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April 24, 2010

A birthday greeting to my all-time favorite singer: Barbra Streisand

It's not an exaggeration to say that my life changed the first time I heard the voice of Barbra Streisand. Something in that timbre and the expressive richness behind it woke up my musical senses like nothing else ever had. The only other experience quite so transforming for me would happen years later, when I finally succumbed to the power of opera and discovered the phenomenon of Maria Callas.

Even as my own world moved professionally from pop to classical, my fixation on Streisand never waned, and I get nostalgic about her every April 24, her birthday. I refuse to believe she has turned 68 today. That's just a number, after all. This singer -- excuse me, this actress who sings -- is obviously timeless. Over the years, I've regretted some of the musical choices Streisand has made, but the vocal talent has remained a source of wonder and inspiration for me decade after decade.

To mark her birthday, I thought I'd share the opening montage from her 1966 TV special "Color Me Barbra." This is what introduced me to her (I must have still been in a crib then, given the age I admit to today). In these three songs, you can find nearly the whole range of Streisand's talent on display, vocal and theatrical. I am particularly fond of the second number, "One Kiss," which has always been one of my desert island choices when it comes to Streisand. I don't think this song has ever, could ever, be more divinely sung. It goes from being a pleasant Romberg operetta tune to something on a par with Schumann, and not just because of the sensitive arrangement. It's the singer who makes it gold. (I'd love to know what Streisand performances you could not live without -- and why.)

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:51 AM | | Comments (19)


Happy birthday, Ms. Streisand. how much poorer life would have been without your presence; the first I remember actually seeing you perform was in the movie version of "Funny Girl." I was transformed and euphoric afterwards; that event when I was 15 gave me my first and most wonderful obsession; how does she make that sound and smile or cry at the same time? i could not live without the "Parade" sequence from "Funny Girl" since it was the first time I literally rose to my feet in spontaneous applause with the rest of the audience in the movie house. I also cried tears of joy! WOW.

Thanks so much for sharing your enthusiasm. I well remember the chills from that 'Parade' number, too. TIM

1) Starting Here, Starting Now is a great song made greater by how Barbra builds on the song.

2) Clear Sailing is another great love song about new beginnings.

Thanks for commenting. I couldn't agree more about 'Starting Here.' It's hard to imagine anyone else getting so much out of that song -- or having such fab breath control. TIM

I'm tempted to say "Don't Rain On My Parade," but the moment I heard her do "I'm the Greatest Star" in "Funny Girl" the movie, my life changed. She just was the most amazing talent I'd ever seen and if I were on that desert island, "I'm the Greatest Star" could keep me mesmerized. Thanks for this blog. And Happy Birthday, Barbra!

Thanks for commenting. Anyone else trying to declare greatest star-hood would be laughable, but not Streisand. The way she sings that song, with such disarming naturalness and compelling defiance, really is magical. TIM

Nice piece, Tim. I like your writing.

Streisand always seemed to me to have an amazing, once in a lifetime talent, & often dubious taste, but it has been a long career & varied career & she probably didn't want, as an artist, to do the same old thing over & over again.
My favorite performances are from the first 4 albums, but I will choose LOVER COME BACK TO ME, for the reimagining of an old operetta tune & the humor:

Hey, thanks for commenting. And for the recommendation of 'Lover Come Back to Me.' I still remember the kick of hearing that for the first time (after my 'Color Me Barbra' intro, I started collecting all of the albums she had released up to that date -- much to the horror of everyone else in the family (they subsequently grew fonder of my favorite singer). I played those recordings over and over, louder and louder. And nothing could clear the room faster than 'Lover,' with its wild tempo and wilder phrasing. Talk about deconstructing a song. Fabulous. Thanks again. TIM

For me, it came at the age of 12, when I first heard The Second Barbra Streisand Album at a neighbor's house. She began When the Sun Comes Out -- the slow build, her almost savory reading of the lyrics, the building climax, and then that unexpected war "whoop" at the end. I was left transfixed, with my mouth hanging open. But as for her best, these are the five that, to me, couldn't be improved upon by anyone: I Never Has Seen Snow, All the Things You Are, We Kiss in a Shadow/I Have Dreamed/Something Wonderful, It Had to Be You, Where's that Rainbow, and I'll probably think of half a dozen more an hour from now.

Thanks for the great list. I especially second the motion for 'I Never Has Seen Snow.' TIM

I must say that I'm impressed with you, Tim.. Nice piece on Barbra. I must admit, even though I wasn't born earlier enough to see how Barbra build her career (I'm only 19 years old), but I know that my life would be less perfect had I not heard her sing Happy Days Are Here Again... it's one of the most unforgettable moments in her career, singing it solo in pitch perfect notes.. and then sang it again with Judy Garland with a mix of "Get Happy / Happy Days Are Here Again".. it was timeless.. she can make old songs sound contemporary and truly a legend.

