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Michael Feinstein Interview: Music Revivalist Strives to Preserve the Great American Songbook

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Michael Feinstein

Singer, pianist, composer, musical archivist Michael Jay Feinstein was a child prodigy who, at age 5 (about 1961), developed an interest in the piano and could play a song by ear having just heard it one time. At age 20 the Columbus, Ohio native was introduced to Broadway lyricist legend Ira Gershwin, who hired him to catalogue his extensive collection of phonograph records.

This assignment led Feinstein on a six-year musical excavation of Gershwin’s home on Beverly Hills’ Roxbury Drive, preserving the legacy of not only Ira Gershwin but also that of his composer brother George, who had died forty years earlier.

“When you consider that George Gershwin had 800 published songs, Cole Porter had 1,200, Irving Berlin had 1,000, it’s such a massive body of work by so many people that the list would be an extraordinarily long one. It’s ever evolving in that songs by Billy Joel, Carole King, and Neil Sedaka are added to it. There might even be songs that are written today that will perhaps endure and be considered classics in a few years.”

Premiering on October 6, 2010, on PBS, the three-part series Michael Feinstein’s American Songbook chronicles Feinstein’s lifelong mission to keep the great American Songbook alive, as he preserves and passes along the lyrics and melodies of songwriters like George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, and Rodgers and Hart, while performing more than 150 shows a year across the country.

The series follows the meticulous musician as he rummages through cluttered basements and dusty attics, sifts through piles in cluttered storage lockers, and unearths obscure items in flea markets. Simultaneously, Feinstein digs deep into the artistry of performers like Frank Sinatra, Rosemary Clooney, Nat King Cole, Ethel Waters, and Margaret Whiting, illuminating what makes them so iconic and timeless.

American Songbook reflects PBS’s unique approach to presenting the arts,” said PBS President Paula A. Kerger. “It illuminates the creative process and what happens before the curtain rises, straight from a leading artist of our time. It is also an historical documentary in the best sense – contemplating and contextualizing culture, and showing the impact the arts have on our lives and how art benefits from public engagement.”

Michael Feinstein

Michael Feinstein (Goodman Media)

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Michael, you began playing the piano at the age of 5 years old. Incredible!

Michael Feinstein: That is right. I just sat down and started playing. My parents had bought a piano and I just knew how to do it. It’s like when you understand how to speak a language. It was natural to me. I just sat down and started playing and never stopped.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine):  Did you ever learn to read sheet music?

Michael Feinstein: Not properly. I still don’t essentially read it. I say that because I can sort of figure out a lead beat line but I cannot read a score. It’s hard for me to read chords.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Were your parents supportive of your musical interests?

Michael Feinstein: Very. Oddly they were supportive of me playing in piano bars after I got out of high school which is very shocking in retrospect (laughs).

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): That does seem unusual.

Michael Feinstein: Quite (laughs). But they loved music and knew I loved it also, so they felt if it would make me happy, why not?

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What was it like to work with Ira Gershwin?

Michael Feinstein: It was, for me, a life changing experience because I was a huge fan and obsessed with Gershwin music from the time I was in my early teens. Meeting Mr. Gershwin was a new world that opened for me. To meet creators of the songs I loved was exciting, but he was the first one I met. He was a very generous man and took me under his wing. He nurtured me and taught me a great deal, not only about his work in the world of music I resonated with, but also about life because I met him when I was 20. He died when I was 26.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Did you find any unpublished songs or manuscripts when you were helping him go through his archives?

Michael Feinstein: We found a great deal of material. Ira had saved a lot of things of George’s from his own career. It was always a revelation to open another drawer or closet or some other odd storage spot.

Ira had, in his bedroom in a locked cabinet, the most personal things about his brother, including a little black book with names and numbers of all his girlfriends. That was recently given by Ira’s heirs to the Library of Congress and it’s currently on display in the Gershwin Room. I wonder how Ira would feel about that (laughs).

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I wonder how George would feel about that (laughs).

Michael Feinstein: Yeah, that’s a good point (laughs).

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Is that when your interest in preserving the Great American Songbook began?

