Barbra Streisand's voice is "one of the natural wonders of the age, an instrument of infinite diversity and timbral resource.”
That's the opinion of Glenn Gould, one of the great classical pianist of the 20th century - and also the opinion of millions of her fans.
But how did this worldwide love affair with a voice all start?
In the early 1960's, she began to appear on TV variety shows like Gary Moore and Ed Sullivan. That's when my sister, Felice, started to notice her and got me to watch shows that Streisand would be on. It is difficult to convey the impact that her voice and her style of singing had on her audience at that time. Certainly, Streisand's style of singing was influenced by the emergence of rock 'n roll - she sang every song like it was her last, pouring out her emotions vocally, to act out the song.
Every performance was a mini-play about lost love, happy times, found love, etc. And most importantly, songs about a young woman who wants 'much more than keeping house.' Streisand mined the Great American Songbook better than any singer of her generation not named Frank Sinatra. And she too had her own special arranger who could fit any song to her unique style - Peter Matz. His arrangements of both new and old songs put the Streisand voice upfront and gave her plenty of room to perform her vocal acrobatics.
There is one song that epitomized the emotionally charged Streisand style and how it differed from other pop music singers - Cry Me A River. This is a song that Julie London had a big hit with in 1955 - here is her version. Many female singers recorded it, and, as usual, Ella Fitzgerald's was the best, musically.
Then, Streisand sang it. She starts her version of the song in the manner we were used to hearing it, as a song by a sad, disappointed lover. Then, she kicks into emotional hyperdrive and by the end and suddenly we are looking at one angry lady who really means that she wants her returning lover to cry her a river before she will give him the time of day. She's not just hurt, she's mad - she wants to see this guy suffer like he made her suffer. She wants revenge!
Soon, the networks were banging at her door to do a 'special.' Over the next five years, Streisand did several, starting with My Name is Barbra in 1965. She hired a great TV producer, Joe Layton, to conceive a special type of show that would star only her, very unusual at the time as most 'specials' had many guests stars. Instead, Streisand, alone, held the stage in a variety of situations, singing songs that most people had never heard before. This first effort won all the awards, including a Peabody Award.
Next, Color Me Barbra, found her at the Philadelphia Art Museum, blending into period paintings while singing an appropriate song. One takes her back to the terror in Paris in the 1790s. Streisand is an aristocrat singing The Minute Waltz while waiting to be guillotined (singing a funny song is a lost art - Streisand did it better than anyone had). The second half of the show has her in a live menagerie, singing to various animals. The songs are all exceptional, but listen to her take of a simple song, Why Did I Chose You, and how she can simmer her emotions just as well as she can explode them.
Both of these specials ended with a mini-concert so it was appropriate for her next special to be a concert - and oh, what a concert. One hundred and Twenty Thousand people showed up in New York's Central Park for a free concert - A Happening in Central Park. The resulting TV special and album made musical history - it was the first time a non-rock star had attracted so many young fans to a concert.
I had the pleasure of seeing her in Philadelphia in 1966. I couldn't afford the hefty prices for a ticket ($3.50 to $12.50!) so my sister took me (really, there were complaints about the high prices). I remember much of that night, but the clearest memory is at the end of the concert when she sang Silent Night. That song is not on the official list of songs performed that night, but she sang it, on a clear warm August night - and she did in Central Park, too. It was magical.
Now, the good news - all of these early TV specials are now on Netflix. Take a look at them and discover why a whole generation of fans fell in love with the voice and the woman who is 'one of the natural wonders of the age.'