A fan looks back on 50 years of loving Barbra Streisand

Tim Smith
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
In 1966, a kid halfheartedly watching TV found his life changed by the sight and sound of Barbra Streisand.

The TV screen slowly filled with a cartoon drawing of a child's smiling face as an unseen woman sang: "Draw me a circle that's perfectly round ..."

Something about the unfolding image and the sound of the voice caught my attention. So did the title of the show that eventually appeared: "Color Me Barbra."

Too bad I couldn't actually see any colors. We only had a black-and-white set.

It was Wednesday, March 30, 1966. I had been reclining on a sofa, halfheartedly watching television alone in the basement of our duplex in Hillcrest Heights, a Prince George's County enclave just over the District of Columbia line.

I don't remember selecting a channel that night. Whatever came on at 9 p.m. would do. And what came on the tube jolted a tired grade-schooler who didn't know that someone named Barbra Streisand existed, or that anyone could be so gifted.

Fifty years later, I'm still a faithful fan, grateful that she opened up a multi-textured, emotion-packed world to me, and I'm enthused that Streisand will bring her latest concert tour to Washington, D.C., on Thursday.

Streisand's musical legacy (she's the only artist to have a No. 1 album in six consecutive decades) can't be overstated. It's not just the endurance and the quantity, but the vocal and, for the most part, interpretive quality.

Her vintage recordings reveal an uncommon timbre, a cross between an oboe and an English horn; a fast vibrato adding extra intensity; pinpoint intonation; sterling diction (has any pop singer ever shown as much respect for consonants?); and finely nuanced phrasing that turns songs into revealing character studies. No wonder Streisand dubbed herself "an actress who sings."

If her voice lost some of its ease in the upper register over the years, the tone remains unmistakable, the artistic sensitivity strong. It's extraordinary to hear on her superb 2009 album of ballads, "Love Is the Answer," the same vocal magic of her greatest 1960s work.

And although Streisand's dual efforts have never equaled her solo recordings — other than a historic performance with Judy Garland in 1963 — I'm encouraged by the teasers for her next studio work, "Encore: Movie Partners Sing Broadway," an album of duets due out Aug. 26.

Streisand made regrettable detours into inferior songs along the way, forays into genres that did not naturally suit her vocal equipment or artistic temperament; and she sanctioned way too many wind chime-filled arrangements. But there have been incredible, inimitable gems during every phase of Streisand's astounding career.

I didn't have any inkling of all that back in 1966. All I knew was the visceral effect of a young woman who swept into view after the opening credits of "Color Me Barbra" and rushed through (as I later learned) the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The show's visual gimmick — Streisand would stop before a work of art, then turn into that work in some way — hooked me as much as the music. By the time she reached Rodgers and Hart's "Where or When," building from an intimate verse to a blazing chorus that seemed to encompass at once longing, regret and hope, I was beyond electrified.

Then I fell asleep.

Yes, I missed all the cool stuff that came afterward, including a circus segment and a mini-concert. But the next morning, I giddily babbled on and on about this phenomenon I had witnessed on TV.

Weeks later, as an eighth-grade graduation present, the family gave me the LP "Color Me Barbra" — and came to regret it. I monopolized the hi-fi and played the album repeatedly.

Each time, I couldn't wait for the finale of side B, the Richard Maltby Jr./David Shire anthem "Starting Here, Starting Now." The smallest details would grab me, such as how, at the phrase "Now when you sleep," Streisand did a little vocal droop on "sleep." And the two big notes that she held onto forever in that song bore through me like a laser, giving me gooseflesh, even making me teary-eyed.

As soon as I saved up enough money, I would take the bus for 25 cents into D.C. and head straight for a record store off of G Street that could help me build a Streisand discography.

Turns out, I was the only family member convinced that Barbra should be heard hourly and at maximum, dish-rattling volume. To get around a warning not to bring home more of this woman's LPs, I hid the next one and bided my time before slipping it onto the record changer as if it had been there all along. Didn't fool anyone.

Happy to say, my persistence gradually eroded the resistance and triggered appreciation for Streisand at home. And when I entered high school, I sought to convert others, even one of my teachers, who gamely sat still while I played all my seven or eight Streisand albums in chronological order, without a break.

Speaking of converting, I contemplated conversion to Judaism — to get spiritually closer to my idol, I guess. That didn't go over too well at home, even worse in religion class at Bishop McNamara High School.

But one of the Holy Cross Brothers there cut me some slack, since he liked Streisand, too — enough to offer to drive the two of us to New York City when I told him she was going to give a concert in Central Park.

That Saturday morning, on June 17, 1967, as I waited for the toot of a horn outside, the phone rang instead. The trip was off.

Oh, the heartache, the heartbreak. I must have put on one heck of a pouting show, because the next thing I remember is my father saying, "Let's just get in the car and go up there." What a mensch.

So a bunch of Smiths ended up among 135,000 other people who needed to hear "People" and feel like the luckiest people in the world. Too bad we only got as far as a clump of trees way off to the side. We could barely hear a thing.

But, hey, we had been part of history — the largest turnout for a Central Park concert up to that date — and I felt rewarded enough that I just had to dash off a gushy letter to Streisand. The reply I received floored me: "I hope music continues to fill your life as it does mine," she wrote. It couldn't get better than that. (Yeah, I know it could have been signed by a secretary, but a true fan just has to believe.)

Music did end up filling my life, though not in the way I expected back then, when my main interest was pop. Everything changed on registration day for college; the only elective available for my first semester was Classical Music 101.

By the time I finished my graduate degree in music history, I had discovered female singers in a different genre who thrilled me as much as Streisand — above all, Maria Callas. But I never lost my passion for that colorful Brooklynite determined to show the world she was "the greatest star."

I kept on buying every Streisand album, though some left me cold, and I kept on sharing my mania with anyone who would listen. (One of my favorite memories 32 years ago is introducing 1960s Streisand recordings to the guy I would eventually marry; he only knew her later stuff, starting with "Stoney End.")

Back when I was a classical music critic-in-training, I even defended the 1976 release "Classical Barbra," Streisand's most daring album. With her lush contralto and flair for text, she could have been quite effective in a lot of classical repertoire. The choices on that album were the problem, not the singing. (If only she had consulted me.)

I also got jazzed for every new Streisand movie, of course, and still treasure several of them, including the incomparable "Funny Girl" and tailor-made "The Way We Were"; the instant mood-lightener "What's Up, Doc?"; the underappreciated "Hello, Dolly," "The Owl and the Pussycat" and "All Night Long."

And I'm fascinated about the long-dangled prospect of a Streisand-fueled film of the classic musical "Gypsy" — who says a septuagenarian can't play Mama Rose? — especially now that Baltimore's own Barry Levinson is on board to direct. The loss of a distributor and co-financier has reportedly put the project in limbo again, but I hope it's saved somehow.

No matter what happens with that, I'm sure Streisand will have more to offer us. She's already given me plenty.

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If you go

Barbra Streisand will perform at 8 p.m. Thursday at Verizon Center, 601 F St., N.W., Washington, D.C. Tickets (as of press time) are $102 to $513. Call 800-745-3000, or go to ticketmaster.com.

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