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.
A Star Is Born is a sort of American myth — a story that keeps coming back again and again, its form only slightly varying from one telling to the next. For almost as long as mass-market entertainment celebrity has existed in America, so has A Star Is Born. By the time Barbra Streisand made her version of the story, it had already been a movie twice: First in 1937, with Janet Gaynor and Frederic March, and then in 1954, with Judy Garland and James Mason. In every retelling — and there have officially been four of them now — it’s a show-business fable about a talented young woman and about the older, declining man who helps push her to success and then resents it when she eclipses him.
Barbra Streisand was already a star when she made her version of A Star Is Born. She’d won an Oscar in 1969. She’d had the biggest hit single of 1974 with “The Way We Were.” And she’d become the most bankable actress in Hollywood. The 1976 version of A Star Is Born is really just a showcase for Streisand, both as an actress and a singer. She executive produced it, and her boyfriend and former hairdresser Jon Peters served as producer. (Peters had never produced a movie before that, and he went on to be involved with films like Caddyshack, Flashdance, Rain Man, and the Tim Burton Batman. Peters was successfully sued for sexually harassing an assistant in 2011, and these days, he’s mostly famous for being the guy who wanted Kevin Smith to make Superman fight a giant spider.)
Streisand’s version of A Star Is Born is the first to come out during the rock ‘n’ roll era, and in her telling, the aging man is a self-destructive rock star who constantly drinks himself into oblivion. Streisand wanted to cast Elvis Presley as the love interest, but Col. Tom Parker wanted too much money, so she went instead with Kris Kristofferson — years after he wrote “Me And Bobby McGee,” which Janis Joplin took to #1, and years before he played Whistler in Blade, the greatest movie ever made. (Kristofferson has never had a top-10 hit of his own. His highest-charting single, 1973’s “Why Me,” peaked at #16.)
Kris Kristofferson is one of the all-time great songwriters, and with him being right there on set and everything, you’d think that maybe Streisand would get him to write a song or two for the soundtrack. She didn’t. Instead, the songwriter she went after was Paul Williams, a firmly embedded pop-industry pro who’d written or co-written hits like Three Dog Night’s “An Old Fashioned Love Song” and the Carpenters’ “Rainy Days And Mondays.” (“An Old Fashioned Love Song,” from 1971, peaked at #4. It’s a 6. “Rainy Days And Mondays,” also from 1971, peaked at #2. It’s another 6.)
Williams was a movie guy. In 1974, he’d played the villain in Brian De Palma’s cult favorite Phantom Of The Paradise, and he also co-wrote that movie’s songs and score. He played an orangutan named Virgil in Battle For The Planet Of The Apes, which I think is cool. These days, Williams is probably most famous for co-writing “Rainbow Connection,” from 1979’s The Muppet Movie. But if we’re talking about Williams’ collaborations with Jim Henson, his greatest contribution to culture is almost certainly this absolute motherfucking banger, from 1977’s Emmett Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas.
So anyway, you can see why Barbra Streisand would want to work with Paul Williams. And the two of them hit gold with “Love Theme From A Star Is Born (Evergreen),” a song that Streisand and Williams co-wrote. Streisand had almost never written a song before, but she was learning guitar so that she could play it in the movie. She came up with the song’s melody, playing it on guitar for Williams and wondering out loud if it was any good. Williams said that it was great, and he wrote the song’s lyrics.
A Star Is Born is a musical above all else, and “Evergreen” — I’m not typing out that whole title again — basically serves the same purpose as Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper’s “Shallow” does in the 2018 version of “A Star Is Born.” (“Shallow” like “Evergreen” before it, is a Star Is Born soundtrack standout co-written by the woman who sang it. It’ll eventually appear in this column.) “Evergreen” is there to tell us two things: Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson are extremely into each other, and Barbra Streisand can really sing. In the movie, Streisand and Kristofferson sing the song while staring hungrily at each other, and Streisand’s vocals absolutely obliterate Kristofferson’s. On the recorded version, Kristofferson is mercifully absent.
Like the 1976 version of A Star Is Born itself, “Evergreen” exists almost entirely to give Barbra Streisand a chance to show off. As a piece of art unto itself, it’s basically nothing. Williams’ lyrics are generally pretty garbage. They amount to generic love-song piffle that’s obsessed with its literally flowery romanticism: “Like a rose under the April snow / I was always certain love would grow.” Those lines seem hopelessly naïve. Maybe that’s the point.
The only part of “Evergreen” that anyone really remembers is the opening line: “Love, soft as an easy chair / Love, fresh as the morning air.” But for the two characters singing the song, love would not turn to be soft as an easy chair. It would turn out to be pretty fucking difficult. It would take them far from the shallows.
Musically, “Evergreen” is lush ’70s syrup, full of pianos and strings and cooing backup singers. Elsewhere on the huge-selling soundtrack album, Kristofferson growled through some generic synthy bark-rock, while Streisand took a couple of stabs at singing uptempo soul. But “Evergreen” is Streisand in her comfort zone, wobbling pyrotechnically, letting her voice dip and twirl and dive. Her delivery on the song is somewhere between Broadway glitz and gospel melisma — two very showy styles that were always pretty compatible. As a technical exercise, that singing is hugely impressive. It’s also the kind of thing that tends to wring all meaning out of lyrics, so maybe it’s a good thing that the lyrics were pretty meaningless already.
As a play for cross-media dominance, the Streisand take on A Star Is Born was a massive success. In 1976, only the original Rocky, another movie that will eventually figure into this column, made more money. Streisand wasn’t nominated for another acting Oscar, but the week after “Evergreen” fell out of #1, Streisand and Williams won Best Original Song for “Evergreen.” (Streisand was the first woman ever to win an Oscar as a composer.) And the movie’s soundtrack sold millions. On the Billboard year-end list of 1977’s highest-selling albums, that soundtrack came in at #3, behind only Rumours and Songs In The Key Of Life. Streisand remained stratospherically famous; she will be in this column again.
But as the person writing this column in 2019, it’s impossible not to compare “Evergreen” to “Shallow,” the latest love theme from A Star Is Born. “Shallow” is feverish and urgent and instantly iconic, and it’s basically been in my head on a loop for the past year. In the process of writing this column, I’ve been listening to “Evergreen” on repeat, and I still couldn’t hum it for you. Lady Gaga did a whole lot more with a wordless howl than Streisand did with all the technique and gloopy sentiment she displayed on “Evergreen,” and even Bradley Cooper, who is not a singer, sold the song’s emotion better. Throw “Evergreen” off the deep end.
BONUS BEATS: In Barbra Streisand’s video for the 1984 Jim Steinman-written power ballad “Left In The Dark,” she reunited with Kristofferson, who again played her love interest. (“Left In The Dark” peaked at #50.) Here’s that video:
THE NUMBER TWOS: The Steve Miller Band’s bongwater-gargling synth-funk space-out “Fly Like An Eagle” peaked at #2 behind “Love Theme From A Star Is Born (Evergreen).” It’s an 8.
THE 10S: Bob Seger‘s propulsively Proustian backseat reverie “Night Moves,” the best Van Morrison song that Van Morrison didn’t actually write or sing, peaked at #4 behind “Love Theme From A Star Is Born (Evergreen).” It feels the lightning, and it’s a 10.