Singer-pianist Michael Feinstein is a musician on a mission.
Feinstein, keeper of the Great American Songbook, has a new book, The Gershwins and Me: A Personal History in Twelve Songs (Simon & Schuster, $45), based on the six years he spent as personal archivist for Ira Gershwin, brother and collaborator of legendary composer George Gershwin.
“The book was created to initiate people who may not know anything about the Gershwins … two songwriters who I consider iconic in the 20th century,” Feinstein says. “To try and paint an era and give a personal sense of their life and work but [also] to make it more human and anecdotal.”
The entertainer will discuss The Gershwins and Me, which includes a CD of music and commentary, and sing songs by the brothers Sunday evening at the Alper Jewish Community Center in Kendall, part of the 32nd annual Jewish Book Festival. On Monday night, he will perform his Big Band Frank Sinatra tribute at Hard Rock Live near Hollywood.
Feinstein, 56, believes the music he grew up with in Columbus, Ohio, will survive.
“It’s going to be like Shakespeare one day. In hundreds of years, people will come back to these songs. These songs have been recorded over and over again. They can be interpreted many different ways and can stand the good and the bad.”
He points to Rod Stewart’s post-rock recordings of standards such as the Gershwins’ They Can’t Take That Away From Me.
“I used to bristle at the Rod Stewart recordings. They are devoid of subject,” Feinstein says. “Some people will have never heard these songs before they heard the Rod Stewart recordings. That’s the good news and the bad news. But the good news is that it may spur them to hear other recordings.”
Hugely popular music reality shows could give classic songs a new lease on life, says Shelly Berg, dean of the University of Miami Frost School of Music.
“Kids might know The Beatles and Billy Joel and iconic pop artists better than they did 10 years ago,” says Berg, who last year performed with Feinstein in an all-Gershwin program at the Adrienne Arsht Center. “ American Idol, The Voice, America’s Got Talent, they’re all leaning pretty heavily on rock music from the ’60s and ’70s. That’s their American Songbook.
“If any of those shows went back a little further, to Jimmy Van Heusen and George Gershwin, kids would know that music.”
George Gershwin, composer of American classics including Rhapsody in Blue, An American in Paris and Porgy and Bess, died of brain cancer in 1937 at the height of his fame. His brother Ira continued writing lyrics with other composers including Harold Arlen (the Oscar-nominated The Man That Got Away from Judy Garland’s 1954 A Star is Born).
Feinstein met Ira Gershwin in 1977 through June Levant, widow of pianist-actor Oscar Levant, a close friend of the Gershwins. Just 20 years old and new to Los Angeles, he had met her after buying records from the Levant estate at a used-record store.
Ira Gershwin hired Feinstein to catalog his phonograph records.
“He had a huge closet full of them dating back to 1917. Sixty years of records. A virtual history of Gershwin music,” he says. “There were 78s, reel-to-reel tapes, transcriptions, all different forms of music. I would play them and Ira would listen as well. He would tell stories. It was a great memory trigger.”
Before Ira Gershwin’s death in 1983, he made Feinstein his literary executor. Things didn’t end well. “I had a falling-out with Mrs. Gershwin after Ira’s death,” he says. “I signed a paper relinquishing all rights. I was strong-armed into signing something.”
By the mid 1980s, Feinstein was making a name for himself as a pianist. He accompanied Liza Minnelli on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson in 1985, and the next year recorded a live cabaret performance at The Algonquin hotel in New York City. His first studio album, in 1987, was Pure Gershwin.
Feinstein has made dozens of recordings including tributes to golden-age composers Irving Berlin and Jule Styne, a gender-bending duets album with Broadway performer Cheyenne Jackson and two Sinatra discs.
In 2007, he founded the nonprofit Michael Feinstein Great American Songbook Initiative, based at the Center for the Performing Arts in Carmel, Ind., where he is artistic director.
Thousands of young people have applied to compete in the initiative’s annual Great American Songbook High School Vocal Academy & Competition, says the entertainer, who also runs a namesake cabaret in Manhattan.
“At 20, I was playing in piano bars. I expected having a life playing in piano bars. I didn’t think I had the talent to do anything else. I didn’t think I could make a living singing songs that were 50 years old,” says Feinstein, who married partner Terrence Flannery in 2008.
“There wasn’t a place for me. I was constantly told I couldn’t’ make a living singing old songs. “It’s amazing to me that this has evolved to this stage. It’s wonderful. I’m most grateful for it, but I never expected it.”