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.