In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
Barbra Streisand was inevitable. Plenty of singers cross over and become actors once they become famous. Streisand didn’t wait. To hear her tell it, the Brooklyn-raised Streisand always had a great voice. But it seems like pop stardom was never Streisand’s main goal; it was simply a byproduct of where she ended up. She wanted to conquer Broadway, and she did.
After she graduated high school at 16, Streisand did everything she could to make it on Broadway, working as an usher and auditioning whenever she could. Eventually, Streisand won a talent contest and scored a couple of regular nightclub singing gigs, and those those gigs led to her getting cast in the 1962 musical I Can Get It For You Wholesale. (That’s where she met Elliott Gould, her first husband, who was also in the cast.) Streisand was 19 when she debuted on Broadway. To hear just about everybody tell it, Streisand stole that show, and she sang so well on the soundtrack album that she got a record deal out of it. So she broke through as a singer and as an actor at the exact same time. Not too many people pull that off.
In the early years of her singing career, Streisand wasn’t really making pop music. She was singing showtunes and standards, which were pretty far removed from the rock ‘n’ roll zeitgeist. But she was still a star, and those records were still successful. Streisand’s first hit, 1964’s “People,” came from the musical Funny Girl. (It peaked at #5, and it’s a 5.) She made her film debut in the 1968 adaptation of Funny Girl, and she won a Best Actress Oscar for it — so she didn’t really need pop music. (Streisand actually shared that Oscar with Katharine Hepburn, who also won for The Lion In Winter. It’s the only time there’s ever been a tie for Best Actress.)
But pop music came to Barbra Streisand anyway. By the early ’70s, big-time pop music had moved away from rock ‘n’ roll excitement and toward a sleepy version of sophistication. And that early-’70s easy-listening version of pop fit Streisand’s particular skill set pretty well. Streisand worked with songwriters like Carole King and Laura Nyro, and the latter wrote “Stoney End,” the song that got Streisand back onto the pop charts. (“Stoney End” peaked at #6 in 1970; it’s a 4.) Streisand turned down at least two songs, “The Morning After” and “Delta Dawn,” that eventually became #1 hits for other singers. She was always going to get to #1 herself; it was just a question of when. And when Streisand did get to #1, she did it with a song that more or less became a standard.
Sydney Pollak’s 1973 movie The Way We Were tells the complete arc of a couple’s relationship. They meet, they fall in love, they marry, they have a kid, they divorce. Years later, they run into each other, and they both recognize that they’ve moved on with their lives. Streisand starred in the movie with Robert Redford, and it was a big hit, but it’s mostly remembered for the title track, written from the point of view of Streisand’s character.
The film composer Marvin Hamlisch — one of only two people in history to win the full EGOT and the Pulitzer Prize — co-wrote “The Way We Were” with the married-couple lyricists Alan and Marilyn Bergman. (As a solo artist, Hamlisch peaked at #3 with “The Entertainer,” a version of the old Scott Joplin ragtime instrumental that Hamlisch recorded for the 1973 movie The Sting. I guess it’s an 8? It seems completely fucking ridiculous to rank “The Entertainer.”) Streisand had wanted a minor-key song, but Hamlisch, after spending a ton of time on the song, ended up writing it as a major-key number anyway. Streisand recorded the song live with a full string section and with members of the Wrecking Crew backing her up. And the song hit some kind of chord. It was Billboard‘s #1 single of 1974, and it also won an Oscar and a Golden Globe. (Hamlisch won two Oscars that year; he also got one for scoring The Way We Were.)
As a piece of music, “The Way We Were” does a neat job extending a bridge from the cabaret torch songs that Streisand grew up singing to the slick studio-musician pop of the early ’70s. The echoing guitar-washes are imported straight from Stax soul records, while the strings and woodwinds are pure supper-club melodrama. Wrecking Crew bassist Carol Kaye says that she went against instructions by keeping her bassline busy and loose, and all her murmuring notes add a richness and an urgency that the song really needs. And the song takes its time, unfolding with an unhurried grace.
