Judy Davis [Vocal Coach] Story

April 3, 1964

by Herb Michelson

Judy Davis watched the television and heard the girl sing and said to herself, "There's a New York trained girl who's had one bang-up voice coach." In a few months, the New York-trained girl, who never had any voice coach, was seated in a small, dimly lighted room in Oakland on College Avenue across from the Safeway and softly pleading for Judy Davis to help her.

"Time" gave the girl, Barbra Streisand, its exalted cover position this week. They described her rise to greatness (and she's the best of her generation, she is) in several thousand words. But they didn't get around to Judy Davis. Streisand will be 22 this week and Judy has known her only one of those 22 years. Few have known her better. To the voice coach across from the Safeway, Streisand possesses a near-frightening mystique.

It was early 1963 and Streisand had a club date at the hungry i and her manager, Marty Erlichman, got on the horn from Chicago to Judy Davis and said, in effect, "Help." Many of the big ones have come to College Avenue for many years. Judy, a sweetheart of a woman and a genius of a voice coach, has what you'd call a rep. Word gets around from one star to another, so when they want to polish or try a new technique they come in Judy Davis. Barbra's voice was bothering her. She was extremely hoarse, suffering from laryngitis, unable to do anything but scream at the top of her voice. Erlichman called Davis. "Barbra," says Judy, "was good from the beginning, even without any coaching. She never knew why everything went right, so she never knew why it suddenly went wrong."

Streisand, the gawky, hippy, busty, cross-eyed kid from Brooklyn, was scared and she was forcing. "We studied her TV tapes. We watched her jaw movements. I pointed out what she did right," says Judy. "This way she could re-establish what she'd been doing right.

"Look. No singing teacher can teach anyone to sing. You tell them what tones are right and what techniques are best. A singer is a singer."

The small room on College has a piano and a bench, a director's chair and a couple of ashtrays. A frisky black poodle named Poupette squints while it frolics because Judy keeps the place hazy; otherwise there'd be too much glare off the sheet music. Twelve, 15 hours a day Judy spends in this room. Early in '63, Streisand took up three of these hours, every day for a month. Judy remembers them: "Barbra seems to have come into this world with certain built-in information that when you tell her something she seems to be drawing it out of a file. It's as though she's a composite of many great stars and entered life with an ability that you just wouldn't expect her to have.

"She can be 4 years old. Or 54. Or 20 or 30. She knows things she's no right to know for her age and experience. I felt this and I knew immediately she was a great star. I told her that. I told her and she cried.

"Barbra was a very frightened girl because she was being catapulted into a position that normally we grow up into. Almost as if she were shot out of a cannon. And she is a very sensitive girl.

"She needed a hand to hold and a pat on the back and somebody to tell her everything was all right."

Judy told her not to fret and to take care of her singularly amazing "instrument," her voice, because vocal failure could occur again and there was no need for Barbra to get all that upset about it. "She's a curious, searching girl," says Judy. It was important to her to understand just how this instrument of hers works. Every great singer must totally accept the fact they have a voice. Barbra now is able to recognize that some scares with her voice are purely emotional and she can talk herself out of it. And she takes care of that voice—no smoking or drinking or highly seasoned foods, no extremely hot or cold beverages."

To the interviewer, the stranger, Streisand is kookie and cocky. This is not truly her, but she will not let you in. Judy explains: "It's a defensive mechanism. Not because of her looks but because of her background, which she will discuss only with her closest friends. (Streisand lost her father before she was a year old.) It's a wonder she hasn't built a higher, thicker wall than she has."

(Manager Erlichman has said: "Barbra does not want to expose herself. She will not confide in someone she does not completely trust.")

"I think," says Judy, "Barbra has finally accepted herself. She's a very solid girl. For instance, she wanted to play the part of Fannie Brice (in "Funny Girl" on Broadway) to prove that a girl who isn't beautiful can fall in love."

Judy Davis did not make Streisand the brilliant performer the girl is. The voice coach doesn't want anybody to get this idea. If she did, she would have responded to Barbra's invitation and been at the "Funny Girl" opening and had her picture taken with the star and all that. "I can't take any credit," says Judy. "Barbra needs no one. She's God-endowed, although maybe that's a bit too much. Let's just say it's almost like a rose unfolded— only with great depth and magnitude.

"Let's just say I helped her find part of the way—a little part." For 30 years Judy Davis has helped many of them find a little part of the way. And she still is stunned when the big ones call her for help. She says: "I'm always astonished that these great stars come to Oakland on College Avenue across from the Safeway."


Related Pages: Streisand at the hungry i Nighclub