A woman singing with band members behind her.

How much musical training did Barbra Streisand receive? What approach does she take to each song? How did her first album do?

Today, we know that Barbra Streisand’s singing career has been one of tremendous success. In her autobiography My Name Is Barbra, she tells the story of how it began decades ago in a New York City nightclub.

Continue reading to learn about the remarkable beginning of Barbra Streisand’s singing career, from Greenwich Village to Grammys and gold.

Barbra Streisand’s Singing Career

Barbra Streisand’s singing career is unlike any other, and the way it started is equally unusual. Streisand says that, at first, she had trouble making ends meet as an actor, so she started singing at nightclubs to earn extra money. She adds that she took only a single music lesson; everything the teacher told her felt wrong and went against her instincts, so she decided to keep singing the way that came naturally to her.

(Shortform note: Pursuing a singing career without training, as Streisand did, can be dangerous. Untrained or improperly trained singers risk causing severe—and possibly permanent—damage to their voices by using incorrect vocal techniques. For instance, singer Adele’s career has been marked by repeated vocal injuries, followed by risky medical procedures and long hiatuses to recover.) 

However, Streisand was able to use her acting training to emotionally connect with the songs she sang. She started thinking of each song as a miniature story with a clear beginning, middle, and end, so she invented characters and performed the songs as if she were in a musical, instead of simply singing them as herself. 

(Shortform note: It’s not so unusual for a singer like Streisand to think of songs as stories; there’s a strong connection between songs and storytelling. Some of the oldest stories we know today, such as the ancient Greek epics The Iliad and The Odyssey, were often sung rather than spoken. This practice may have started because it makes stories more memorable, as songs can be powerful mnemonic devices.)

At 18 years old, Streisand started performing at a nightclub called the Bon Soir and quickly became an audience favorite. That was the start of her singing career. Streisand adds that, two years later, she returned to the Bon Soir for a two-week contract as a special headliner, which was a sign of how far her singing career had come.

(Shortform note: Streisand worked at the Bon Soir a total of four times from 1960 to 1962. The small nightclub shut down for good in the 1970s, and today it’s mostly remembered for being the place where Streisand made her debut as a professional singer.)

A few months later, Streisand signed a contract with Columbia Records to make an album. The contract negotiated by her manager Martin “Marty” Erlichman gave her creative control; she decided which songs would be on the album, and it couldn’t be released to the public until she approved it. Streisand says that such an arrangement was unheard of for someone recording their first album.

Streisand recorded the album, simply titled The Barbra Streisand Album, in 1963. It won two Grammy Awards: Best Female Vocal Performance and Album of the Year.

(Shortform note: Giving Streisand creative control over her first album was her manager’s choice, not her own. Erlichman justified the unusual decision by saying that Streisand was a unique singer, and he wouldn’t allow her sound or her style to be diluted by meddling from Columbia Records. His gambit paid off; The Barbra Streisand Album went gold, selling around 500,000 copies. It also spent nearly two years on the Billboard 200 Albums Chart, a weekly list of the most popular albums in the US.)

How Barbra Streisand’s Singing Career Began (1960-1963)

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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