Barbra Streisand on Her Pristine Early Recordings: ‘That Girl Can Sing’
“Live at the Bon Soir,” a restored set of songs from November 1962, allows listeners today — and Streisand, herself — to rediscover the sounds of a star being born.
By Wesley Morris
For about 60 years, Barbra Streisand has had the same manager, Marty Erlichman. He’s 93 now and still remembers the night he knew there was nobody like her.
It was 1960. She was 18 and had earned a gig performing at the Bon Soir, a small, chic club in New York’s West Village. Over the phone earlier this week, he recalled sitting at a front-row table with some other reps, including a guy from William Morris, and Jack Rollins, who managed Woody Allen at the time. When Streisand started her set, one of them leaned over and said, “See, it’s acts like that need someone like me.” She was doing it wrong. Why was she opening with a ballad? Why was she opening with a ballad in those clothes?
Streisand’s two-week gig was extended to 11, then rebooked over the next two years, becoming a drag-your-friends, word-of-mouth must-see. The songwriters Alan and Marilyn Bergman caught it and had the same experience Erlichman did: cartoon birds flying around their heads. The Bergmans would go on to write the lyrics for the Streisand gems “The Way We Were,” “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” (with Neil Diamond) and the songs for her directorial debut, “Yentl.” But that night, they were simply in awe. Alan, who’s 97, told me over the phone that “the minute she sang less than eight bars, Marilyn was in tears.”
What they all witnessed was a star, this singular source of incandescence — pillow-soft singing that was pow-right-in-the-kisser, too; phrasing that could turn a song into a literary event; and timing most stand-ups wish they had.
Now, 60 years later, we can hear what they saw, on “Live at the Bon Soir,” a pristinely restored recording of three dozen songs from late November 1962 that’s due Friday. During the Bon Soir run, Erlichman got Streisand signed with Columbia Records, which arranged a recording of the show but shelved it in favor of an 11-song studio version, “The Barbra Streisand Album,” from 1963. So what was supposed to be the first Barbra Streisand album is actually the umpteenth.
To Streisand, it’s just as well. “I was only, what, 20 years old, and I didn’t like the sound,” she said from her home in Los Angeles, describing speakers poised over her head the size of shoe boxes. “You could hear the hiss.” Now, technology can solve almost any sonic dilemma. So Streisand finally handed over the recordings from her vault to the engineer and musician Jochem van der Saag, who excavated the pure sound of the original show and restored what the Marty Erlichmans and Alan and Marilyn Bergmans of the world would have heard: something close to perfection.
At 80, Streisand isn’t going out of her way to listen to music she’s already made. By her own admission, she’s too busy worrying about the state of the country to fuss over her work. But what she heard surprised her. “I didn’t realize, actually, that my vocals were that good ’til they played me the new one,” she said, before laughing. “I thought, ‘Oh my God. That girl can sing.’”
That, of course, is the shock of “Live at the Bon Soir.” We’re hearing a voice that’s been at the center of American singing for more than half a century being heard for just about the first time. We thought we knew everything it has done, every way it could sound. And yet it’s mind-blowing to discover all it could do, in a little nightclub, with a crack four-man band and the crowd eating out of her hand — giddy and coquettish, yet accomplished and skilled, lunatic yet in control.
Streisand is the kind of performer who, more than a year into her Bon Soir run, jokes to an audience, “People complain that I don’t do standards. Well, here’s a standard,” then launches into “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf” with an impossible featherweight world weariness. The range of her singing isn’t just a matter of octaves. It’s the diversity of characters the voice can find for one song. On “The Big Bad Wolf,” it’s story time and operetta, Big Mama Thornton and Ethel Merman. For “Lover, Come Back to Me,” it’s something to rival Ella Fitzgerald in the way she can already take a tune, especially in concert, from botanical garden to boxing match. That performance certainly ranks up there with the supreme Streisand interpretations of anything. By 20, she’d achieved this near-mastery all with, what, by 1962, were standards, grandma music.
That, of course, was what made the suits nervous: a repertoire that included Tin Pan Alley and show tunes, those dreaded ballads and jazz; Oscar Hammerstein, Harold Arlen and Fats Waller. Where were the big pop songs? The contemporary stuff. The “Surfin’ U.S.A.” The “Walk Like a Man.” The “Be My Baby.” The “Fingertips.” The “It’s My Party.”
When Erlichman took her to audition — live — for Capitol, RCA and Columbia, “Everyone said the same thing,” he recalled. “‘She has a good voice.’” (If he ever wrote a book, he said, he’d call it “Good Closes on Wednesday.”) Obviously, she was capable of great art. “She wasn’t singing commercial songs,” Erlichman said. And “executives, they’re frightened to break new ground.”
But Streisand could appreciate the splendor of an old object. That’s what the vintage outfits she’d wear onstage were all about. “I always bought antique clothes,” she said, “because I thought they were so beautiful. I admired the craftsmanship.” The craftsmanship of the 1890s.
