Anybody who spends any time here at all knows I’m highly skeptical of the “Svengali” theory of rock (or just culture), which holds that pretty much every great vocal ever delivered by a “non-writer” in the last sixty years was coaxed by a record producer. This theory extends so far that it even takes in Elvis from time to time (especially in the Sun days).
But it is especially all-encompassing when it is applied to great records sung by young women of whatever ethnicity and produced by young white (or at least crit-illuminati approved) males. Read the standard rock “histories” and you might come away thinking that Mary Weiss and Ronnie Spector and Darlene Love and Mary Wells needed Shadow Morton or Phil Spector or Smokey Robinson to go to the bathroom for them.
Heck, even the likes of Dionne Warwick and Dusty Springfield weren’t immune, and, coming forward in time, neither were Donna Summer (who actually wrote many of her hits and produced more than a few, but that’s another story for another time) and Linda Ronstadt.
So it’s pretty funny to discover that, once upon a time, along about 1970, the one Rock-era, non-writing woman who pretty much is immune from this particular style of condescension found herself resisting a song that she didn’t think she could do anything with.
Here’s her producer, Richard Perry, from an interview in 2011:
“She wanted to cancel the session….I said ‘I’ll cancel the session right now if you want. But I can’t believe that Barbra Streisand would back down from a challenge.'”
The ploy worked. They didn’t cancel the session. And the challenge ended up being this:
The record (covering the great Laura Nyro) ended up being Streisand’s first top ten record since “People” in 1964, as well as the first (and best) of many rock-tinged hits (several of them duets with the aforementioned Ms. Summer) in the years following.
But she didn’t need to wait for the charts to validate her response to Perry’s challenge. To finish the quote:
“After we did the first take…I called her in for a playback because it was clear that this was going to be a very special record….And while it was playing, she whispered in my ear ‘You were right and I was wrong. But it’s nice to be wrong!'”
Okay, as Svengali moments go, it wasn’t exactly Phil Spector locking his wife in the house and making her watch Citizen Kane every single day, but I’m glad Perry was on the job this particular day…and I bet Barbra is too!
(NOTE: All this was brought to the forefront of my ever-wandering attention this week after Streisand’s “Back to Brooklyn” special ran last weekend during the local PBS station’s pledge week. She spent the first part pulling off an outfit that wouldn’t have looked out of place on a Shangri-La in the year she hit with “People.” And both her voice and her singing (which way too many people need to be reminded aren’t quite the same thing) were better than I’ve ever heard them be. Which is saying something….And just as a final note, the intro to the video here is a tad strange, but I loved the sound….A needle dropping on Promo vinyl of a classic 45 and then running in the groove. Doesn’t get any better than that. UPDATE: Scratch that last, the video disappeared. Perils of YouTube. But you can still enjoy the record!)