Recording of June 2023: Barbra Streisand Live at the Bon Soir

Barbra Streisand: Live at the Bon Soir
Streisand, vocals; Tiger Haynes, guitar; Peter Daniels, piano; Averill Pollard, bass; John Cresci, drums
Legacy/Columbia 19658713762 (reviewed as 24/96 WAV, also available on CD, Gold CD, SACD, 2LP). 2022/23. Barbra Streisand, Jay Landers, Martin Erlichman, prods.; Roy Halee, Adjutor Theroux, Paul Blakemore, Jochem van der Saag, engs.
Performance *****
Sonics ***

When Columbia Records dragged some recording gear into a small Greenwich Village nightclub, the Bon Soir, on November 5, 1962, it was a good evening for music—a great one in fact. Barbra Streisand was 20 years old, having made her professional singing debut in the same club two years earlier. About that occasion, Streisand has noted, "I had never even been in a nightclub until I sang in one."

Over three nights, Columbia recorded Streisand backed by a jazz quartet—Bon Soir house musicians plus Peter Daniels, Streisand's regular pianist—intending to release a live recording that would be Streisand's debut. The album was to be called Sweet and Saucy Streisand.

No go. Barbra and her new manager had insisted on total control over artistic choices, in exchange for a lower pay rate. Barbra disliked the Sweet and Saucy title, the live tapes stayed in the can, and Streisand's first album was recorded instead in Columbia's studios. Her debut the next year, The Barbra Streisand Album (Columbia CS 8807 stereo, C 2007 mono), would win Grammy Awards for Best Female Vocal Performance and Album of the Year.

60 years on, Streisand has authorized the release of those very first recordings of her storied career, 23 songs—all the songs Barbra performed over the course of three nights—plus a track introducing the band. Only a few tracks included on Live at the Bon Soir have been released before, as part of a 1991 box set.

Some unreleased tapes from noted artists should remain unreleased. Not Live at the Bon Soir. This is music in a category of its own, a little supernova that happened in Greenwich Village decades ago. This album gave me shivers. As Little Richard put it, "My big toe shot up in my boot!"

When she was growing up, Streisand's talent for singing was known in her Brooklyn neighborhood. Her mom helped her make a demo tape at age 13. By 16, Barbra was living in Manhattan on her own and had removed one letter "a" from her given name. Her main ambition was to break into acting, but one night she entered an open-mike contest and won. That led to her first professional singing gig, at the Bon Soir, opening for Phyllis Diller.

Critics started to notice her extraordinary voice very early, but even more telling was the reaction of her peers. Composers and writers flipped out when they heard her. Barbra never cared about folk or rock. The American Songbook, well-known and obscure, was always Streisand's turf. The great songwriter Harold Arlen was an early supporter; there's a wonderful photo of the two of them backstage at the club. Of the 23 tunes on Live at the Bon Soir, Arlen wrote five. He provided liner notes for The Barbra Streisand Album, and five of the 11 songs on Barbra's second album (The Second Barbra Streisand Album) are Harold Arlen songs.

That voice! I like Stephen Holden's description: "a primal human longing in a beautiful sound." As bracingly new as Streisand's voice was, it comes out of a long tradition. Judy Garland described her as "one of the last great belters." Ethel Merman, Patsy Cline, Ella Fitzgerald—quite a few of the great female vocalists liked the big ending. Check out the tantrum-like finish to her performance of "Lover, Come Back to Me." But what's most amazing in these early performances is the opposite of that: high, soft, sustained notes that seem to hang on and fade away forever.

The result is an emotional roller coaster. On several tunes—"Right as the Rain" is an example—the audience can't help starting to clap and cheer, covering up the last note.

Sinatra used to work on his lung-power by swimming laps underwater. Did Streisand do something similar, or is it just a natural, physical gift?

This important release has one drawback: The band is recorded poorly. One of three tracks was Streisand's mike, providing audio that could be worked with and improved. The other two went to the band, presumably—but the piano sounds like it was recorded in a coatroom, and the guitar is hardly audible. The liner notes blame the acoustics of the club, but a photo of the room reveals a higher ceiling and a larger stage than at the Village Vanguard and similar small New York venues that have produced great recordings.

It hardly matters. The main event is Streisand, and she sounds present and right, whether she's doing her Brooklyn-shtick patter between numbers or scaling the melodic heights like the great diva she already was.

There is no excuse not to listen to this unique, historic recording.—Sasha Matson

jtshaw's picture

Mr. Matson wrote: "This important release has one drawback: The band is recorded poorly." Yes, almost to the point of distraction, but Streisand's performance is both lovely and arresting. She was only 20 years old?! Thanks much for this review and putting us onto this release. My wife and I have enjoyed it immensely.