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Streisand’s 1962 Debut Album Is Released at Last — and It’s Gorgeous!

The long-lost ‘Live at the Bon Soir’ is a masterpiece and a revelation

Barbra Streisand holds her arms out and smiles she performs on 'The Ed Sullivan Show,' New York, New York, December 12, 1962.
Barbra Streisand performing on "The Ed Sullivan Show" in New York on Dec. 12, 1962.
CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images

Six decades ago, Barbra Streisand, now 80, released her debut recording, The Barbra Streisand Album, a top 10 smash that snagged the Grammy for Album of the Year and set in motion one of the most enduring, successful and admired careers in pop music history.

But that wasn’t at all how her recording career was supposed to begin. In 1962, Columbia Records signed Streisand, then 20 and generating intense buzz with her 1960-62 shows at Bon Soir, a 150-seat subterranean club in New York’s Greenwich Village. So ecstatic was the reaction to Streisand’s vocal power, character and control that label executives suggested she cut her debut album live at the club. For three nights in November 1962, they rolled tape, hoping to capture the frisson she created in that space. But those hopes were crushed by the sound quality. “I heard hiss,” Streisand said. “That room wasn’t meant to be a recording studio.”

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So the tapes were shelved, and she instead debuted with a studio recording that made history. Yet a legend built up around the lost Bon Soir recording — it became a Streisand fan’s answer to the lost Ark of the Covenant. Now that ’62 treasure has finally been given new life, thanks to advances in sound technology. Her newest, oldest album, Live at the Bon Soir, shows a side of the singer found nowhere else in her vast catalog.

Barbra Streisand - Live at the Bon Soir
The album cover for "Live at the Bon Soir."
Columbia Records

The album captures Streisand at her most raw, pure and fresh, with a you-are-there excitement. Four instruments (guitar, drum, piano and bass) lend only the subtlest support. No more was needed, given the scope of her voice and the variety of its colors. In any song, Streisand could shade a note with the greatest delicacy or belt it with a herculean strength. What a treat to hear what she could do shorn of the more elaborate (and brilliant) arrangements found on her early studio recordings.

The Bon Soir versions allow us to more fully concentrate on both her instrument and her savvy choices for deploying it. The particular way she chose to sing in this seminal phase of her career — 1962 through 1968 — differs significantly from the way she most often sang afterward. She was wilder in this era, racing fitfully from the bottom of her range to the top, and from the quietest whispers to the greatest crescendos. This is Streisand at her most radical, unusual — and, in a sense, Streisandian.

Barbra Streisand next to Harold Arlen (middle).
Barbra Streisand next to Harold Arlen (middle).
Don Hunstein/Columbia Records

Another key aspect is her choice of material. At the Bon Soir, and for the first six years of her recording career, she largely avoided contemporary material. (Starting in 1969, she moved on to younger songs, often arranged in a more streamlined style). For the Bon Soir recording, she focused on decades-old pieces, like Harold Arlen’s 1941 “When the Sun Comes Out” or “Lover, Come Back to Me,” from 1928. The way she performed them, however, shivers and pounds with youth. She delivered the former with bravura confidence, emphasizing every word of the title phrase with vicious diction. The latter finds her speeding through the melody with breathtaking dexterity. Together, her delivery of the set’s 24 songs created a coherent play, nailing her intent at the start of her career to act the lyrics. “Playing characters was my life, my ambition, my dream,” she said.

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Many songs from the Bon Soir set ended up on her studio debut, including a very sensual take on “A Taste of Honey,” a ballad the Beatles also released, one month later. It’s incredible to think that Streisand could fully compete on the charts with new rock stars like the Fab Four while performing such vintage material, and in such an eccentric way. Asked recently if she believes the live Bon Soir album would have been as commercially successful as her studio debut had it come out first, Streisand replied, “Probably not.”

Certainly, it would have deserved to be. Either way, listening to Live at the Bon Soir restores a seminal part of the Streisand story, one that’s still unfolding six decades later.

​Hear it: Barbra Streisand Live at the Bon Soir