Barbra Streisand, Through The Years A New Four-cd Box Set Traces Her Prolific Career - From Teenage Beginnings To Emerging Stardom And Artistic Maturity.

Posted: October 10, 1991

Ever hear of "Barbra Strident?"

The name appears on a divider card in in the female-vocal section a secondhand record store in San Francisco. Right after "Barbra Streisand, All Titles 1963-1973, Plus The Way We Were, Funny Lady, Classical Barbra, The Broadway Album, and Yentl" comes Barbra Strident.

A little too gaudy at times? That's the judgment of Michael Mascioli, co- owner of the store, Medium Rare, and an ex-Philadelphian. He concedes that she also has never lost her touch, but "she's always gone back and forth."

Mascioli's opinion might be borne out by Just for the Record . . ., a new four-CD box set (also available on cassette) on which Streisand traces her own career from the beginning.

Make that before the beginning: The first disc (one of two subtitled "The '60s," with the '70s and '80s getting one disc each) opens with a 1955 acetate recording of Streisand, then only 13 and accompanied by a studio pianist-for-hire, singing the old Alice Faye favorite "You'll Never Know."

For the set's finale, Streisand drops the needle down on the scratchy acetate again, this time singing a duet with her younger self until the earnest teenager's voice fades away and we're left with only the mature Streisand and strings.

Just for the Record . . . - a title that perhaps says more than it wants to, given that Streisand long ago abandoned regular in-the-flesh performance to become a Hollywood Hallucination, almost entirely a creature of the sound stage and recording studio - weighs in as this year's major act of artistic self-indulgence, despite a white-lace-and-pink-roses cover and booklet motif that blushes modesty. (A friend says the set's packaging reminds her of that for feminine-hygiene products.)

A handful of Streisand's most famous recordings are here, beginning with ''People," her 1964 breakthrough smash from the score of Funny Girl. But more often, Streisand presents unfamiliar versions of the songs most associated with her, frequently employing segues designed to call attention to her creative process - as when, for example, a demo tape of her strumming ''Evergreen" on guitar blossoms into the full orchestral version from the A Star Is Born soundtrack, complete with Paul Williams' lyrics.

Including demos, rare live performances, TV archives, numbers from Funny Girl taped in the theater, home recordings (such as that of her mother singing ''Second Hand Rose" with a trill that is itself a relic) and tracks left off of albums for sundry reasons, about two-thirds of Record is previously unreleased.

There are numerous gems here, none of which outsparkles a "Happy Days Are Here Again" that predates and is even more dramatic and moving than the celebrated (and hitherto definitive) reading on The Barbra Streisand Album (1963). This "new" version is from a "That Wonderful Year" segment of The Garry Moore Show, broadcast in the spring of 1962, when Streisand was first making her mark on Broadway as Miss Marmelstein, the put-upon secretary in Harold Rome's I Can Get It for You Wholesale.

Guesting on The Tonight Show later that year, she gamely attempted Tommy Wolf and Fran Landesman's "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most," a tricky lament that has thrown any number of singers, including Streisand (and, more recently, Bette Midler). But even in an instance such as this, you find yourself applauding the younger Streisand's good taste in material, further proof of which was the generous amount of Harold Arlen in her repertoire (her bravura interpretation of his "When the Sun Comes Out," for starters).

An appreciation of Arlen was one of the many things that Streisand shared with Judy Garland, the singer to whom she was most frequently compared when she was starting out. Strange, then, that neither Streisand's duets with Arlen (from the out-of-print Harold Sings Arlen) or her Arlen-heavy medleys with Garland (from a 1963 TV broadcast) produce sparks.

But Streisand's appearance with Garland at least qualifies as a powerful nostalgia item, as do sincere on-air testimonials from Moore, Johnny Carson and Ed Sullivan on behalf of a talented young singer whom many of us first encountered on television. But old TV material also supplies many of Record's most egregious indiscretions, including Streisand's at-first endearingly kooky but gradually cloying Emmy and Oscar acceptance speeches and an overwrought ''Hatikvah," to which the only sane response is "Oy."

Record's ostensible story line is Streisand's growth as an artist as she conquered one medium after another. But the set is more revealing than she might imagine.

It suggests that she might never have become a star without her appearances on TV variety and talk shows, where a singer could put everything he or she had into one number. In addition to demonstrating her discomfort at being close to an audience, eight tracks recorded at a New York cabaret in 1962 show that her Garland-like tendency to turn almost every tune into a three-minute Freudian workout could wear thin pretty quickly.

Though her musical values align her with an earlier generation, Streisand is exactly 11 months younger than Bob Dylan and almost a year and a half younger than John Lennon would have been. On Record's first two discs, she emerges as an irresistible anomaly: an impudent young woman, petit bourgeoisie and proud of it, whose respect for her music-business elders accounted for a good deal of her charm.

