Doing It Her Way: Streisand Live at Bon Soir Finally Drops
1962 recording considered technically "problematic" gets a "fix"
Barbra Streisand has garnered virtually every accolade, tribute, award, and honor it’s possible for a great popular artist to get: ten Grammys, nine Golden Globes, five Emmys, two Oscars, and a Tony, not to mention four Peabody Awards, the American Film Institute Lifetime Achievement Award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the National Medal of Arts, and France’s Légion d'honneur. Her albums have been reshuffled, remastered, and reconfigured with almost periodic regularity as “greatest hits,” “highlights,” and “essential” collections, culminating in the 1991 Barbra Streisand: Just for the record, a four-CD retrospective, with lavish 93-page book, that offers a comprehensive cross-section of her recordings up to that point in her career (she was forty-eight).
And still the compilations continued, along with albums of new material. As of this writing, her albums total seventy-three, eleven occupying the number one spot on Billboard (more than any other female artist), and a number one album in each of the last six decades, an achievement equaled by no other artist.
When, in 2022, Streisand turned eighty, even those of us who stand in some awe of her might be forgiven for wondering what else by way of recognition was left to be celebrated or more accomplishments to be discovered. Turns out there was, and quite some gift it is: Barbra Streisand: Live at the Bon Soir, three nights of nightclub performances, never before released as a whole, from the dawn of her career, that constitute a major addition to the legacy of one of the most popular and highly acclaimed singers who ever lived. Whereby hangs a tale . . .
Although known around the Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn where she was born and raised as “the kid with the good voice,” Streisand from an early age dreamed only of becoming an actor. In 1958 she graduated high school at the precocious age of sixteen, promptly left home, rented an apartment in Manhattan’s theatre district, and started applying for any job that would get her near a stage. Over the next two years she met with little success until a close friend named Barry Dennen urged her to try out for the talent contest held every week in a small gay club called The Lion, across the street from his Greenwich apartment. She sang two songs, which were met with “stunned silence,” then “thunderous” applause. “This nutty little kook,” Dennen realized, “had one of the most breathtaking voices I'd ever heard.” The nominal prize was a free meal and fifty dollars, but the real prize was a return engagement, then a few more. Before long the Lion’s manager encouraged her to audition at the Bon Soir, an upscale club around the corner that could seat 150 patrons. An “in” spot that featured established and new singers, jazz musicians, and comedians, the club signed her right away. This was in September 1960, when she was all of eighteen years old. One of her first engagements was opening for the comedian Phyllis Diller, who said, “When she hit about the third note, every hair on my body stood up. It was unbelievable.”
Over the next two years Streisand—by then she had dropped the middle “a” from her first name because it struck her as too conventional—appeared several more times at the Bon Soir, where she caught the attention of some New York music critics with national readerships. She also caught the attention of Arthur Laurents, who was about to direct I Can Get It for You Wholesale. The part Streisand tried out for was the fifty-year-old spinster secretary Miss Marpelstein, a secondary role with only one song, in the second act. Her idea to perform it while seated in a secretarial chair outfitted with casters that allowed her roll around the stage at everybody’s beck and call brought the house down. She wound up not just stealing the show but stopping it—the first audience gave her a standing ovation lasting five minutes. The next day a photograph of her in costume joined the main poster in the display in front of the theatre. She was nominated for a Tony and won Best Supporting Actress from the New York Drama Critics.
By then Streisand had acquired a manager/agent in the person of Marty Erlichman, who first heard her at the Bon Soir, introduced himself, and said, “You are going to win every major award there is in this business—movies, records, concerts, television, and Broadway. You’re that great.” Thus was born an agent/artist relationship that persists to this day and is close to unique inasmuch as no formal contract was ever drawn up between them—“Just a handshake.” Erlichman steered her in the direction of David Kapralik, an A&R executive at Columbia Records, where the near legendary Goddard Lieberson was president. Ritualistically referred to as “God” by nearly everyone at the company, Lieberson was responsible for Columbia’s adoption of the long-playing record, signing a stable of classical artists second to none (Walter, Bernstein, Szell, Serkin, Stern, Stravinsky, and Glenn Gould), and initiating the many original-cast recordings of shows for which the label was renowned, including My Fair Lady, Camelot, and West Side Story.
