Dubbed “the ambassador of the Great American Songbook,” Emmy and Grammy Award nominee Michael Feinstein will celebrate the musical legacy of George and Ira Gershwin on Friday, July 11, at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.
The era of American popular song that we now call “The Great American Songbook” took place primarily in the earlier part of the 20th century.
In explaining the longevity of this kind of music, the singer said, “Anything that still resonates with the heart or gives emotion will last.”
Feinstein, 57, says this work “still appeals to people because of the combination of clever turns of phrase, extraordinary craft in lyrics, and the expression of many emotions in the human condition in ways that were clever and transformative. These songs have not diminished in their power or resonance because they were crafted in a way that still retains that inspiration. They do not grow old because the essential bonds of these songs can be reinterpreted and reinvented and sound fresh and new.”
When speaking with Feinstein, it is quickly clear from his astute comments that he knows what he’s talking about.
Take, for example, the list of singers who have influenced him. “My favorite singer is Fred Astaire — which surprises some people,” he said. “But he was also the favorite of the Gershwins, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, and Harold Arlen, and you could go down the list of songwriters who adored his work.”
Moreover, he said, “Rosemary Clooney was my favorite person, certainly, and my favorite female singer, too.” Others he admires include Peggy Lee, Judy Garland, Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby (“especially his early recordings, which are sensational”) and of course, Frank Sinatra.
Yet there are several, too, that might surprise the casual listener. “I’m also influenced by Martha Raye, Gogi Grant and Fats Waller — I love Fats Waller’s singing — and I love early records of Kaye Ballard, who had this sort of emotional intensity that rivals Judy Garland,” Feinstein said. “There are so many incredible voices. Some may be obscure references, I suppose, to most people but these were all big stars and important voices of their time, and I am a product of all that I listened to.”
He reserves particular admiration for the composers.
“I think my greatest joys have been the opportunities I’ve had to meet and work with the creators of the songs I love — to have met and have approval from Jule Styne, Jerry Herman, Sammy Fain, Harry Warren and Leonard Bernstein and of course, Ira Gershwin — it’s a long list of people that I was lucky enough to meet. My drive was always to please the creators of the songs.”
This Columbus, Ohio, native says his first memories of performing involved playing the piano by ear as early as age 5.
“I used to put together little shows for our relatives when we had family gatherings,” he said, chuckling. “I’d do a little show at the fireplace — that was my little stage.”
When doing these shows, he naturally played the songs of the day — most of them the treasured classics that he plays now.
“It was the music when I was growinup,” he explains. “The Great American Songbook was music that was every place from television variety shows and radio stations to music in elevators.”
After graduating from high school, Feinstein worked in local piano bars before moving to Los Angeles when he was 20. In 1977, he was introduced to Ira Gershwin himself by the widow of pianist Oscar Levant. Gershwin hired Feinstein to catalog his extensive collection of phonograph records and quickly became his friend and mentor. He assisted Gershwin for six years.
“One of the things that was wonderful about Ira was he was a born teacher,” recalls Feinstein. “He liked to educate and teach me about his world of music and lyrics, and share thoughts and memories about music that came alive under his tutelage.”
Feinstein said that upon meeting a person, Gershwin was at first reserved. “He became very warm when he got to know you better.” Feinstein said that crossing a certain point where he was truly Gershwin’s friend — “where we shared a confidence with each other — was the most joyful experience.”
Feinstein’s show at the Kauffman Center, called The Gershwins and Me, will reflect what he learned during his time with the composer.
“It’s an off-shoot of the book I wrote several years ago to try and chronicle and preserve all the anecdotes, stories, and history that was shared with me by Ira Gershwin and a number of his contemporaries who lived to ripe old ages and made it possible for me to meet and know in my very early 20s,” he said.
Feinstein says he thinks the anecdotes he will share will be entertaining to people who know and love Gershwin and to those less familiar with him.
“There’s also a great deal of humor and audience interaction, but it also is a show that I think will appeal to people who may not know anything about the Gershwins, in that it’s sort of a primer for the uninitiated. … I’m mindful that there may be people who have never heard these songs before — or any of the music I do — so I try to present it in its best light in hopes of regaining new fans for that material.”
Feinstein said that first and foremost, he wanted his audience to be entertained. Secondly, he said, “I hope they’ll have an appreciation for the legacy of the Gershwins, which certainly contains a unique and special spark that still galvanizes people to this day. ‘Our Love Is Here to Stay’ is a marvelous song — it certainly means a lot to me, and I love the philosophy of it. It’ll be particularly special to sing it.”
One reason is that it was the last song that George and Ira Gershwin wrote together, on July 11, 1937. That is the day that George Gershwin died, so performing the song on that particular date will have special resonance, he said.
The Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts is at 1601 Broadway, in Kansas City, Mo. Tickets for the 7:30 p.m. show may be purchased at Kauffman Center, by calling 816-994-7222, or at the box office.