Barbra Joan Streisand

50 years Ago Barbra Streisand Became a Contemporary Pop Singer with ‘Barbra Joan Streisand’

If Stoney End was Barbra Streisand’s Laura Nyro project, then Barbra Joan Streisand was her Carole King project. Fifty years later, it offers fascinating insight.

Barbra Joan Streisand
Barbra Streisand
August 1971

When Barbra Streisand recorded the material for her 13th studio album, 1971’s Barbra Joan Streisand, she was 29-years-old. Although she was a contemporary of rock icons like Bob Dylan, John Lennon, and Paul McCartney, she seemed more akin to a refugee from a bygone era. Though she was in her late 20s, she sounded more like her musical elders (Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald, or Frank Sinatra). Ever since her debut collection (1963’s The Barbra Streisand Album), Streisand forged a career recording and performing a selection of novelty songs and pop standards written for singers decades older than her.

She was incredibly successful, excavating obscure and esoteric tracks from the Great American Songbook without sounding like a novelty act. At the same time, she was seemingly out of step with the rock and roll revolution of the 1960s. Starting with her 1971 sequence, Stoney End, Streisand entered a new decade with a firm grasp on evolving with the times; the result was a decade of some of her biggest hits. Specifically, her self-titled follow-up to Stoney End was a confident continuation, solidifying herself as an artist who’s able to adapt to the times successfully.

Stoney End is best remembered for the hit title track, a top 10 hit record for Streisand. Written by the brilliant singer-songwriter Laura Nyro, the coming-of-age tune was a marvelous introduction to a “new” Barbra Streisand—one who was able to attune her voice to Richard Perry’s California rock-pop production. The composition had a steady beat to which Streisand had to sing (a practice she disliked, which made her singing disco particularly difficult), and there were gospel influences in it that Nyro brought in from her interest in Black music. (Close friend and collaborator Patti LaBelle once described Nyro as a “sister”.) Perry, who worked with artists like Harry Nilsson, Leo Sayer, and Ringo Starr, seemed to get a performance out of Streisand that didn’t sound stiff or unconvincing. Although Streisand didn’t understand Nyro’s cryptic lyrics, as demonstrated when she mugged through a live version of it on her tour in 2012.

So, if Stoney End was Streisand’s Laura Nyro project, then Barbra Joan Streisand was her Carole King project. King would seem to be a far better fit for Streisand, given that the songwriter’s style and influence are far more in line with Streisand’s comfort zone. After all, King came out of the Tin Pan Alley/Brill Building world of pop songwriting that seemed a natural progression from the pre-rock pop era. Her pieces were conventional in their structures, and her lyrics were open, honest, and down to earth. Despite King exhibiting soul influences in her music (including her singing), it was not as pronounced as Nyro’s. Thus, Streisand’s mannered chanteuse persona wouldn’t seem hopelessly unhip and uncomfortable tackling her music.

But Carole King wasn’t the only songwriter represented on Barbra Joan Streisand. Although three of her compositions land in the set (all of them from King’s landmark Tapestry record, released earlier that year), other 70s-era singer-songwriters—John Lennon; Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen and Walter Becker; and Burt Bacharach and Hal David—are also represented. Her longtime collaborators and pals (Michel LeGrand, Marilyn Bergman, and Alan Bergman) contribute one tune as well: “The Summer Knows”. It was the love theme from the 1971 romantic melodrama Summer of ’42, too.

By 1971, Streisand was at a professional crossroads of sorts. Eight years prior, she released her debut LP to great critical and commercial acclaim. From there, she released a series of hit follow-ups, earning gold and platinum records and establishing a wildly successful career as a superstar entertainer. At the same time, she was also a major movie star, winning an Oscar for her first film performance as Fanny Brice in William Wyler’s Funny Girl.

She maintained a popular recording career despite the British Invasion, the Motown sound, and rock ‘n’ roll. Yet, Streisand also looked to current singer-songwriters to modernize her sound. In 1969, she released her first collection of contemporary material, What About Today? On that set, she covered compositions by Lennon and McCartney, Paul Simon, Jimmy Webb, and Buffy Sainte-Marie.

The result? Her worst-selling LP up to that point. Why? Perhaps because she conveyed a complete lack of comprehension about contemporary pop music, thereby sounding inauthentic and strained. Instead of being cowed by the failure of What About Today?, though, Streisand persevered and followed it up with another collection of soft rock, Stoney End

Barbra Joan Streisand would set a new pattern in her career, one that would give her unprecedented success in music. Instead of bucking trends or being an iconoclast like she was in the 1960s (reveling in her kooky beatnik persona), she would shrug that guise off for a far more glamorous image. As a result, there are keynotes on the record that predict her superstar remake of A Star Is Born in 1976 (a retelling of the classic showbiz tragedy, only this time in the world of rock music). She even brought on some of the musicians from Barbra Joan Streisand onto A Star Is Born, including unforgettable backup singers like Clydie King and Venetta Fields, both of whom supported Streisand with some earthy gospely soul.

Listening to Barbra Joan Streisand today, 50 years later, offers a fascinating insight into an artist who’s grappling with two musical worlds colliding simultaneously (one in which she feels more comfortable and one in which she is born). Though excessively talented and driven, Streisand was not without her limits; nevertheless, her voice has always been justly celebrated. It’s buttery and expressive, able to climb Everest-high notes with ease and laser-like precision. And when imbued with her impressive interpretive skills, her singing remains unparalleled in 20th-century popular music. She can be very funny, or she can break your heart.

But that voice can also overwhelm and steamroll over song structures in which lightness is required. No one will ever accuse Barbra Streisand of being a subtle singer, and sometimes pop music favors emotion and charisma over vocal virtuosity. Her limits are even more glaring when she tackles music that has roots in soul, gospel, or R&B. Streisand’s vibrato-powered trill feels far more at home singing pop standards and supper club pop because that’s her milieu. The Black church is seemingly foreign to her as a performer, and when she approaches this sound, it can sound awkward as she attempts to mold her Brooklyn-inflected New Yorker dialect into the more Southern-speckled tunes of soul and soul-inspired rock.

Nowhere is this disconnect more pronounced than on her cover of Joe Cocker’s “Space Captain”. Cocker was an instinctive performer, his tortured, anguished voice a spontaneous instrument that essentially bursts out of his writhing body. Streisand is a far more mannered and affected vocalist. She uses her large and expressive voice in a far more deliberate way (which means that when she is thrust into an unfamiliar and inappropriate setting, the result is erratic, with her joyous shouts approaching shrillness).

Luckily, Streisand finds a sweet spot when interpreting Carole King’s work, and it’s when she looks to Tapestry that we are convinced that she has a foot in the burgeoning singer-songwriter movement that would dominate pop music in the 1970s. King’s compositions are classically structured pop pieces—sturdy, evocative numbers that rely on catchy hooks, appealing lyrics, and an ability to communicate the hopeful messages of the material. And even though the arrangements of King’s tunes have a kinship with the soulful production of Tapestry, Streisand’s vocal gawkiness is endearing instead of piercing.

The choice of calling the sequence Barbra Joan Streisand is an interesting one because it’s an introduction of sorts. Her first effort was titled The Barbra Streisand Album. It presented audiences to a new kind of chanteuse, one who took an eccentric and funny approach to interpreting the Great American Songbook. For the rest of the decade, she built on the success of the LP—that is until she decided to change with the times. With that change, she reintroduces herself to audiences with her new sound by releasing another self-titled album.