Barbra Streisand: The Way She Is, Part One

Tales from a GRAMMY legend
  • Photo: CBS Photo Archive
    Promotional photo of Barbra Streisand for "My Name Is Barbra" in 1964
February 10, 2011 -- 12:09 pm PST
By Paul Grein / GRAMMY.com

Barbra Streisand will be honored as the 2011 MusiCares Person of the Year on Feb. 11 at a special tribute performance and dinner in Los Angeles, recognizing her accomplishments as an artist and humanitarian. MusiCares' mission is to ensure that music people have a compassionate place to turn in times of need while focusing the resources and attention of the music industry on human service issues that directly impact the health and welfare of the music community. Watch Person of the Year arrivals and other highlights Friday, Feb. 11 at GRAMMY Live.

Barbra Streisand has a history of making a big splash her first time out.

She received a Tony nomination for her first Broadway show, "I Can Get It For You Wholesale." She won two GRAMMYs, including Album Of The Year for her first LP, The Barbra Streisand Album. She won an Emmy for her first TV special, "My Name Is Barbra." She won an Academy Award for her first movie, Funny Girl.

And she did all that before her 27th birthday.

Fortunately for all of us, Streisand didn't rest on her laurels. She kept going, and kept adding to her list of firsts. She won another Oscar for the first song she composed for a movie, "Love Theme From A Star Is Born (Evergreen)." She won two Golden Globes for the first film she directed, Yentl.

At last count, Streisand has won eight GRAMMYs, four Emmys, two Oscars, and a special Tony. She has received (to name a few) the GRAMMY Legend Award, the Kennedy Center Honors, the National Medal of Arts, and France's Legion d'honneur.

Streisand has made a big impact on both movies and music. She's one of only two artists to have received both a Life Achievement Award from the American Film Institute and a Recording Academy Lifetime Achievement Award. The other? Fred Astaire.

In both of these fields, Streisand has shown exceptional versatility. She has starred in musicals, comedies and dramas. Her hit songs range from the timeless "People" (one of the classiest signature songs associated with any performer) to the trendy disco romp "The Main Event/Fight." She has received GRAMMY nominations in the Pop, Traditional Pop and Classical Fields (the latter for her 1976 album Classical Barbra).

Streisand has been the first female to achieve many feats. With "Evergreen" in 1976, she became the first female composer to win an Academy Award for best song. With Yentl in 1983, she became the first woman to produce, direct, write, and star in a major motion picture.

Streisand has long been a GRAMMY record setter. She was just 22 when The Barbra Streisand Album was named Album Of The Year, which made her the youngest winner in that category (a distinction she held for more than three decades). Streisand has amassed six nominations for Album Of The Year and five for Record Of The Year. In both cases, that's more than any other female artist in history.

Streisand's philanthropic activities are just as impressive. She founded the Streisand Foundation in 1986 and has since gifted it with nearly $25 million. The foundation has made nearly 1,000 grants to nonprofit organizations that focus on protecting the environment, advocating for civil rights, promoting democratic values, advancing world peace, educating at-risk children, and providing funds for research and education in the field of women's health.

Recent gifts include $5 million to endow the Barbra Streisand Women's Cardiovascular Research and Education Program at Cedars-Sinai's Women's Heart Center, and the lead gift of $1 million to establish the William J. Clinton Foundation's Clinton Climate Initiative.

Streisand and actor James Brolin were married in July 1998. Streisand also has a son, Jason Gould, from her first marriage to Elliott Gould.

Streisand has been especially busy in the last couple of years. Her book, My Passion For Design, combining reflections on her life with her love of design and architecture, was published by Viking on Nov. 16, 2010. Her 18th movie as an actress, Little Fockers, was released on Dec. 22.

And this year, her latest studio album, Love Is The Answer, is nominated for a GRAMMY for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album. It's her eighth nomination in that category, and her 41st overall.


I did a little research, and you and Fred Astaire are the only two artists to receive both the Life Achievement Award from the AFI and The Recording Academy's Lifetime Achievement Award.
You're kidding. I love that. I admired him so. I didn't know that.


Did you ever meet him?
I did. I actually have a picture with him somewhere. It was taken at some awards ceremony that we were both at.


You have a track record of making a big impact your first time out. Is the initial challenge what drives you? To prove to yourself that you can do something, more than to do it over and over?
That becomes boring to me, like singing the same songs over and over. It is sort of boring to stay in the same spot. You know, I didn't set out to become the first to do this, the first to do that. It was just that my interests were so diversified. What's that famous saying about how one's reach should exceed one's grasp?


From the start, you had a defiant streak. You didn't want to sing standards in your early nightclub appearances or have guest stars on your TV specials.
People would say, "Well, she should shorten her nose" or "Change her name to something simpler." I didn't know the rules, so I just did what I thought was right.


Is a certain amount of defiance part of being a great artist?
I would think so. I guess if you have an original take on life, or something about you is original, you don't have to study people who came before you. You don't have to mimic anybody. You just have a gut feeling inside, an instinct that tells you what's right for you, and you can't do it in any other way. It would be defying who you are in a sense. So I always questioned everything that I saw. I started going to acting school when I was 14, and I would always have my own take on things. Once, I wanted to play Juliet and I had a total concept for her that was what I thought would be right for a 14-year-old girl, but I was so embarrassed that it wouldn't be good. You see, it's the combination of the doubt and the confidence.


