Stepping on stage in a floppy pink hat, lavender scarf and silver sparkly high heels, 1960s-era folk singer Judy Collins joked she would “get this over with right away.”
Then, the 73-year-old launched into a capella version of her signature song, “Both Sides Now,” her voice sounding very much like the one that made her famous, thrilling a large crowd gathered Thursday at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.
“Bows and flows of angel hair, and ice cream castles in the air,” she sang, as surprised gasps and applause filled the room. “And feather canyons everywhere. I’ve looked at clouds that way.”
Collins spoke for about an hour about her personal life and musical career, with bursts of song sprinkled throughout the “Talkin’ About My Generation” luncheon event, presented by The Women’s Connection and sponsored by the Senior Star at Elmore Place retirement home.
With hits like “Turn, Turn, Turn” and “Send in the Clowns,” Collins said she never stopped singing and traveling across the world — except for one year — in more than 50 years of her “amazing career.”
But she also shared details about her depression and alcoholism, and her son’s suicide in 1992. She said reaching out through her struggles has been healing and made a difference in the lives of others, too.
“Most of us have our own experience with mental health,” she said. “We all have something or know someone going through these things. But it’s how we bond together, talk about things, learn about things.”
Collins, who has lived almost 50 years in New York City, told stories about growing up in Seattle, Los Angeles and Denver with her parents, who she described as “extraordinary.”
Her father was legally blind since age 4, but never let that stop him from doing “anything and everything,” she said, including driving. He had a beautiful singing voice, she said, and worked as a radio show personality for 30 years.
“Everybody adored him,” she said.
Meanwhile, her mother lived life to the fullest during her almost 10 decades, Collins said. She was a volunteer, drove a Red Cross truck and was a voracious reader and book club member.
Around the dinner table during her childhood, they talked to her about activism.
“They said, ‘If you don’t vote or if you don’t take any action, if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem,” Collins said. “What do you do when you see something you’d like to change? Can you change it? Give it a try.”
That affected her life, along with the musical influence of her father. As the oldest of five children, Collins said she quickly became the musical kid in the family, and her father let her go on stage and sing with him when she was 4. Her first big hit was “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” she joked.
Collins studied piano and vocal music, practicing for a couple of hours after school every day for much of her early childhood, she said.
She also was enthralled with the people her father featured on his radio show. Listening to the radio one day, she heard some folk songs and “suddenly was thrust into this world of folk music,” she said.
That’s what inspired her to ask for a guitar, which she said her father rented — rather than bought — for her, spurring laughter in the crowd. She began learning to play the guitar, and joined the folk music scene, which wasn’t very big in Denver at the time.
Her first real singing job was in a bar. She signed a record contract at the age of 22 in 1961, and moved to New York City, where she became friends with folk legend Bob Dylan and other iconic songwriters and performers of the era.
All these years later, Collins is still busy, doing 110 shows every year, traveling all over the world, owning a record label and writing books.
She also has a new CD coming out, called “Bohemian,” which will be featured on a PBS television show set to air nationally in September.
But the road to this place in her life wasn’t easy. When Collins was 14, she attempted to commit suicide by swallowing pills. She later struggled with depression, alcoholism and an eating disorder, she said.
In 1978, she sought treatment and got sober, and her depression slowly lifted. The same week she entered treatment, she also met her second husband, who she married 18 years later. They are still together, “joyfully married,” she said.
But her family’s depression and alcoholism passed to her son, who went through treatment to get sober when he was 25.
“My son was sober for seven years,” she said. “It was the best time of my life. Now is very, very good, but he isn’t here.”
Her son became a father in that time, but eventually began drinking again and killed himself, and “all the air went out of the universe for me,” she said.
Attending grief therapy sessions and talking to others about her experiences helped her get through, along with journal-keeping, which she said is essential.
A person in the audience asked Collins how she stays healthy, and she said she exercises and adheres to a special diet that does not include any sugars, grains or flour.
“I really enjoyed hearing about her life,” said Clara Delle “C.D.” Thompson, a member of the audience from Rock Island.
Colleen Rafferty of the Women’s Connection said few faces or voices capture a generation so clearly as Collins, who end of her presentation with music. The crowd joined in as Collins belted out “Amazing Grace.”
“I once was lost, but now I’m found,” she sang, “was blind, but now, I see.”