Streisand sings it as an internal torch song, humming fondly to herself before the lyrics kick in. It’s not a regretful song, exactly, but it’s a searching song. Streisand’s character seems to be on a reverie into her own past, savoring her old feelings and wondering whether she could’ve found a way to keep her old relationship going: “Can it be that it was all so simple then? / Or has time rewritten every line? / If we had the chance to do it all again / Tell me, would we? / Could we?” Streisand sings those songs with warmth and stillness. She’s not drowning in sadness, though she can edge into that territory when she starts singing the big notes. Instead, she’s inside her own head, turning things over and looking at them from different angles.
Now: “The Way We Were” is schlock. It’s big and hammy and a bit clumsy, and Streisand can’t resist showing off the way her voice can leap octaves even when she’s supposed to be on this internal journey. (Streisand’s a cabaret singer, not a soul singer, but she’ll still flex hard if given half a chance.) At a certain point — especially in the context of a full Streisand album — they honeyed ache of “The Way We Were” can get a bit oppressive. If you don’t like schlock, you’ll never like the song.
But “The Way We Were” is expertly realized schlock, created by people who know what they’re doing. Even if you’ve never seen the movie — and I haven’t — it still evokes a certain lost-times romantic nostalgia, an affectionate consideration of the path not taken. If you hear it at the right moment, you might fuck around and find yourself moved. And even if you never hear it at that moment, you can still hear all the craft that went into it. Many gloopy ballads went to #1 before “The Way We Were,” and many gloopy ballads would go to #1 after. “The Way We Were” is as gloopy as any of them, but it’s some sharp and skillful gloop.
BONUS BEATS: Gladys Knight & The Pips recorded a lush, ruminative soul cover of “The Way We Were” in 1975, and they combined it with “Try To Remember,” a song from the long-running stage musical The Fantasticks. (The future Law & Order star Jerry Orbach recorded the original version of “Try To Remember” in 1960.) Knight and the Pips’ “The Way We Were / Try To Remember” peaked at #11. Here it is:
Producer RZA built the classic 1993 Wu-Tang Clan track “Can It All Be So Simple” around a sample of “The Way We Were / Try To Remember”:
Lauryn Hill, who will eventually appear in this column, sampled “Can It All Be So Simple” on her own classic 1998 track “Ex-Factor,” which peaked at #21. And last year, Drake used a sample of “Ex-Factor” on “Nice For What,” a song that will eventually appear in this column. “The Way We Were” has absolutely nothing to do with “Nice For What,” but because of the way sampling law works, Marvin Hamlisch and Alan and Marilyn Bergman all got songwriting credits on “Nice For What.”
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the gloriously dumb joke about “The Way We Were” from the 1979 Steve Martin comedy The Jerk:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Tom Hanks singing “The Way We Were” to his character’s terrified mother in 1988’s Big, earning himself a Jon Lovitz side-eye in the process:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Me First And The Gimme Gimmes’ inevitable snot-punk cover of “The Way We Were,” from the 2014 album Are We Not Men? We Are Diva!:
This column is in prime Gimme Gimmes territory right now. Fun series of arcane facts: Barbra Streisand is now married to the actor James Brolin, which means her stepson is Josh Brolin, motherfucking Thanos. Josh Brolin was the original drummer of Rich Kids On LSD, a Northern California punk band now mostly notorious for a whole lot of the band members dying young. But for a while, RKL were a pretty big band. They were an early inspiration for NOFX leader and Gimme Gimmes mastermind Fat Mike. RKL and NOFX were also labelmates at Epitaph for a while in the ’90s. (RKL and the Gimme Gimmes just missed each other at Epitaph; RKL released their last album for the label in 1994, while the Gimme Gimmes did a one-off Epitaph single of Billy Joel covers in 1996.) So Barbra Streisand and Me First And The Gimme Gimmes are really only a few degrees of separation apart.