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.
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.