How do you mean?
You can't have one without the other. It's not just confidence. It's enormous insecurity as well. It's the combination of the insecurity and the confidence that I think maybe makes someone special.


In the '60s, you stood apart from the contemporary pop/rock scene. Did you want to be on pop radio and be part of the contemporary scene? I know the record company wanted it, but did you want it too?
Well, I didn't care about it. I did my thing and the Beatles did their thing. I was listening to Johnny Mathis when rock and roll started. I thought he was the bee's knees. That's what I love about the GRAMMYs and the music industry. People can respect other performers. There's not as much jealousy, put it that way, as in the movie business. In the movie business they say, "Oh, I could have played that role." In the music business, we all do different things, but we sit there and admire other people who can write a song differently or sing differently. It's not so competitive. Anyway, it wasn't like I needed to be in rock and roll. I was pushed into doing certain songs like "Stoney End." Or remember that song "Woman In Love" [from Guilty]? I think it was my biggest single and I never performed it live.


Because?
I never agreed with the philosophy — that "I am a woman in love and I'll do anything for my man" kind of thing. I felt funny. It was fine on a record, but I didn't want to perform this song [in concert].


How do you feel about your hits from the '70s and '80s now? Are you glad you recorded them or do you wish you'd said no a little more often and stayed with the music you know best, and I think like best?
It was interesting to try. That's why I wanted to do the classical album, because I love classical music. So I thought, "Let me try this." As a matter of fact, I had written on the album cover, "It's a work in progress," but the record company didn't want me to say that. They said, "Don't apologize for it." I always felt that I could have made it better, but I had to release it at the time. But I don't regret things I did. No.


It sounds like you're glad you made those records when you made them and you're glad you came back to traditional pop when you did.
Exactly.


When Just For The Record… came out in 1991, it looked like kind of a career capstone. Since then, you've recorded six more studio albums. Did you expect to stay this active after the box set?
Oh yeah, sure. I love recording. I love anything private. I love the privacy of just me and the music. Not performing, not in front of anybody. Not waiting for applause. I don't like performing very much.


That's surprising because you've toured so much in the last 17 years.
I didn't sing and charge for more than 20 years until I went back in 1993. And even then, I wouldn't commit to a tour until I saw how I liked it.


How did you like it?
Um, I liked it, sort of. Not enough to do what my friend Diana Krall does and play 300 days out of the year. I don't enjoy it like that. The most I could do was 24 shows [per tour]. The last tour was great, the European tour, because I was buying things for my house. I sang every five or six days so I could shop. It was a flea market tour.


I had assumed that you had come to enjoy performing live, but I'm starting to think that a key reason for all the touring you've done since 1993 is to fund your charity work.
That's the key reason. In order to do really good things in the world and give away money that will support organizations that I believe in, you have to raise a lot of money. [Because of taxes,] in order for me to be able to give $5 million to start the Women's Cardiovascular Research and Education Program at Cedars-Sinai, I have to earn $10 million.


Some people reading this may wonder why you specified women's cardiovascular research and education. Do you want to explain that?
Yeah. We're 50 years behind in research because there was no research done on women. The research was done on men. Men and women are very different in terms of their hearts. They have different symptoms, even. Where you may think of heart disease as a man's disease, now more women than men die of heart disease. More women die of heart disease than all cancers combined. Isn't that amazing? So we want to educate women in terms of talking to their doctors; understanding the warning signs. I'm going to make a PSA about this.


What led you to set up your foundation in 1986?
That was about Chernobyl and the fire they couldn't put out. It really scared me as to how fragile the planet is, and the radioactivity going in the air and getting into the soil. Climate change started to interest me. I was for nuclear disarmament. That's when I decided to start my foundation and give away the proceeds from that concert [One Voice].


In a 1995 speech at Harvard, you explained your feelings about the rights and obligations of artists to participate in the political process. I understand how it's an artist's right, but what did you mean when you said "obligation"?
It's just that we have a big responsibility because people look to celebrities and sort of take to heart what they say. So they have to be informed. They have to read. They have to do research.


Have you ever worried about a backlash if you were too outspoken?
No, I never did, obviously. Because if I did, I wouldn't say so many things. I don't think that way. I don't care. If some people don't buy my records because they don't like my politics, so be it.


After Sept. 11, you had a post on your website that you were going to refrain from criticizing President Bush.
That wasn't the time. It's like going and meeting George [W.] Bush at the Kennedy Center Honors [in December 2008]. People were waiting to see us come together, and I said, "This night, art transcends politics." So you have to approach it differently. That wouldn't have been the proper or appropriate time to blast him for going into the Iraq war. There's a time and a place for things.


In the '90s, there was talk in the media about Sen. Streisand….

Read Part Two

(Paul Grein is a veteran music journalist who writes the weekly Chart Watch blog for Yahoo.com. He has written extensively about music for
Billboard and the Los Angeles Times. He has covered the GRAMMYs since the late '70s. He attended the show for the first time in 1977 and still remembers the sense of excitement in the Hollywood Palladium when Barbra Streisand stepped onstage to present the award for Record Of The Year.)


 

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