Thanks for the kind words -- and for the encouraging news that a 19-year-old gets Streisand so fully! There's hope for the future of musical taste, after all. I well remember the shock of her 'Happy Days' -- after my initial encounter with Streisand via 'Color Me Barbra' on TV (I talked about nothing else the next morning, from what I've been told by the family), I just had to hear more of her. One of the first things I bought was 'The Barbra Streisand Album' and one of the great chills I got from that was when I heard 'Happy Days.' I did not believe a song like that could be transformed into something so richly layered. It's so fascinating to hear the journey she makes in that first recording, from the unexpected, sensual take on the words to the even more surprising explosion of cynicism at the end. A masterpiece of interpretation.TIM

I LOVE One Kiss as well. It is fantastic. So moving and so sensual. Desert island Barbra? Can I just take her with me? Here's my attempt to choose one song from each decade.

1960s: Down With Love. Her arrangement is out of this world.

1970s: Lazy Afternoon. The vibraphone opening is out so ethereal.

1980s: Send in the Clowns. Her version is definitive, imo.

1990s: Everybody Says Don't. A classic Streisand "don't tell me what to do; i'm incredible" song. And she knocks it out of the park.

2000s: I guess I would have to go with "What are you doing the rest of your life" from her most recent concert. She's sung it before, but never with as much depth as this last time. (Honorable mention: Letting Go)

Fabulous list. Thanks for offering it. I was particularly delighted to see you mention 'Lazy Afternoon,' which I have long ranked among her most beguiling performances. And I think 'What Are You Doing..' brings out the very best of her vocal and interpretive gifts -- as in so many other examples, it's as if she had been born to sing that song. TIM

There are so many favorites; I could probably type for an hour all the Streisand songs I love. But if I picked one (at least today), I think I would pick "A Piece of Sky," which ends "Yentl." It may be my favorite Streisand movie (along with "The Way We Were" and "Funny Girl"). When Yentl is on the boat the end of the movie (probably leaving for America), her spirit, along with her pristine voice, flies up into the heavens as she asks her father to watch her fly. I recently showed this movie to my students, and after the first reactions of "A Musical? I hate musicals!" and "This movie is old!", they were transfixed, as I was in junion high school when I first saw it. Rock on Barbra.

Thanks a lot for adding to the discussion and for pointing out the exceptional power of that 'Yentl' finale. TIM

Thanks for posting this wonderful tribute to The Greatest Star. I shudder to think of the world without her talent. And thanks for reminding of her verion of Yesterdays from Color Me Barbra; such an outstanding performance and I think one of her all-time television highlights.

Glad you liked it. As I said, that opening section of the show will always have a special place for me. From the first moment, with the sound of a harpsichord racing along, the arresting image of this fascinating creature gliding through the museum and her perfectly centered tone as she begins to sing 'Yesterdays,' this is one heck of an opening number. And for me, it couldn't have been a more indelible introduction to the woman and her art. TIM

Happy Birthday Barbra From your number one fan in Canada.............Luv Di

Thanks for your tribute, Tim. When I was in high school, back in 1978, we watched a documentary about the history of television. There was this clip of Barbra singing Happy Days Are Here Again, and something about it struck me like a bolt of lightning. Who knows what it was, but something about how she sang and how it made me feel was unlike any singer I had ever heard up to that point. I became a fan. In all the years since then, I have heard all of her recordings (as well as saw her perform live in 1994) and there are many songs that only she could sing in that way she has. But there is a song on her Christmas Memories CD from 2001 that I feel ranks up there with her very best. It's the Stephen Sondheim song "I Remember". Somehow she is able to convey a very specific feeling about the meaning of those wistful lyrics. That song recorded all those years after Happy Days Are Here Again is a testament to how her gift is timeless.

Thanks so much for your thoughts. And, boy, did you strike the right chord with me when you mentioned 'I Remember.' A true gem. I've always felt that Streisand should record an all-Sondheim collection, as she is singularly suited to the contour of his melodiies, the brilliance of his lyrics. Thanks again. TIM

When I was 9 1/2 I saw "The Greatest Star" for the first time. She was co-hosting "The Mike Douglas Show"....all week! I would run home from school and sit mesmerized in front of the television. It's been a fantastic "love affair" ever since.

My 4 top favorite Barbra recordings are:

Starting Here, Starting Now- That song just builds and builds and then pushes you over the edge!

Since I Fell For You-
She just takes you on a journey to the sky with that recording!