Despite Kapralik’s advocacy, Lieberman was by no means sold on Streisand, and at one point sent a note to Laurents: “Barbra is indeed very talented but I’m afraid she’s too ‘special’ for records.” Some wondered if that was code for “Jewish,” which Lieberson was too. Unlike, say, Sinatra, who worked tirelessly to purge his singing of anything redolent of Hoboken, Streisand never disguised her heritage and roots, just as she steadfastly refused repeated (well-intended but still insulting) suggestions to get a nose job. If she was going to make it, it would be as herself. Since she was gaining a reputation in New York and beyond—including a single appearance on the late-night Jack Paar Show, where she received another standing ovation—Lieberson figured maybe he should think twice about letting her get away.
Someone came up with a novel plan. Rather than accord her a debut in the usual form of a proper studio album with charts for band or orchestra, they would save money by recording her live over three nights before an invited audience at the Bon Soir, backed by just four instrumentalists. When Lieberson then balked at paying her what Erlichman felt she deserved, she asked for a clause that guaranteed her the right to choose her own material with full creative control over her recordings (something not even Sinatra had early in his career). “All I wanted was to sing any song I wanted to,” Streisand said years later. “I still received lots of pressure from the label to include some pop hits on my first album, but I held out for the songs that really meant something to me.” Incredibly, Lieberson went for it.
The plan was in theory a good one. Despite being only four years out of high school and fewer than two into a singing career that was for all intents and purposes a second choice, she was proving night after night that she could hold a crowd captive for an evening with a winning personality, a really appealing sense of humor, charisma to charm or burn as she saw fit, and a voice she knew how to use with extraordinary power and sensitivity. The dates were set for 5, 6, and 7 November 1962. Columbia’s engineers Ad “Pappy” Theroux and Roy Halee opted for a simple three-mike left/center/right array, typical of early stereo, to cover piano and drums on the left, guitar and string bass on the right, Streisand in the center. By the time they’d finished taping the third evening, all involved were convinced they had a sure winner—
—until they sat down and listened to the tapes. Beginning with Streisand herself, next the engineers, finally the executives, all were disappointed. No one felt the energy, the sheer excitement of this incredible voice, the enthusiasm of the crowd had been captured with anything approaching what were plainly unforgettable experiences. Streisand herself was also bothered by what struck her as unusually prominent hiss (these were pre-Dolby days), odd perspectives, and strange balances. Owing to the minimal miking, with everything on any one mike readily audible on the other two, there was little to be remedied at the mixing board, not with the technology available at the time. The conclusion was inescapable: Columbia would have to pony up for a studio album after all. Streisand winnowed the original twenty-four songs down to an album-length eleven—that was always the plan anyhow—and Peter Matz, one of the best arrangers in the business, did the orchestral charts (one happy by product of the faulty tapes, since she always believed the material warranted a bigger, more varied instrumental palette). When Columbia suggested Sweet and Saucy Streisand as the title, she wasted no time exercising her newly acquired creative power, nixing it in favor of The Barbra Streisand Album. “It’s common sense,” she said. “If you saw me on TV, you could just go and ask for the Barbra Streisand album."
History was about to be made. The next year it was nominated in five Grammy categories, winning Album of the Year and Best Female Vocal Performance. It reached eighth on the Billboard Top LPs, was an RIAA gold album, and within four years had sold over a million copies worldwide. In 2006 it was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
Meanwhile the Bon Soir tapes were deposited in the Streisand archives where they remained locked away for six decades, an aura of legend gathering around them. Bootlegged copies were rumored to exist, eight numbers were actually included in the Just for the record compilation. But no serious attention was paid until someone at Sony, which owned the Columbia label and catalogue since 1989, noticed that 2022 was both the year of Streisand’s eightieth birthday and the sixtieth anniversary of her signing with the label. What if those tapes were better than the participants’ memories suggested . . . ?
