are the all-time great white singers who have stood the test of time? Which singers have had great popularity over several decades, had a pervasive influence on music, and general social impact? If those are the criteria, then there are only six: Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen
and Barbra Streisand. Five men and one woman. The first three are dead, even if they will always live on in our memories. So now there are three, and until they all appear together, we are grateful that one of them lit up our television screens last night.
That's what Barbra Streisand did last night in the PBS special Streisand: One Night Only at the Village Vanguard. (It will surely be repeated on other public television stations; check your local listings.) She’s almost 70, and she looks (maybe) 40. And her voice! Last night I couldn’t tell that Streisand had lost a note. Her warm soprano was as rich as ever, and she had perfect control of pitch and volume over her entire range.
The Village Vanguard, where she sang some 40 years ago, was and still is a small club. It seats only about 125, so the audience was hand-picked. It included three celebrities (Bill Clinton, Sarah Jessica Parker, Nicole Kidman) and one ghost—Frank Sinatra. I imagined Sinatra sitting at a table with his tie loosened and a glass of Jack Daniels in his hand when Streisand gave a flawless, deeply moving version of “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning.” This song was written for Sinatra, and he used it as the title cut of his 1955 album of the same name, which is often considered the first concept album. Although fine singers like Johnny Hartman and Rosemary Clooney have recorded it, basically Sinatra owns the song. So what does it tell us about the connection between Sinatra and Streisand that she included it in one of her last concerts?
Between them, Sinatra and Streisand define some 70 years of American pop standards. And it’s not just that they are great singers and charismatic personalities. They are both East Coast people (Sinatra from Hoboken, Streisand from Brooklyn), who were—unlike the other four great singers—defined by the New York theater. Sinatra matured as a singer in the early '50s, when Method acting was all the rage. And of course Streisand became a star on Broadway with Funny Girl.
The point here is that for both Sinatra and Streisand acting the song is as important as singing the song. They turn each song into a three- or four-minute mini-drama. They have such complete vocal control that they can make appropriate changes of inflection—a pause, a catch in the throat—at key moments. Listen to Sinatra sing “Call Me Irresponsible” and Streisand sing “Evergreen,” and you’ll hear what I’m talking about. Call it musical theater with only one character, a character who just happens to have a rich voice and an equally rich personality.