Michael Feinstein: I was always interested in it. It was something that was important to me from the time I was very young because I wanted to know about the history of where these songs came from and who sang them. I just had a natural curiosity. When I was little I’d occasionally find a piece of sheet music or old record.

My parents would take me to a second hand store to look for old things. Little by little when I discovered a single artifact here and there I started learning about that era. It always made me curious to know more so the process has been a lifelong one.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): There is actually no definitive list of songs that comprises the Great American Songbook, correct?

Michael Feinstein: Well, it would be impossible because definitive is assuming that everybody agrees. When you consider that George Gershwin had 800 published songs, Cole Porter had 1,200, Irving Berlin had 1,000, it’s such a massive body of work by so many people that the list would be an extraordinarily long one. It’s ever evolving in that songs by Billy Joel, Carole King, and Neil Sedaka are added to it. There might even be songs that are written today that will perhaps endure and be considered classics in a few years.

Michael Feinstein

Michael Feinstein (Goodman Media)

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are we speaking mainly about Broadway and songs from Hollywood musicals?

Michael Feinstein: We are talking about music from a certain period in that it does include Broadway and Hollywood, but it also includes other genres of music. A lot of it came from Broadway and Hollywood, though, when you talk about Irving Berlin or Jerome Kern or Johnny Mercer.

There are Tin Pan Alley songs, too. In other words, songs that were not written for any specified project like Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust” or Duke Ellington’s “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” or Erroll Garner’s “Misty.” There are many pop songs that have endured because of quality. “You Go to My Head” by John Coots and Haven Gillespie who was from Kentucky is an example. So even though it is primarily writers who worked in those fields, there are a lot of pop or Tin Pan Alley or stand-alone songs.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are we talking primarily about songs from the 1920s to the 1960s?

Michael Feinstein: Well, it’s hard to say. I generally will say that, but there are songs from the teens like “You Made Me Love You,” or “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” or “I Love a Piano” that precede that. There are also songs from the 70s like “The Way We Were” that are also a part of it, so roughly we can say the 20s through the 60s are where the preponderance of songs have come from.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I was going to mention Burt Bacharach, Alan and Marilyn Bergman.

Michael Feinstein: Yes, Michel Legrand, the list goes on.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Burt Bacharach has been compared to Richard Rodgers in composing styles. What do you think?

Michael Feinstein: They are different. I mean, Rodgers wrote shows and Bacharach doesn’t write shows so I can’t compare them there. They work primarily in different mediums. Bacharach is an innovator in terms of pop music of the 50s and 60s and legitimized it in ways that had not been done before. He’s truly a unique voice and fantastic. But Rodgers wrote largely for character. He wrote dramatic songs for character and that’s not largely what Bacharach does.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): The standards had to compete with rock ‘n roll, so did the interest in those songs wane in the 50s and pick back up in the 70s?

Michael Feinstein: The songs themselves have survived in that they have been intertwined or intermeshed with the rock ‘n roll era. Often somebody would take an older song and reinvent it for rock ‘n roll like “I Only Have Eyes For You” or Etta James’ version of “At Last,” two examples of songs that were written many years earlier and were hits in the rock ‘n roll era.

I’m sure that many of the younger listeners had no idea that they were older songs. So there were some standards that were part of the rock ‘n roll era along with the new rock ‘n roll songs being created that in some ways displaced pop songs. By the 1950s pop songs were defined as much by the recordings of specific performances as they were by the songs.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I would think that many older people who didn’t want their kids to listen to Elvis would be trying to help regain interest in the standards.

Michael Feinstein: Yes, well, a friend of mine, Rose Marie, was on an early television show with Elvis Presley and he made no positive impression on her. She just didn’t get it. His manager, Colonel Tom Parker, gave her an autographed photo of Elvis. She thought, “What am I going to do with this?” She ended up pasting it to the inside of her toilet seat (laughs).

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): In your PBS special you’ll be explaining the importance of the songs and how we need to keep them alive?

