Barbra Streisand’s new rarities album Release Me (cute title, dear!) features eleven lovely tracks from all your favorite eras of Streisand supremacy. I’m particularly fond of “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today,” her Randy Newman cover from 1970 that’s hypnotically melancholic. There’ve been tons of versions of that tune, and I think we’re finally hearing the definitive take. And speaking of new takes: Let’s commemorate Barbra’s newest triumph with a short retrospective of great artists who’ve covered her. Not many are brave enough to try but these eight dames deliver a knockout just like crusty old Ryan O’Neal in The Main Event.
1. Donna Summer, “Papa, Can You Hear Me”
We begin with Barbra’s “No More Tears (Enough is Enough)” duet partner, the late and always fluffy Donna Summer, who enlivened the 1983 Academy Awards with a version of the nominated Yentl yarn, “Papa, Do You Hear Me” that has all the grandeur of a Fanny Brice visit to MacArthur Park. It’s an unexpected pairing of artist and song, but honestly, I revisit this clip more than the original. By the way: If anyone wants to remix together clips of presenter Johnny Carson saying “Weird and wild stuff!” with Donna singing “Hot Stuff!” I’d give that person a few bucks.
2. Gladys Knight, “The Way We Were”
Yes, this one’s more well-known than some of the others on this list, but who can pass up Gladys Knight’s searing, crackling version of the title song from the Robert Redford flick? It’s unforgettable. And it’s worthier of recognition than anything else in that movie — except perhaps the line, “I feel like I’ve been invited for drinks, and everyone else is staying for dinner.” That is indeed awesome and heartbreaking.
3. Sara Bareilles, “Stoney End”
I’m more of a singer-songwriter fanatic than a vocalist fanatic, so I think Laura Nyro, who wrote three of the songs on Barbra’s 1970 rock ’n’ roll renaissance album Stoney End, is juuuuust about the coolest woman who ever lived. And if you’re like some rock historians, you may believe her titular work off that album is about a lesbian revelation. Fabulous. And just as good, at Laura’s posthumous induction into the Rock ’N’ Roll Hall of Fame just months ago, Sara Bareilles toasted her work with a gorgeous rendition. Love the final “Aaaaahh-gainnnn!” And I love Sara, too, I think. “King of Anything”? Cute song.
Aretha Franklin, “Lover, Come Back to Me”
Though this song is a standard that most people simply associate with Barbra, who officially released it on The Second Barbra Streisand Album, it’s still fabulous to remember that Aretha Franklin releases a version on her ’62 album The Tender, The Moving, The Swingin’ Aretha Franklin. Never forget that Aretha was once called “swingin’.” You’ll note that her band takes time at the end of the performance to stop quickly and applaud the hell out of her.
Dionne Warwick, “Watch Closely Now”
Pardon the grainy quality, but this cover of the A Star Is Born soundtrack opener “Watch Closely Now” is a crescendoing, suspenseful, and all-around rock departure for Miss Warwick, who is the only Celebrity Apprentice contestant I’ll admit is eternally fabulous.
Diana Ross, “Don’t Rain on My Parade”
Question: How can this Diana Ross TV special be from 1971 when the outrageous fashions and opulence seem so… Mahogany (’75)? I’m personally baffled. And I’m also titillated to death by her snappy, fiercely fast take on Funny Girl’s signature song of defiance and chutzpah. Legendary though she may be, Diana Ross is still underrated as a classy, powerful vocalist.
Tina Turner, “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers”
Bring out the hanky: In this clip, Tina Turner mentions her breakup with Ike and her new-found connection to the weepy ballad, “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers.” Aw, Tina. You’re actively relating to us. Sure, this duet is Velveeta-grade cheese, but it sounds toughened and confessional coming from Tina’s trembling mouth.
Florence Ballard and the Supremes, “People”
Love. This. Version. It’s hard not to adore Ms. Florence Ballard’s vocal mastery here since she almost never outshined Diana, but on its own terms, her command is perfect for this song. “People” is probably the Barbra song many fans feel they never need to hear again, so I hope this oft-forgotten Supremes version is ready for a 2012 resurgence in the Babs fan underworld.