never got the chance.
Rock Cellar: How did the idea come about to record with Stephen?
Judy Collins: This has been a sub-story for years, because we’ve always been friends throughout, while we maintained our nearly 50-year friendship. And we would go to dinner in Los Angeles, sit down with his wife and my granddaughter and my husband, and talk about well, what if?
I was always a fan of his and of Crosby, Stills & Nash. I went to see them at the Beacon Theatre one night and afterwards we were talking and I think it was Graham Nash who said, “My God, you guys should work together someday.” And it got in our minds, both Stephen’s and mine. And a number of people recommended it, and Stephen and I had been halfway making our way to that. We’d exchange ideas about what we might sing.
Then I asked him to come to my place about five or six years ago. We did a song of Tom Paxton’s, “Last Thing on My Mind,” and it was a duet on an album of mine called Paradise. It’s the one that has the Joan Baez duet of “Diamonds and Rust” and it also has Jimmy Webb’s great song about the painter, “Gaugin.” It’s a great album, I must say. Certainly the kinds of material that I chose to record on that album were very interesting.
It was a good test because he was in town. He was doing a big Rock and Roll Hall of Fame celebration. He had three or four shows that he was supposed to play on with Crosby Stills & Nash. It was a tight schedule in a three-day trip to New York. And he managed to get himself together and come over here and sing with me. We recorded right at home here in my studio with my engineer.
So that was the beginning. We thought “well, let’s do this.” And of course it’s such a pipe dream.
You think well, after 50 years, I wonder if that’s a good idea. Well, it is a good idea. It’s great fun. We’re having a ball. We enjoy each other’s company.
I’m in a state of heightened exhilaration throughout the show. I’m just so excited to be there and do that. And he feels the same way. So we’re having a good time.
“Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” is a highlight of the concert.
Judy Collins: [Laughs] Oh, so much fun!
Has your feeling about being the subject of such a popular song changed over the years?
Judy Collins: Oh, I feel wonderful about it. How else could you feel? And the fact that we’re still friends, that’s just wonderful. He always says the way we kept our friendship was we married other people. I think that’s probably true.
A lot of the songs from Stephen’s catalog, like “Questions” and “Bluebird,” are ingrained in people’s minds.
Judy Collins: They certainly are.
How do you put your own stamp on them?
Judy Collins: I just sing harmony. I basically play the guitar and sing harmony and just revel in being there. So that’s my contribution [laughs]. I add Judy Collins to those songs. I mean, that’s not too shabby.
The new album, Everybody Knows, has songs you’ve previously released, songs others have written and new songs. What was the process of choosing songs for the new album?
Judy Collins: We started three or four years ago writing to each other long notes about what we might sing. And we ventured into all kinds of areas and other songs. And the ones that survived and also the ones that survived rehearsals are the ones that wound up on the album.
You and Stephen have long histories of political and social activism, and you perform “For What It’s Worth” in concert. Is there anything on the horizon to address the current mess we find ourselves in?
Judy Collins: We think that we’re contributing to people acting on their consciences. I think that’s what music does. It seeps its way into the unconscious and subsequently adds to the ingredients of figuring out what you yourself could do. I think everybody can vote, they can march, they can write, they can sing, they can do a lot of things that are possible.
I think music keeps people alive and thinking. Whether it’s a song about romance or robbery or resentment or reorganization or out-and-out revolution, music makes people think.
They’re sitting there in the dark, and fundamentally they’re listening. Which means that they have time to go in their minds wherever they want. And I do, too. I’m singing and I can go in my mind wherever I want. So it’s a rare privilege to be in a closed situation where you can’t pick up the phone and you can’t run to answer the door and you can’t honk your horn at somebody who’s invading your space. You’re by yourself, you’re with your thoughts. And you know sometimes, they say, when you’re in your own mind, you’re in a dangerous neighborhood.
But in an environment like this one, you have time to think. And we do too. So it’s exciting to be part of music for all these years. It’s a great privilege and I do say to my audience, I want you to know that we are enormously grateful to be able to do this, to be able to come out here and present a show that’s going to give you pleasure and laughter and tears, hopefully, and a chance to express yourself by standing up and dancing to “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” at the end [laughs].
Any thoughts of recording a second album?
Judy Collins: I’m sure that there will be, I just don’t know when. Because we don’t have very much time right now [laughs] just working. I keep writing, he keeps writing, thinking about things, and it’s very possible.
Is there anyone else you’d like to collaborate with?
Judy Collins: I’d like to collaborate with Pavarotti but that’s not really possible right now [laughs].