Nobody works as hard to keep the popular music of the early 20th century alive as Michael Feinstein. From his PBS documentary. Michael Feinstein's American Songbook to the memoir he wrote, The Gershwins and Me: A Personal History in Twelve Songs which chronicled his time learning from the legendary songsmith Ira Gershwin to his countless live performances, Feinstein has been relentless in celebrating the songs of yesteryear.
Feinstein will be conducing Kravis Center Pops Orchestra in West Palm Beach for three performances. We spoke with the legend about his love for the Great American Songbook, his time with Ira Gershwin, and his favorite memories performing at Kravis Center.
New Times: What qualifies a song for the Great American Songbook?
Michael Feinstein: Longevity. The longevity of a song is for me what makes it part of the canon of the Great American Songbook. I think there are songs written today that will become part of it, but we have to see what is going to last. If in twenty years people are still listening and singing them that would qualify them for inclusion, it's ever evolving.
They also have to be songs that can be interpreted by different people. The classic songs that I sing from the 20th century by Duke Ellington or Cole Porter are songs that have been interpreted thousands of times. The songs have to have certain fundamental bones that keep them open to interpretation.
Can you make a guess of which of today's songs might make the Great American Songbook?
No. I really don't have that perspective. Maybe "Happy" will survive because it is certainly a very popular song. But I don't know. If I did, I could make a lot of money buying copyrights.
You got your start cataloging Ira Gershwin's records.
Yes, I worked for Ira from 1977 to 1983. He hired me... Actually his wife hired me because she was looking for someone to be with Ira to spend time with him as he'd become very separated from the outside world. I came along, this 20 year old kid who knew just as much about Gershwin's songs as anybody which was rather extraordinary because most people my age didn't know anything about the songs. So I was Ira's kindred spirit, and he was quite taken with me.
There were literally 60 years between us and yet we had a very strong connection. It was wonderful. He taught me most of what I know about interpreting songs and how to conduct his material. He was my college education. I never went to college and here was Ira who for six years not only educated me but also introduced me to people I wouldn't have ever met.
Preceding meeting him how did someone of your generation fall in love with music so much older than you?
It happened organically. When I was a kid listening to these songs that were still very much around on television variety songs on the radio, they were used for commercials, for elevator music, they were everywhere. I preferred those songs over the pop music that I was hearing in that the classic songs had an emotional appeal to me.
The harmonies, there was something about those songs that captivated me when I was 5 or 6 years old. It was not an intellectual response, it was an emotional one and I continued to explore it as I grew older.
What can audiences expect from next year's three performances at the Kravis Center?
Two years ago, my friend Marvin Hamlisch passed away. He was the conductor of the Pasadena Pops Orchestra. When Marvin died, I was approached to succeed him. I declined because I never had experience as a conductor even though for many decades I'd worked with some of the greatest orchestras.
Finally, I realized I had a unique opportunity to present a pops concert with a symphony orchestra unique to anything I ever heard. What these concerts are is an extension of what I already do when I sing. I find classic orchestrations of music that people already know and love, but they are arrangements that people might not have heard before. Arrangements recorded by Frank Sinatra in the 1950s but have never been performed publicly.
I have this collection of music that puts all this classic American music in context. The shows consist of orchestral versions of the Gershwins, Irving Berlin, and then we have guest vocalists who perform these arrangements originally created for Frank Sinatra or Judy Garland and because I live in California I present a lot of arrangements from the greatest musicians who ever lived who came to Hollywood like Billy May, Nelson Riddle, and Gordon Jenkins. My goal is to bring an exciting new perspective of this fantastic body of work.
According to the press release you've performed at the Kravis Center more than any other artist.
I did not know that. You'd think they'd have gotten tired of me (laughter).
Do you have any favorite memories from performing there?
One of my memories is not performing, but seeing Lena Horne perform there. I had done a concert and stayed to see her because I had never seen her live. It was one of the most memorable experiences I ever had seeing this woman live who was one of the most exciting presences I ever witnessed on stage. That's a happy memory.
Another memory I carry is a night I did a show at Kravis I included a tribute to Vic Damone who was there and was pleased with what I did. What is most important to me is to please the creators of the work I do. He was one of the great singers of any time. To be able to pay tribute to him at what I consider to be one of the greatest concert halls in the country was a great honor.
Oh, and one more memory. My parents used to live part time in Boca. They of course would come to the concerts I did at the Kravis. My father is now gone, but one time I got him on stage to sing a duet with me. That is a treasured memory.
What was the song?
He sang "It's Been A Long Long Time". (singing) Kiss me once, kiss me twice, and kiss me once again/It's been a long, long time.
Catch Michael Feinstein conducing the Kravis Center Pops Orchestra during the 23 season at Kravis Center for the Arts, 701 Okeechobee Blvd., West Palm Beach. Tickets go on sale September 27. Visit kravis.org.