'S wonderful! 'S Feinstein!
by David-Elijah Nahmod
The Gershwins and Me: A Personal History in Twelve Songs by Michael Feinstein (Simon and Schuster, $45, CD included)
Michael Feinstein has lived the kind of life we see in sophisticated drawing-room comedies of the 1930s. It's all about American popular music of past generations. He performs the music of his idols in cabarets, on television, and on CDs. He also works diligently to catalogue and preserve the music of previous generations, and to introduce these songs to new listeners.
"I live in a unique world," Feinstein told the B.A.R. "My life is constantly immersed in this music. It's what I do."
He refers to the songwriters from the first half of the 20th century as "craftspeople. It was an era that was a uniquely fertile time for artistic creativity." He likens the period to the Italian Renaissance. "They had a strong work ethic. They worked extremely hard. Songwriting is a very difficult craft."
Few of these songwriters have influenced Feinstein more than Ira Gershwin, who, along with his brother George, composed some of America's best-known and -loved pop tunes. In 1977, Feinstein, 21, was hired by Ira Gershwin to catalogue his extensive collection of records and sheet music. Feinstein spent six years researching and archiving the work not only of Ira, but of George, who had died of cancer many years earlier. During this period, he became close friends with Gershwin's next-door neighbor, singer Rosemary Clooney, an interpreter of American popular song. Feinstein and Clooney would go on to collaborate extensively. In his new memoir The Gershwins and Me, Feinstein shares his personal memories of the time he spent with Ira Gershwin. The book, divided into 12 chapters, each named after a Gershwin song, comes with a CD of Feinstein performing all 12 songs.
"I was trying to think of a way to present information on the Gershwins that would be anecdotal, but that people could still follow. Each song is a springboard for a particular story. I thought this might be interesting for people who want to know more about the Gershwins."
Feinstein is part owner of Feinstein's, which currently serves as NYC's premiere showcase for cabaret artists. In August 2012, he was named the new lead conductor for Pasadena Pops, succeeding Marvin Hamlisch, who died in August. Feinstein and Hamlisch had enjoyed a long, close friendship and working relationship.
"Marvin was a remarkable musician," Feinstein said. "He wrote wonderful songs, film scores, and dramatic scores for Broadway. He was a great musical mind who inspired people with his music. He de-mystified music and made it accessible."
Feinstein also works with The Michael Feinstein Great American Songbook Initiative, his own foundation located in Carmel, IN. On its website, the Initiative describes its mission as twofold: to bring the music of the Great American Songbook to young people today, and to preserve it for future generations. Feinstein explains why Indiana was chosen as the Initiative's locale.
"American popular music is about the melting pot. It's about the whole country, about everybody. Carmel is 24 hours from most of the country, and the city built a $180 million performing arts center. We have the support of the local community. It's a place where this was fervently desired."
Currently in the works is a museum. "I have quite a bit of Gershwin memorabilia. I have a billboard from An American in Paris, artifacts from the Gershwin estate, movie posters, contracts."
The multi-tasking performer/conductor/historian admits that he doesn't get much sleep these days. He derives a great deal of personal satisfaction from his work. It all began in 1977, when he worked for his idol, Ira Gershwin. In sharing his memories of those bygone days, Feinstein illustrates the path that led him to where he is today.