Fifty years ago this week, an original, audacious and gifted singer from Brooklyn entered the Billboard album chart for the first time. Barbra Streisand, who was not yet 21 when her debut album charted, was unconventional from the start, from the quirky way she altered the spelling of her first name to the defiant way she refused to alter the shape of her nose.
Those characteristics—originality, audacity and blazing talent—have made Streisand the most successful female singer of all time.
In 1963, when the year’s top three hits by female solo artists were the Singing Nun’s “Dominique,” Little Peggy March’s “I Will Follow Him” and Lesley Gore’s “It’s My Party,” Streisand released an ironic ballad version of the rousing 1930 smash “Happy Days Are Here Again.” The sound of the record was so elegant, so grown-up, it made those other hits seem like trifles.
The single helped push The Barbra Streisand Album into the top 10. It was the first of 32 top 10 albums for the Brooklyn native. That’s more, by far, than any other female singer in history.
The Barbra Streisand Album went on to win a Grammy for Album of the Year. Streisand was just 22 when she took that award in May 1964. She held the record as the youngest winner in that category for more than 30 years, until Alanis Morissette won it in February 1996 when she was just 21. (Taylor Swift broke Morissette’s record in January 2010, when she was just 20.)
Streisand continues to resonate in popular culture. Duck Sauce’s house-music track “Barbra Streisand” topped the dance chart and received a Grammy nomination for Best Dance Recording. Streisand has been a frequent topic of discussion on such varied TV shows as The Simpsons, The Nanny, South Park and Will & Grace. And, of course, she’s the patron saint of Glee. Asked what she most likes to sing on the show, star Lea Michele replied, “Anything Barbra.”
Remarkably, 50 years later after her debut album hit the charts, Streisand continues to hold many of the most coveted records pertaining to female vocalists. Here’s a sampling:
Most No. 1 albums by a female artist (nine). Among women, Madonna is in second place with eight. Mariah Carey, Janet Jackson and Britney Spears are tied for third place with six each.
Longest span of No. 1 albums by a female artist. Streisand landed her first No. 1 album, People, on Oct. 31, 1964. She scored her most recent, Love Is The Answer, on Oct. 17, 2009. That gives her a nearly 45 year span of No. 1 albums. Only one artist in chart history, Elvis Presley, has had a longer span of No. 1 albums. The King first topped the chart in May 1956 with Elvis Presley and scored most recently in October 2002 with Elv1s: 30 No. 1 Hits, a span of more than 46 years.
Only solo artist (male or female) with at least one No. 1 album in each of the last five decades. Streisand has had at least one No. 1 album in every decade from the 1960s through the 2000s. John Lennon and Paul McCartney have also achieved this feat, but only in combination with their Beatles work.
Most top 10 albums by a female artist (32). The tally includes three movie soundtracks, two TV soundtracks, a Broadway cast album, three compilations and three live albums. Among women, Madonna is in second place with 20, followed by Mariah Carey with 16.
Longest span of top 10 albums by a female artist. Streisand scored her first top 10 album, The Barbra Streisand Album, in July 1963. She scored her most recent, the compilation Release Me, on Oct. 27, 2012. This gives her a more than 49-year span of top 10 albums. Frank Sinatra is the all-time champ. His top 10 albums span from March 1946 (The Voice Of Frank Sinatra) to August 2012 (Nothing But The Best), more than 63 years.
Most chart albums by a female solo artist (57). Aretha Franklin is in second place with 44. Note: Diana Ross zooms to the top with 59 chart albums, if you combine solo albums (32) and her albums with the Supremes (27).
Most Grammy Awards for Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female (five). Streisand has won in this category for The Barbra Streisand Album, “People,” My Name Is Barbra, “Evergreen” and The Broadway Album. Ella Fitzgerald is in second place with four wins in the category. Dionne Warwick, Whitney Houston and Adele are tied for third place, with three wins each.
Most Grammy nominations by a female artist for Album of the Year by (six). As noted above, The Barbra Streisand Album won for Album of the Year. Streisand was also nominated for People, My Name Is Barbra, Color Me Barbra, Guilty and The Broadway Album. (The Funny Girl original cast album was also nominated for Album of the Year in 1964, but the nomination went to the composers of the score, Robert Merrill and Jule Styne.) Whitney Houston, Bonnie Raitt, Mariah Carey and Lady Gaga are tied for second place among women, with three nominations each. (One female group, Dixie Chicks, has also had three noms.)
Most consecutive Grammy nominations by a female artist for Album of the Year (four). Streisand was nominated every year from 1963 through 1966. Among women, Lady Gaga (a fellow New York native) is in second place. She was nominated three years running from 2009 through 2011.
