Michael Feinstein is only one of the leading performers of the music known as the "Great American Songbook," and as one of the genre's foremost archivists brings forgotten songs back to the stage. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following "One On 1" report.
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Spending time with musician and archivist Michael Feinstein at his Upper East Side townhouse is a bit like getting a musical history lesson. When he plays one of his beloved songs from the early 20th century, he often has a story about the composers and performers of that era.
“[Composer] Harry Warren was known as being a curmudgeon. He had a big fight with [composer] Irving Berlin during the Second World War. He called a friend when he heard the allies had bombed Germany and said, ‘They bombed the wrong Berlin," says Feinstein.
Feinstein is one of the leading performers and champions of the music now known as the “Great American Songbook, which encompasses Broadway musicals, Hollywood movies and Tin Pan Alley. Songs by Feinstein’s favorite composers - Ira and George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart – are frequently played in the leading city nightclub that bares his name, "Feinstein's At The Regency."
But Feinstein is also considered one the foremost archivists of this music, and constantly collects old, forgotten songs.
"One day, I was walking down 58th Street and I found a whole stack of music that somebody was throwing away, orchestrations and recordings,” says Feinstein. “This is the kind of stuff that's rare stuff, but somehow it comes into my energy field."
On his most recent CD, "The Sinatra Project," Feinstein played a little-known song that was custom written at the request of Frank Sinatra, “The Same Hello, The Same Goodbye." The legendary singer never had a chance to record it.
"He fell in love with the song but it was late in his career, and he was never able to properly learn it,” says Feinstein. “When he heard the song, he literally burst into tears and looked at [lyricist] Marilyn Bergman and said, ‘How do you know so much about my life?’
Feinstein's townhouse walls are covered with memorabilia to the bygone era, from movie posters and candid shots of celebrities to a large piece of art featuring the work of famed caricaturist Al Hirschfeld.
But the area above Feinstein’s piano is reserved for one man – the composer of “Rhapsody In Blue” and “Porgy And Bess,” George Gershwin.
"I just love to have him sort of looking over me, ‘someone to watch over me,’" says Feinstein, quoting one of Gershwin’s lines.
Feinstein’s also a student of the songs, and is happy to explain why in the song “One For My Baby,” the words of Johnny Mercer and the music of Harold Arlen succeeds.
"[Arlen] thought it was a good tune, but he felt that when Johnny Mercer wrote, ‘It's quarter to three, there's no one in the place except you and me,’ suddenly that tune has a context and it has an emotion," says Feinstein.
In 1997, Feinstein opened "Feinstein's At The Regency." But he acknowledges that hearing the old standards at the venue is not for everyone, and can be an expensive night out.
"The economics are such that it has to be expensive, and I wish that it were otherwise," says Feinstein.
But he believes the smoky music of past cabarets will endure because there are so many new outlets for discovering old songs, including YouTube and Internet downloads.
"It permeates our lives. Even though it's not Top 40 music, whenever you see a movie in which they want to express a romantic notion, you hear these classic songs," says Feinstein.
For Feinstein, the music is not only omnipresent, but also highly relevant.
"When people hear this music, they like it. It's not an age thing. You don't go to Shakespeare and say, ‘Well, that's old.’ It's like, ‘Wow, isn't it amazing that he wrote something about romance and about love that resonates now.’ And that's what these songs do,” says Feinstein.
A native of Columbus, Ohio, Feinstein has no formal music training but became the toast of the cabaret scene. But his love for songs written long before his time was forged out of loneliness.
"When I was growing up, I was a strange kid. I was always alone,” says Feinstein. “I wanted to be alone, and I would go down to the basement of our home and I would amuse myself by reading or writing things or playing this old, beat-up piano that my parents had in the basement."
He started playing by ear when he was five, and grew to love his parents' music instead of the songs playing on the radio.
"I liked Carole King's ‘Tapestry’ album, which my sister played over and over again. There were certain songs that I thought were good, but for the most part it just didn't move me," says Feinstein.
He chose music over college and played in piano bars for five hours a night.
"That's where I learned how to relate to an audience, how to put together a list of songs that went in an emotional arc, and up tempo and slow, and think of things to say, and how to deal with people who are drunk or talking or not paying attention,” says Feinstein. “So that was my education."
A few years out of high school, Feinstein moved to Los Angeles and struck gold. He met Ira Gershwin, the lyricist and older brother of George Gershwin, and went to work for him.
"Ultimately it was the best thing that ever could have happened to me on so many levels,” says Feinstein. “But I was always aware of the importance of what was happening. And it was like I was in a movie. An odd movie, but it was a movie for me."
Some scenes in the “movie” were downright absurd. Feinstein says when Ira Gershwin died and his body was being taken out of the house, the composer’s widow Lee demanded that Feinstein ignore the goings on and continuously play the piano.
"She got very upset that I would deny a new widow her wish, so I sat down and played the piano, and she insisted that I not look at Ira's body as it was being taken out,” says Feinstein. “And I did look, and in the middle of my playing, she screamed, ‘Don't look!’ So that was a very odd experience."
But overall, the six years working for Ira Gershwin were formative, granting Feinstein the opportunity to meet many of the people who created the music he loved.
"I knew about their lives, I knew about their work,” says Feinstein. “So here's this 20-year-old kid who could speak their language in an era when most of them felt like they had been forgotten."
Rosemary Clooney and Liza Minnelli were Feinstein’s early supporters, but he says the turning point came when a club in San Francisco needed a musician at the last minute.
"I got this unbelievable review in the San Francisco Chronicle, and I remember that first night my agent came backstage. And he was grabbing me and jumping up and down like a little kid, saying ‘We're gonna make a lot of money!’"
Feinstein has been one of cabaret's leading lights ever since, earning four Grammy nominations, playing all around the world and appearing several times at the White House.
"I certainly had a period at the beginning of my career where I was full of myself. Now I have nothing but gratitude,” says Feinstein.
Feinstein married his long time partner last year and splits his time between homes in New York City and Los Angeles.
For his archival work, Feinstein was once called "the Indiana Jones of pop music." He says his quest for new "old" material will never end, because the songwriters he loves were so prolific.
"I have the experience sometimes of walking through the library of my house and looking at all the books on the shelves and saying, ‘Gee, I'll never be able to read all these books before I die,’ and that's how I feel about the songs that I sing,” says Feinstein. “There are so many thousands and thousands of great songs, that I will never be able to get to everything I want to sing."