Michael Feinstein: It’s a series of three shows. We were going to call it “In Search Of” because it is an amalgam of different elements. One is, I’m seen in performance in different venues from London to New York to LA to Indianapolis and San Francisco. Literally, I’m followed all over the country, sometimes with a big band, sometimes solo piano. So that’s one element, you see the performance of songs.

I do give a history and background as I’m shown interacting with different people who are involved with the song, the younger folks with whom I’m discussing the music. Then there is the archaeological part of my life which shows me going all over the place, wherever we happen to be, as I’m performing, looking for music and records, and preserving the artifacts that have disappeared and are no longer easily available.

It’s a preservation effort and it’s also a light hearted and enjoyable history lesson, if you will, in that the music is rich in themselves. The lore in the background and the history of the creation of them is a history not only of our country, our evolution, but also of show business lore, all intertwined. It’s a fascinating body of work to approach and the characters that inhabit it today and those that did in the past are unforgettable and worthy of celebration.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You’ll be performing many songs.

Michael Feinstein: Yes, it’s all film of me in performance.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I thought it was interesting, too, that you discuss how some songs provided comfort to soldiers especially during World War II.

Michael Feinstein: There is a segment on the Second World War and it shows the significance that popular music played in our country at that time. That would be hard to recapture now, but there was a period where music was very important as a morale booster as something to give hope to those who were separated and as propaganda. The function of music during the war and its importance cannot be underestimated.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I remember my dad discussing the songs, “White Cliffs of Dover” and “We’ll Meet Again.” Dame Vera Lynn who sang those songs is 93 years old and lives in England.

Michael Feinstein: Yes indeed she is. Those songs still immediately evoke strong memories and carry people back to another time when they hear them, those who were alive then.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You have a large collection of music memorabilia. What items are you proudest of?

Michael Feinstein: Some of the Gershwin artifacts make me very happy. I have the drawing of Serena by George Gershwin in Porgy and Bess, a beautiful colored drawing that is very special to me. I have George Gershwin’s original first songwriting contract in 1916, a page of the manuscript of “But Not For Me,” certainly one of the most endearing standards.

I also have memorabilia from Irving Berlin and a copy of Cole Porter’s score of Red, Hot and Blue (autographed by Porter), which was given to me by Bob and Delores Hope. Bob Hope was in the film Red, Hot and Blue in 1936 and he gave me his autographed score from Porter. Things like that are special. I have a piece of music signed by Elvis Presley (signed to my friend Earl Brown who wrote a song that became a hit for him in the early 70s). So it runs the gamut.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Would Ira Gershwin be your favorite lyricist?

Michael Feinstein: He was certainly one of the great songwriters and he is one of my favorites. His work is enduring in a way that is special to me. His songs have expressed many things that I’ve felt in my life. The songs express for me what I’m not able to express. His whimsical approach in life is something that has always resonated with me.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are you involved in the American Songbook Preservation Society? It’s headed by Ron Kaplan who is either a producer or recording artist.

Michael Feinstein: Oh yes, I know who that is. I think he’s contacted me but I haven’t had any major interaction with him.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You own a nightclub in New York. What makes it different from the other clubs in the city?

Michael Feinstein: The club is one of the great venues to hear music. It is a place that is sort of a homage to the classic clubs of the past, but it is also a place that has a superior lighting and sound and is a very comfortable room. I spent a great deal of time just picking out the chairs. It’s an intimate great space for performances.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Michael, what projects are next for you?

Michael Feinstein: I’m recording a couple of new CDs in the next year. One is a CD of love songs with a symphony. Next year I’ll be doing Part 2 of the Sinatra project that was a very successful recording for me last year. That will be accompanied by a PBS special that will be attributed to Sinatra & Friends so I’m in preparation for that. I have a book on the Gershwins that is coming out sometime late next year.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You were on Animal Planet’s Housecat Housecall a couple of months ago. I hope your cats, Smokey and Phoenix, are getting along better with each other.

Michael Feinstein: Well, thank you. They are neutral. Let’s just say they are neutral. It’s not perfect but it’s bearable. They are adorable creatures and I’m grateful they’re in my life.

© 2010 Smashing Interviews Magazine. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without the express written consent of the publisher.

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