The Bon Soir Tapes: The Sound
Of course, the first hurdle was to get Streisand herself to approve their release, which in turn depended on what could be done with the compromised sonics. Paul Blakemore of Concord Music transferred the original three-track session tapes to high-resolution 96/24-bit digital files. The person charged with fixing them, that is, determining if they could be remixed to everyone’s satisfaction, was the Netherlands born Jochem van der Saag, a music producer and recording engineer relocated to Los Angeles and four times nominated for a Grammy (winning in the category of Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album for Michael Buble’s Crazy Love), with a resume of credits that reads like a who’s who of the popular music business (Andrea Bocelli, Whitney Houston, Josh Groban, David Foster, Celine Dion Stevie Wonder, Diana Krall).
Once the project was a go, Sony did not want to ignore the upscale audiophile market, so SACD and vinyl releases were a high priority. Sony recommended Impex Records, with whom they had collaborated on several audiophile reissues. The only condition, Abey Fonn, Impex Founder and President, told me, is that they had to use van der Saag’s final mix, which was digital. Although Fonn prefers an all-analog chain for Impex’s vinyl releases, there was no way the technical shortcomings of the original tapes could be addressed except with the powerful tools that current digital technology allows. Besides, once van der Saag completed his work, the results were excellent by any reasonable standard, especially in view of what he started with.
You can get a good idea what van der Saag faced from the eight selections included on Just for the record, which I assume were issued essentially uncorrected. I don’t find the sound on these originals to be quite as bad as has been reported—I’ve heard far worse from most “historical” recordings—but there can be no question that it is completely unacceptable for introducing a singer of this caliber to the world. Streisand sounds a little distant, her instrumental colleagues, first-rate players all, often seem shunted to one side or the other and occasionally dim; alternatively, the piano, which was placed on Streisand’s left, bleeds so much into the right microphone it sometimes appears there’s a piano in each channel. The bassist is audible enough, but for long stretches the guitar disappears. The crowd is far less present, there is considerably less atmosphere, and such ambience as exists makes little impression.
Perhaps the highest praise I can give van der Saag is to say that when I reviewed the SACD for The Absolute Sound (issue 339), the moment Streisand started singing, one thing was blindingly clear: I heard absolutely no evidence to support the disappointment Streisand, Erlichman, and Columbia’s engineers and executives felt sixty years ago that “the electricity that had ignited the club failed to translate onto tape.” Here was electricity to light up Yankee Stadium, a nightclub atmosphere in full swing with a fired-up crowd hanging onto every inflection from a rising young diva who would soon conquer the world of popular music. And somehow, van der Saag had managed the neat trick of reducing tape hiss while recovering more air and ambience.
The focus on Streisand’s voice is now clean, clear, remarkably open, and physically palpable, while the response of the crowd, in the aggregate and as individuals, registers with vivid detail and presence. (One comparative detail must suffice for innumerable ones: a great moment when the crowd goes wild after “Cry Me a River” and someone shouts, “Let’s go home now, let’s go home!” The shout is obscured to the point of inaudibility in the Just for the record release.) Indeed, part of the joy of this album is hearing how completely Streisand has them in her thrall, how thoroughly engaged they are—it’s obvious many of them had heard her before and were fans. As for the four instrumentalists, they emerge in sharper focus, but here’s where the limited miking and the lack of more than three channels posed the thorniest problems: the guitar remaining hardest to hear, the piano still stretching like taffy between the speakers, the drum set—well, just more or less back there a lot of the time.
The vinyl version arrived a few weeks later. Overall, it’s close to the SACD but not identical. For one thing, though I find it hard to believe the LPs can exceed the SACD in dynamic range, the moment I cued the first cut I heard a boldness that sounds subjectively more dynamic and wide-open than the SACD. For another, there’s a greater sense of roundedness and body to the voice, and even more air and space in and around the performers and the audience for a more convincing impression of a real space. Everything was also subtly richer, fractionally tastier, just that degree more grounded and organic—not that the SACD is deficient in any of these areas, just a tad less. Impex’s surfaces on my copy are perfection itself, so quiet with blacks so deep that an engineer for whom I played it thought it must be a digital source. Kudos as always to Bernie Grundman’s mastering and lacquer cutting and to RTI’s pressings.