Once Upon A Summertime-
So serene and sublime!

My latest addition- Wild Is The Wind- How can you not get up and sway to her vocals. From the first line of "Love me, love me, say you do" I WILL!

Thanks for the great list. And thanks for making me supremely jealous that you saw those now legendary Mike Douglas shows, which, if I recall correctly, were accidentally erased not long after airing. I'd pay dearly to see them. And thanks for mentioning 'Once Upon a Summertime,' another of my personal faves. TIM

So many wonderful memories the lists of favorite songs brings to my mind. As you say, her voice is remarkable still, as proved by some of her most recent "Love is the Answer" album. A few gems from that album, for me, would be -

~ In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning
~ Where Do You Start
~ Here's That Rainy Day

Some other perhaps less known songs are favorites of mine, too -

~ "Love is Only Love" - from Hello, Dolly!
~ "If I Love Again" - from Funny Lady
~ "Isn't It a Pity?" - from the "A Love Like Ours" album

I also have a fondness for Randy Newman's "I'll Be Home" from the Stoney End album.

Her voice is simply... well, Streisand!

Amen. TIM

Tim, thank you for this. What excellent taste you and your readers have! My life changed too when I first heard Barbra. I was 10 and I heard The Greatest Star when Funny Girl aired on TV. I have diverse musical taste but my love for that voice (despite the occaisional cringe at song selections) has brought me great joy and I had the great pleasure of hearing her sing live on two occaisions. Each April 24th, I play a few things. Yesterday I listened to Lover Come Back To Me and When the Sun Comes Out, two of my old favs. I also listened to the 2006 Concert where she sings a stunning, (although too short) version of Funny Girl and The Music That Makes Me Dance. Oh, I could go on and on but I thank you for your excellent writing and tribute.

And thanks for sharing. I love hearing how others reacted the first time they heard this woman sing. TIM

Great post, Tim. Fun to read.
Sorry to join this birthday party a bit late. I would have to second all of Linda Eppley's choices (I think Love Is The Answer is one of Streisand's best efforts in a very long time). I will add a few that no one has mentioned yet, that I listen to almost daily. In no particular order:
--House Of Flowers
--(It's Gonna Be) A Great Day, and More Than You Know, from Funny Lady
--A Child Is Born, from Lazy Afternoon
--The Music That Makes Me Dance, from A Love Like Ours
-- If I Loved You, from The Broadway Album
--Finale from A Star Is Born
--Make Our Garden Grow (the bootleg from the unreleased Broadway Album that should have been released...but don't get me started!)
I could go on and on... She is unequalled.

Thanks for the great list (and for reminding me of that regretably unreleased item from 'Candide.' TIM

Probably the single most influential singer of the 20th Century. Coppied by so many singers. Also a Great Woman & Humanitarian. Virtually gives all her money to Charity that most people don't realize. I've met & worked for her & let me tell you she is a class act & in a class all her own. No one comes close. Happy Birthday Barbra. Your Talent & Persona will go on for Generations to come. Love, Joey Sinisi

Wonderful, wonderful tribute. I concur with all you said.
One of my all-time favorites is "I Never Has Seen Snow". I gives me chills whenever I hear it. But who could name just one song?! There are scores of selections that I wouldn't want to be without.

You said it! Thanks for commenting. TIM

My first vision of BARBRA was on the TV special A happening in Central Park in 1968, when i was 17 years old. I had never seen or heard anyone like her in my life, and i was an instant convert to the STREISAND cult. I bought all of her albums and CD'S and DVD'S throughout the years. I was thrilled to finally see her in concert in 1994. She has been a part of my life for over 40 years and it's so nice to have someone you admire and enjoy take that journey along with you. Her music and her movies and her unique persona have provided me with so many wonderful moments and memories. AND SHE'S STILL HERE!!!! Thanks again, TIm, for the birthday tribute...

Thanks for adding to the tribute. As it turns out, I got to attend that Central Park concert, having nagged my parents to death about wanting to go. My father finally gave in, and we all piled in a car for the drive from DC. I can't say I saw or heard very much, but it sure was fun being a part of Streisand history. I share your enthusiasm for the fact that she's still a part of our lives. And, as her most recent album indicates, there's a lot we can still look forward to. Thanks again. TIM

Tim, thanks so much for your birhtday tribute to Barbra, it was great, I'm sure you made all her fans very happy. I know I loved it. As for my "Desert Island List", songs that truly move me every time I hear it goes:

If I Could
Summer Me, Winter Me
What are you doing the rest of your life
And as a "guilty" pleasure:
Make it Like a Memory

Thanks so much for contributing. TIM

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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