Most Grammy nominations by a female artist for Record of the Year (five). Streisand was nominated for “Happy Days Are Here Again,” “People,” “Evergreen (Love Theme From 'A Star Is Born'),” “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” (with Neil Diamond) and “Woman In Love.” Among women, Beyonce is in second place, with four nominations (counting one with Destiny’s Child). Roberta Flack, Bette Midler, Celine Dion, and Mariah Carey have each had three nominations. (So has Fergie, though all have been with the Black Eyed Peas.)
First female composer to win an Oscar for Best Song. Streisand won for composing “Evergreen.” Note: Dorothy Fields (“The Way You Look Tonight”) and Marilyn Bergman (“The Windmills Of Your Mind” and “The Way We Were”) won Best Song before her, but they wrote the lyrics.
Only person (male or female) to win Oscars for both acting and songwriting. Streisand took Best Actress for Funny Girl and Best Song for “Evergreen.” She was nominated in both categories a second time for The Way We Were and “I Finally Found Someone,” respectively. (She was also nominated as the producer of a Best Picture finalist, The Prince Of Tides.)
Most RIAA-certified albums sold by a female artist (71.5 million). Madonna is in second place with 64.5 million. Here’s the rest of the top 10: Mariah Carey (63.5 million), Whitney Houston (57 million), Celine Dion (50 million), Shania Twain (48 million), Reba McEntire (41 million), Britney Spears (34 million), Linda Ronstadt (30 million), and Enya (26.5 million). (One female group, Dixie Chicks, has sold 30.5 million albums, per the RIAA.)
Most gold albums by a female artist (51). She has more than her two closest rivals combined. They are Reba McEntire with 27, and Madonna with 20.
Most platinum albums by a female artist (30). As with gold albums, the runners-up are Reba McEntire (19) and Madonna (17).
Most multiplatinum albums by a female artist (13). Madonna is a close second, with 12. Tied for third: Reba McEntire and Mariah Carey with nine each.
Best-selling Christmas album by a female artist. Streisand’s 1967 album A Christmas Album has been certified by the RIAA for U.S. sales of 5 million copies, which puts it in a tie with Mariah Carey’s 1994 album Merry Christmas and Celine Dion’s 1998 album These Are Special Times.
Only female to receive lifetime achievement awards from both the Recording Academy and the American Film Institute. Streisand has received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and the AFI’s Life Achievement Award. These are arguably the top career awards given for achievements in recording and film, respectively. Only one other artist, Fred Astaire, has received both of these awards. (I interviewed Streisand in 2010 and told her the company she was keeping. I believe she was verklempt.)
You may have noticed that Streisand’s most famous hit, “The Way We Were,” wasn’t among her Grammy Record of the Year nominees. What’s up with that? The song was released in the closing days of the 1973 eligibility year, but it didn’t have a chance to really make an impact before the first-round ballots were due. The last day of the eligibility year was Oct. 15, 1973. The movie opened in Los Angeles the following day. The song entered the Easy Listening chart (as it was called then) on Oct. 20 and the Hot 100 on Nov. 24. It topped the Hot 100 on Feb. 2, 1974 and wound up as Billboard’s No. 1 single of 1974. If the song had been released just a couple of weeks later, it would have fallen into the 1974 eligibility year—and it might well have won Record of the Year (an award Streisand never won). The award went instead to Olivia Newton-John’s “I Honestly Love You.” “The Way We Were” did win Song of the Year for 1974. How to explain that? Different categories have different eligibility rules. The cutoff there wasn’t as hard and fast.
Just For The Record: Streisand sang four songs (including “Miss Marmelstein”) on the original cast album to I Can Get It For You Wholesale, which first charted the week of July 21, 1962. But she didn’t chart in her own right until The Barbra Streisand Album debuted on April 13, 1963. Note: The charts that will be posted on Wednesday (for the week ending March 31, 2013) correspond with the Billboard issue dated April 13, 2013. So this is the anniversary week.
Just For The Record II: The Grammys had two female pop categories in 1960, one for singles and one for albums. Ella Fitzgerald won both. In the interest of consistency, I counted that as one win for Ella. One year, one win. Also: The name of the category has changed over the years. Men and women have competed in the same category the last two years, with Adele winning both times.
There will be several other notable 50th-anniversary celebrations in the next 15 months. Stevie Wonder first hit The Billboard 200 on July 13, 1963, the Beatles on Feb. 1, 1964 and the Rolling Stones on June 27, 1964.