The physical design and presentation of packaging and booklet, by Streisand’s long-time collaborator Gabrielle Raumberger, are first-class all the way, with substantial notes (exemplarily informative) by Jay Sanders, one of the producers, and many vintage photographs. (Fonn told me Streisand was so involved in all aspects of the production that several variants of the pink for the background had to be run by her before she settled on a suite of hues, tones, and shades that satisfied her.)
The Bon Soir Tapes: The Performances
Live at the Bon Soir helped clarify an aspect of Streisand’s career as singer that I’ve never been able to get quite in focus before. Take the only other traditional popular singer comparable to her in superstar celebrity, Frank Sinatra. Sinatra approached his material the way a classical singer approaches a song recital, and he regularly adapted his style to the requirements of the songs. When the long-playing record arrived, he pioneered his “Concept” albums, in which seemingly disparate songs were grouped together to establish and sustain an overall mood, theme, genre, style, and sometimes even a loose sort of narrative (For Only the Lonely [Capitol]). Sinatra would then interpret each song in terms of the overall conception; but he could also change stylistically on a dime if on another occasion he needed to turn an interpretation toward different expressive ends (compare “I Concentrate on You” from Francis Alberto Sinatra & Carlos Antonio Jobim[1967, Reprise] to the same song six years earlier on Sinatra’s Swingin’ Session!!! [Capitol]).
This was not Streisand’s way. She was not particularly good at adapting her style to all the material she chose, though perhaps it’s more generous to put this differently. Whether she was good at it or not is moot, since for most of her career she chose not to, the occasions when she recorded material for which she didn’t have an instinctive sympathy far from her best work. What About Today? (1969), her eleventh studio album, devoted to popular hits of the day, furnishes an instructive example. She reluctantly agreed to it at the urging of Clive Davis, whom Lieberson had brought aboard to give the label’s popular division a more contemporary slant. Streisand’s discomfiture is evident, one critic pointing out that although she was actually younger by only a year or two than Paul Simon and John Lennon, she sang their songs “as if she was old enough to be their mother.”
The principal reason, it seems to me, is that far more often than not, Streisand needed to inhabit a song body and soul, and the principal way she did this was through the character the song is about or else a character she could project, conjure, imagine, or identify with on the basis of the lyrics. Most of the rock songs of her generation, however, are much less about characters in dramatic situations than about ideas, attitudes, ennui, alienation, protests: full of feelings but not from characters who could be brought to life by acting them. (She rarely does jazz either, perhaps because despite how emotionally powerful jazz can be, it is fundamentally absolute music, even to a large extent the songs, and requires it be approached on musical terms quite apart from any expressive or paraphrasable content as such.)
Of the twenty-four songs she picked for the Bon Soir nights—from which, remember, she would select eleven for her debut album on one of the biggest labels in the world—thirteen were written for musicals, that is, written from the point of view of specific characters, and almost all the rest originated in non-musical plays for television, movies, or theatre, in other words, in dramas and stories. While most of them are by some of the greatest composers and lyricists in the Great American Songbook—Harold Arlen, Richard Rodgers, Frank Loesser, Leonard Bernstein, E. Y. (“Yip”) Yarburg, Lorentz Hart, Johnny Mercer—they were introduced in musicals long past, sometimes forgotten (the earliest from 1928, several from the thirties, forties, and fifties). For a debut album that went gold, has never been out of print, and catapulted its creator into stardom, then superstardom, most of the material is decidedly, and rather amazingly, obscure, even esoteric, at least recherché—anything but timely or trendy. Remember also that for several months her Bon Soir dates followed her evening appearances up town as Miss Marmelstein in I Can Get It for You Wholesale, her first theatrical success. In retrospect, the entire Bon Soir sessions look to have been designed by Streisand precisely to introduce herself to the world not as a singer but as an actress who can sing if necessary.