But at the end of the 1960s (and Disc Two), while most of her generation was letting it all hang out, Streisand was squeezing herself into a bustle and starring in a white-elephant movie musical, Hello, Dolly! She seemed not just anachronistic but irrelevant, which no doubt explains why her record company pressured her to record "contemporary" material, such as the halfhearted 1970 cover version of Laura Nyro's "Stoney End" included on Disc Three.

She was soon applying her own pressure. On the face of it, the '70s were Streisand's most successful decade. With The Way We Were (1973), she established herself as a credible romantic lead as well as a funny girl, and the title song from that movie took her to the top of the charts for the first time. But the material on Disc Three finds her drifting uncertainly between pop and rock vocal styles for most of the decade.

On "Crying Time," a duet with Ray Charles from the 1973 TV special Barbra Streisand . . . and Other Musical Instruments, she even resorts to imitating Aretha Franklin, despite being perhaps the only major American pop singer with no discernible black influence. A 1971 TV duet of "Close to You" with Burt Bacharach, the song's composer, and an interpretation of Paul Williams' ''We've Only Just Begun" left off of the 1971 album Barbra Joan Streisand show that, even after toning herself down, she still was too much the belter to be fully comfortable singing such fluffy '70s pop.

Record has a surprise ending, though, and arguably a happy one. Disc Four starts off badly, with Streisand and Neil Diamond groaning "You Don't Bring Me Flowers" on the 1980 Grammy Awards. But "Guilty," one of her duets with Bee Gee Barry Gibb from the same year, is disarmingly lighthearted as well as light-headed, and then Streisand reaches a turning point of sorts with Yentl, her 1983 directorial debut. It's represented by a work tape of Streisand reading a plot synopsis and calling on the skills she had acquired as a dramatic actress to bring powerful and unexpected shadings to three of the songs written for the movie by Alan and Marilyn Bergman and Michel Legrand ("A Piece of Sky," the final song, segues into the full soundtrack version).

Most of the songs that follow - including a live rendition of Arlen's ''Over the Rainbow" from the 1987 album One Voice and a previously unreleased interpretation of Frank Loesser's "Warm All Over" from 1988 - show there's nothing wrong with Streisand that decent material can't fix.

From a technical standpoint, she is singing better than ever, having tamed her vibrato and refined her upper register to an extent that she's now able to hold and extend notes that she once would have shouted out staccato.

The downside, though, is that the modulated Streisand often sounds mannered and lacking in the sort of immediacy that used to be her trademark. Our friend in San Francisco to the contrary, it was at the beginning of Streisand's career that she was often guilty of becoming Barbra Strident, a singer unable to deliver a torch song without immolating herself and anyone within earshot.

But wasn't it just such excess that made her so exciting? The difference between boffo and so-so Streisand often boils down to the difference between much too much and just a bit much. The latter describes Just for the Record . . ., however numerous its virtues.

BARBRA STREISAND

ON RECORD

ALBUMS AND COMPACT DISCS

All on Columbia

The Barbra Streisand Album (1963)

The Second Barbra Streisand Album (1963)

The Third Album (1964)

People (1964)

My Name Is Barbra (1965)

My Name Is Barbra, Two (1965)

Harold Sings Arlen (With Friend) (1965)

Je M'appelle Barbra (1966)

Simply Streisand (1967)

A Christmas Album (1967)

A Happening in Central Park (1968)

What About Today? (1968)

Barbra Streisand's Greatest Hits (1970)

Stoney End (1970)

Barbra Joan Streisand (1971)

A Live Concert at the Forum (1972)

The Way We Were (1973)

Butterfly (1974)

Lazy Afternoon (1975)

Classical Barbra (1976)

Streisand Superman (1977)

Songbird (1978)

Barbra Streisand's Greatest Hits, Volume 2 (1978)

Wet (1979)

Guilty (1980)

Memories (1981)

Emotion (1984)

The Broadway Album (1985)

One Voice (1987)

Till I Loved You (1988)

Greatest Hits . . . and More (1989)

Just for the Record . . . (1991)

ORIGINAL CAST ALBUMS

On Columbia unless otherwise shown

I Can Get It for You Wholesale (1962)

Funny Girl (Capitol, 1964)

MOVIE AND TV SOUNDTRACK ALBUMS

Color Me Barbra (1966)

Funny Girl (1968)

Hello, Dolly! (PolyGram, 1969)

On a Clear Day, You Can See Forever (1970)

The Owl and the Pussycat (1970)

Barbra Streisand . . . and Other Musical Instruments (1973)

Funny Lady (Arista, 1975)

A Star Is Born (1976)

The Main Event (1979)

Yentl (1983)

Nuts (1988)

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