Early this month, the singer, actor and film-maker Barbra Streisand released an album of songs, Release Me 2. It’s a follow-up of her 2012 album, Release Me, and like its predecessor, Release Me 2 comprises previously unreleased recordings and rare tracks that cover her career of more than half a century.
That’s right. Streisand, who turned 79 this year, has been in show business since 1962, when she began performing in theatres and nightclubs. It has been a long trip, and as an actor she has to her credit at least 19 films, several Broadway and television performances. As a singer, she has a stunning array of 36 studio albums, 11 compilations, nine live albums and 15 soundtracks.
Streisand has sold nearly 145 million albums worldwide—52 were gold and 31, platinum—making her one of the highest selling women artists in the world. In addition, Streisand has won eight Grammy Awards, besides the Lifetime Achievement Award.
Yet, when she began her career in the early 1960s, it wasn’t to make a mark as a singer. She wanted to use her singing abilities to pave the way for a career in acting. That did happen, of course, but it is as a singer and songwriter that Streisand has been truly impressive.
Her first album, 1963’s The Barbra Streisand Album, came out when she was barely 21. It was an instant hit. On display was her vocal talent: Meticulously controlled and sophisticated, it was a soprano but one that was capable of a wider range. That album, comprising mainly theatre and cabaret standards, rendered in her spectacular voice, got her the first Grammy. That was followed by The Second Barbra Streisand Album (also 1963) and The Third Album (1964), both of which comprised similar standards and further established her vocal virtuosity.
This was a time when rock ‘n’ roll was quickly becoming the prevalent idiom of popular music but Streisand, instead of embracing the new genre, stuck to the standards and yet rose up the popularity ladder.
Her acting career took off as well. In 1968, she won an Oscar for Best Actress in her first film, Funny Girl, a cinematic creation of her earlier Broadway hit. Several more films would follow, including the 1976 remake of A Star Is Born in which she co-starred with Kris Kristofferson and won the Oscar for Best Original Song for Evergreen, which she had co-written with Paul Williams.
Navigating Streisand’s vast discography can be a bit daunting. Her first album is a must and a good place to start. It opens with an explosive version of Cry Me A River, a song first made famous by the singer Julie London in the early 1950s. The album has other standards that Streisand covers, her resonant vocals lending them a spirit of buoyancy. She does Cole Porter’s Come To The Supermarket (In Old Peking), Frank Churchill and Ann Ronel’s Who’s Afraid Of The Big Bad Wolf? and Fats Waller and Andy Razaf’s Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now, among other compositions.
It’s the two more recent compilation albums that provide a nice retrospective of her singing career. The latest, Release Me 2, was born out of the restrictions that the covid-19 pandemic has brought in its wake. Streisand had planned to record a brand new album but the lockdowns and other restrictions put paid to that plan. Instead, she dug into her vault, just as she had done in 2012 for Release Me, and compiled treasures that span much of her career.
There is her 1971 cover of Burt Bacharach’s Be Aware; 1973’s You Light Up My Life, written by Carole King, and the not-to-be-missed duet with Willie Nelson on 2014’s I’d Want It To Be You. For fun, there is also Rainbow Connection, performed with Kermit the Frog of the Muppets. And there’s a version of If Only You Were Mine with Barry Gibb from 2005, where Gibb contributes with vocal rhythms instead of words.
Streisand came from a poor single-mother household in Brooklyn, New York and endured many challenges while she struggled to make it in showbiz. As a young girl growing up in Brooklyn, her schoolmates included Neil Diamond, who would become a superstar singer, and Bobby Fischer, who would become a world chess champion.
Her struggle paid off. So did the fact that she was fiercely independent. When she first signed a contract with a major record label, she settled for less money in exchange for full artistic freedom. She is the first woman to win it all—Oscars, Grammys, Tonys (which recognise excellence in Broadway performances) and Emmys (which honour performance on US prime-time TV).
Release Me 2 is a perfect window to Streisand’s career as a singer. There is the grandness of songs such as Sweet Forgiveness, backed by a big orchestral soundscape; the quirkiness of a Muppets’ song; and a hint of country music on the track she recorded with Nelson. But whatever be the mood of the track, the album is a reminder that the most impressive thing about Streisand’s songs is the quality of her luscious voice and her ability to use it perfectly and with an elan that is rare among even the best of singers.
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