About this, Streisand herself was quite explicit, albeit much later in her career. "I never approach singing as singing," she told NPR’s Susan Stamberg sometime in the early aughts. "I once tried to take a singing lesson many years ago,” where the teacher started with lessons in pronunciation and elocution. “I have to sing like I would speak,” Streisand protested, “and that was the end of my singing lessons." Neither did she ever learn to read music, which she doesn’t to this day (neither could/can Sinatra, Presley, Dylan, Clapton, Taylor Swift, and countless others). When she entered that singing contest at the Lion, the second song she sang, the one that clinched her the prize, was the exquisite “A Sleepin’ Bee,” by Harold Arlen (one of her most enthusiastic early supporters) with lyrics by Truman Capote, from their musical A House of Flowers. She made it the closing cut on The Barbra Streisand Album, where she sings it with ravishing delicacy and depth of feeling. “The lyrics to that song gave me the three acts of a play that I longed for as an actress,” she said. “And Harold was one of those writers who could write these magnificent melodies. That gave me what I needed.”
The opening two numbers the first night at the Bon Soir gave her similar opportunities. “My Name Is Barbara,” by Leonard Bernstein, from his song cycle I Hate Music (1943), is a witty piece about a precocious child questioning what her mother has told her about where babies come from (“Who ever heard of a baby bush?”). From this, with absolutely no segue, Streisand launches straight into “Much More,” from The Fantasticks (1960), a song about a teenager desperate to leave her provincial home because “I want much more than keeping house/Much more!/Much More!” So completely does Streisand realize both characters that despite the different provenances of the two songs and their different styles, genres, and creative ends, we accept the teenager as the logical and coherent older version of the child. Not only that, if we didn’t know better, we might easily be fooled into thinking the two songs are one. (I do know better, yet I found myself checking to see if there was a song I’d forgotten from I Hate Music.) It’s a minor tour-de-force of both musical acuity and dramatic characterization through the medium of song.
I could write in similar detail of just about every performance of every song in this splendid set—there’s a not a weak link in sight—but I shall end with the album’s major tour-de-force: Streisand’s sensational rendition of “Cry Me a River.” One of the newest among the twenty-four, written in 1953 by Arthur Hamilton for Ella Fitzgerald to sing in a noirish musical crime film called Pete Kelly’s Blues, it's a classic torch song about love unrequited, disappointed, betrayed, failed. The protagonist, female when a woman is the singer, has been mistreated, cheated upon, and jilted by her lover, who’s decided he wants back into the relationship. It’s also a “worm turns” song, and she will have none of it: “Now you say you're sorry/For being so untrue./Well, you can cry me a river, cry me a river/I cried, cried, cried a river over you.”
“Cry Me a River” was never used in the film, which was directed by Jack Webb, whose wife Julie London divorced him the following year and recorded it for her debut album, Julie Is Her Name, where she made it the opener. Released both on the album and as a single in 1955, it became London’s biggest success on the charts and her one signature song. Jump eight years later and along comes this young upstart from Brooklyn not only recording it herself for her debut album but also leading with it as the first cut on the first side.
Was this simple competitiveness or yet another case of a great artist stealing while lesser ones borrow? Maybe a lot of both. It hardly matters— never one in those days to squander an opportunity, Streisand transformed this torch song into a fully realized dramatic scene of near operatic intensity worlds away from the restricted dynamics and minimally inflected lyrics typical of London, for whom less was always not only more, but a whole lot less was a whole lot more. As London sees her, the woman is left so damaged by the relationship that though she talks about vengeance, there’s so little feeling behind the words as to suggest almost catatonic anhedonia. Streisand also begins calmly, almost conversationally. But that’s a deceptive prelude to a masterly slow burn of increasingly vituperative invective, recrimination, accusation, and anger erupting into a raging climax where the woman’s repeated demands for his tears are exhorted with such ferocity they feel weaponized. Streisand’s woman is a survivor toughened by the relationship and ready to move on, the tears shed over the lout long since passed under the bridge. But she still wants her pound of flesh, and Streisand makes damn sure we know how much she relishes getting it.
I can’t claim to have heard more than a small fraction of the nearly 600 versions of “Cry Me a River” the liner notes tell us have been recorded. But I’ll lay serious money that between them Streisand and London define the interpretive polar extremes of its emotional spectrum. I intend no invidiousness in my comparisons; we and the world are large enough to appreciate both, and doubtless others too. But if I were forced to choose one in that game of desert-island-discography we music lovers and audiophiles like to play, let there be no ambiguity. For me, London’s cauterized composure pales beside Streisand’s hell-hath-no fury agon.