American song, Sinatra and Gershwin: the Michael Feinstein interview

Posted on July 27, 2012 by Sonoma Valley Sun

(Diana Dawn | Special to The Sun)

I have always been a big fan of Michael Feinstein, the gifted performer, showman, and foremost interpreter of The Great American Songbook. A five-time Grammy nominee, he performs, records, and lectures extensively and has been awarded three honorary doctorate degrees. More than an entertainer, he is nationally recognized for his commitment to the American Popular Song, both celebrating its art and preserving its legacy. I had the utmost pleasure of having him as a special guest on SUN FM radio show a few days before he was to take the stage at The Napa Valley Opera House.

Diana Dawn: What inspired you to become and entertainer and specialize in American song?

Michael Feinstein: This is music that I’ve loved ever since I was a child, and I grew up with, thanks to my parents playing their collection of 78 records that I’d listen to in the basement. I fell in love with a certain kind of sound… listening to songs of Gershwin, Irvin Berlin and Cole Porter, and singers like Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire, they were revelations for me as a kid, and I knew they were songs and entertainers who’d come long before I was born, but there was something about the style of that sound that appealed to me. And when I started playing the piano, I started playing these songs and I tried to reinterpret them in a way that would appeal the a present day audience. I never dreamt it would become a career, but that’s exactly what happened when I got out of high school. I started playing in piano bars until I could figure out what I was really going to do. I started getting gigs playing and singing, and it really became a career by default that has become an extraordinary existence. The challenge for me is to always make it fresh and to appeal to a new audience.

DD: Do you think that the past defines the present day when it comes to music?

MF: I think that one type of music is always built on what has come before, like every singer alive has been influenced by Fred Astaire and Frank Sinatra, whether they know it or not. It’s all part of a continuum, one thing comes from another, you can trace the lineage, so without Louie Armstrong, Billy Holiday, Cliff Edwards, Sofie Tucker, without all these people, music wouldn’t be where it is today for better or for worse

Diana Dawn: Music conjures up so many memories for so many people and it’s such a rich romantic notion. I feel there can be so much said with the lyrics of a song that can not be said in just a simple conversation with two lovers while trying to express ones emotions and feeling of love. You express it so eloquently with every lyric you sing and every note you play on the piano.

MF: Thank you… The thing about any of these songs is that they can be reinterpreted in hundreds of different ways; actually, it’s endless. Take a song like “Over The Rainbow.” We’ve heard hundreds of renditions of it sung over the years and then someone like Ana Cassidy comes along and makes it fresh again. It’s the philosophy, the songs, it’s the melody, its the chord changes — those are all adaptable. They can be done in any way.

DD: So true! I understand you had the rare opportunity of meeting Ira Gershwin, tell us about that.

MF: I met Ira Gershwin when I was 20, in the late 70’s, through June Levant, the widow of the great concert pianist Oscar Levant. I ended up spending six years taking care of his archive of his Gershwin memorabilia, and he took me under his wing and taught me most of what I know about interpreting these songs, and so I was able to learn a lot of the fundamentals from Mr. Gershwin. That was really the equivalent of my Masters in music.

DD: You have led such an amazing life, Michael, and you are still living the good life, which brings me to my next question. Can you tell us about your “Sinatra Legacy” and how that came about?

MF: Over the years I’ve done two different recordings paying tribute to Sinatra, the first one was my fifth Grammy nomination, which was wonderful. I wanted to pay tribute to Frank Sinatra because he was very nice to me when I was starting out in Hollywood and really showed the kind of kindness that I really hope to be able to give back to other young entertainers, and because he had such influence on American popular music in a way that very few have. I wanted to create a project that would take a look at his legacy and the totality of his art. Sinatra was a guy who not only sang the songs, but who worked to make sure the orchestrations were right, that the recording situation was correct. He controlled every aspect of his art in a way that was connected to his desire for perfection. These projects, The “Sinatra Legacy” which is out on DVD now, and the two recordings, one called “The Sinatra Project” and the other called “The Good Life,” are all reinterpretations, contemporary re-images of The Sinatra standards, in a way that hopefully pleases the people who grew up with the songs and also attracts new listeners.

DD: I for one appreciate you keeping The Sinatra legacy alive, and I will be playing many of those songs on my show. I am also excited to find out what we can expect to see when your new book comes out in October.

MF: The book that’s coming out in October is called “The Gershwins and Me.” It’s a biographical survey of their careers, seen through 12 songs, with a chapter for each, filled with antidotes that are personal and were told to me by Ira and other associates who knew The Gershwins, with text, illustrations and photographs. It’s been 5 years in the making.

Performance notes:

It turned out to be a night to remember when my handsome date and I sat in the fourth row of The Napa Valley Opera House and watched Michael Feinstein take the stage and perform some of the most romantic songs of all time — “The Way You Look Tonight,” “Someone to Watch Over Me,” For Once in My Life” — the type of songs that melt girls hearts, just to name a few, and he performed other livelier numbers that got everyone tapping their toes. Michael Feinstein was definitely at his finest that night. And the icing on the cake was when I received a backstage pass to meet him in person. Talk about “Luck be a Lady Tonight” — I sure was a lucky lady that night!

Diana Dawn is the host of Some Like it Hot! on SUN FM 91.3 Tuesday nights from 7 to 8 p.m.

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