“Opening night, I wore a black, high-necked velvet beaded top,” she said. “I had my tailor make me a little black velvet skirt that went with that top. But I didn’t know you’re not supposed to dress like that. I didn’t know that when you sing in a nightclub, you’re supposed to have kind of a gown or something elegant, made out of fabulous silks or satins.” At some point on “The Bon Soir,” you can hear her tell the audience that she’s wearing her boyfriend’s suit. She told me that “the masculine and the feminine was what felt comfortable on me.”
That admiration she harbors for well-made things obviously extends to the Great American Songbook: superior craftsmanship. Its hundreds of dynamic, adaptable songs rely on characters, stories, wordplay and variations on a theme. For a singer, figuring them out is like doing math or the crossword or architecture. They’re also an opportunity to act, which is what Streisand says she wanted to do in the first place. During the Bon Soir run, she was splitting her days between nightclubs and Broadway, where she was loudly making a name for herself as the secretary Miss Marmelstein in “I Can Get It for You Wholesale.”
The wit and drama of the Songbook lyrics lend themselves to a theatrical approach. An imaginative singer can phrase a standard any way she likes. And, in that regard, Streisand has one of the great imaginations. Each Bon Soir song, she said, had a different character for her to play. And what comes through now is a devastating understanding of tone, shading, pitch, diction but also emotional variability. At the Bon Soir, she makes “Cry Me a River” an exploding torch song. When she finishes, one of her musicians — the guitarist Tiger Haynes or the bassist Averill Pollard — says, “Let’s go home now, let’s go home.” Yes, because Streisand just burned the place down.
“She wants to know every single word, and if a word doesn’t make sense to her, she’ll stop and go, ‘I don’t understand. Why this word?’” the composer, conductor and arranger Bill Ross said in a video call. He’s been collaborating with Streisand on live shows since the early 1990s, and said one thing that makes Streisand Streisand is that she’ll spend so much time, “just on the lyrics trying to make sure they make sense to her.” Once she’s got that down, only then can she ask what the melody is. “I’ve never seen any other artist like that,” he said.
Streisand is such a rigorously engaged interpreter yet also a kind of Method performer that she can’t imagine herself doing anything the same way twice. “I want to be in the moment,” she said. “That’s what you learn as an actress, that you have to be in the moment. That’s why no two takes of mine are the same. You know, it’s hard to edit me because I don’t phrase it the same. If I’m in the moment, I can’t sing the same. That’s why when I did ‘A Star Is Born,’ I said I have to sing live.”
With that approach, if the soundtracks, say, for “Funny Girl” or “Hello, Dolly,” get recorded months in advance, “Well, how do I know how I’m going to feel when I’m singing ‘My Man’ at the end of ‘Funny Girl’?”
That spontaneity is what made an impression on van der Saag, the engineer who spent months deep inside the “Bon Soir” recordings. He told me a great vocalist ought to have superb intonation, phrasing and sense of melody. Besides Streisand being “absolutely the best” on those first three, she has “this other thing,” that’s probably a result of being an actor, what he calls transference of emotion. Someone can get a song technically correct, which is a feat. “But to be able to just sing to the listener wherever they are and make them feel an emotion,” he said, “and to that extent? That is another level. And, you know, it’s very rare that you come across vocalists who have that.”
Streisand’s use of Jewish American humor, Jewish American vibrancy (throwaway lines, ba-dum-bum comedy, the border she permeates between Brooklyn and Buckingham Palace) is also an emotional transmission. “This next song is from a record-breaking show,” she says before doing a quickie called “Value.” “It lasted nine previews and one performance. It was called ‘Another Evening with Harry Stoones.’” Streisand extends the “o” in Stoones for a lick of derision then, lowering her voice a touch, buries her dagger: “No wonduh …” It’s expert comedy. The song is a riot so fast and moving, uninhibited and exhibitionist, that it’s as close as singing gets to streaking.
Streisand said she grew up around all kinds of people and all kinds of life. She moved through the city with an open heart. “I lived as a young girl in Williamsburg,” she said. “You know, Williamsburg was not what it is today with highfalutin apartments and fancy shops. I was in a Black neighborhood with a church across the street. And I loved bowing to the fathers and the sisters because I didn’t have a sister or a father. And my best friend was Joanne Micelli, who was Christian. I mean, we had an Italian grocery across the street.”
That’s what Streisand evokes on “The Bon Soir.” A single person doing the work of an entire neighborhood. Sixty years later, her neighborhood has become the world. And Streisand frets about its future. But there’s something else on this new album — some other emotional transmission. And it’s the opposite of catastrophic. It’s confidence and poise and security and daring and honesty and a belief in the power of a perfect song, great bandmates and raw talent.
Barbra Streisand was giving all of that to people, first at the Bon Soir, then everywhere that was smart enough to book her. That’s what else you can hear on this album, what Streisand herself heard upon rediscovering this long lost self. It’s hope. ------------------------------ A correction was made on Nov. 4, 2022: An earlier version of this article misstated the start date for Barbra Streisand’s Bon Soir shows. It was in 1960 when she was 18 years old, not in 1961 when she was 19. When we learn of a mistake, we acknowledge it with a correction. ------------------------------- Wesley Morris is a critic at large and the co-host, with Jenna Wortham, of the culture podcast “Still Processing.” He has won two Pulitzer Prizes for criticism, including in 2021 for a set of essays that explored the intersection of race and pop culture.