Composer Jule Styne and lyricist Bob Merrill wrote this for the 1964 Broadway musical Funny Girl, starring Barbra Streisand as real-life entertainer Fanny Brice. While some sources claim "People" was a cast-off from the 1962 animated version of A Christmas Carol (starring the nearsighted Mister Magoo), Styne biographer Theodore Taylor disputed the theory.
The songwriting duo met in Palm Beach, Florida, to hash out songs for Funny Girl. They realized they needed a tender song to reflect the complicated romance between Brice and her gambler/con artist boyfriend Nick Arnstein. Taylor described the scene in his 1979 book Jule: The Story of Composer Jule Styne: "Jule turned to his collaborator Bob Merrill, 'You told me the other night to work on [the lyric] 'a very special person.' I think I've got a helluva melody for it.'...'Great,' Merrill yelled. 'But now it's not gonna be just a 'special person.' Listen.' Then he ad-libbed, while Jule played the melody again: 'People, people who need people, are the luckiest people in the world.'"
Styne and Merrill knew they had something special when they finished the song, which took just 30 minutes to write – if only they could convince the producers, who cut the tune from early tryouts. Merrill fought to keep the song in the musical, which seemed to be a losing battle until Streisand was permitted to sing it one night and it brought the house down.
This was Streisand's breakthrough hit and marked several firsts in her career. Not only was it her first single to land in the Top 10, it was her first one to even break the Top 40. It was also her first chart-topper on the Adult Contemporary tally. That same year, she re-recorded it for her first #1 album, People.
For their work on Funny Girl, Styne and Merrill won the Grammy Award for Best Score From an Original Cast Show Album. They were also nominated for a Tony Award as Best Composer and Lyricist in 1964 (Jerry Herman won for Hello, Dolly!).
This earned Streisand a Grammy win in 1965 for Best Vocal Performance, Female.
Streisand reprised the role of Fanny Brice for the 1968 film adaptation of Funny Girl. "People" was included on the soundtrack, but it wasn't released as a single. The album was a big hit, peaking at #12 on the albums chart and eventually selling over a million copies in the US. Streisand also won an Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance, an honor she shared with Katharine Hepburn for The Lion in Winter.
Streisand also recorded this as a duet with Stevie Wonder for her 2014 duets album, Partners. The album, which didn't yield any singles, went to #1, making Streisand the only artist to have a #1 album in each decade since the '60s.
This was featured on several of Streisand's live albums, including her first live release, A Happening in Central Park (1967). It also shows up on many of her compilation albums, such as Barbra Streisand's Greatest Hits (1970) and The Essential Barbra Streisand (2002).
This was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1998.
Several artists covered this, including Andy Williams, Ella Fitzgerald, Aretha Franklin, Vic Damone and Nat King Cole. The Tymes hit #39 (UK #16) with their rendition in 1968.
This was referenced in a few TV shows. On the 1988 "Piano Movers" episode of the sitcom Perfect Strangers, Lydia (Belita Moreno) sings part of the song. It's also referenced on Twin Peaks, in the 1991 episode "Variations on Relations," when Gordon Cole (David Lynch) claims love makes "people who need people the luckiest people in the world." Fran Drescher also recited part of the lyrics on the 1999 "Maggie's Wedding" episode of The Nanny.
The Supremes often performed this song, with Diana Ross and Florence Ballard each taking a verse. By 1966, it was Ballard's only lead vocal opportunity in their shows. When the song was pulled from their setlist that summer, it was clear that Ballard and Mary Wilson had become Ross' backup singers. The following year, the group was billed as Diana Ross & The Supremes.