Michael Feinstein, who tonight performs in the University at Buffalo Center for the Arts, is as famous for his song scholarship as he is for his singing. Feinstein was 20 when he began working with Ira Gershwin, organizing and cataloging the great lyricist's music and memorabilia. Now a recognized expert on George and Ira Gershwin, he has also explored the legacy of other songwriters, including Jule Styne, Jimmy Webb, Irving Berlin and the team of Jay Livingston and Ray Evans. Feinstein's newest disc is a tribute to Frank Sinatra.
When he appears tonight with a six-piece combo, Feinstein hints that he might take a few requests. So wide is his repertoire that he had better be ready for anything. "Yes, sometimes they're relatively obscure," Feinstein laughed in an interview this week. "People are adamant and vociferous."
>How did you become a student of the Great American Songbook? When did you know that was what you wanted to do?
It may seem odd, but I always had a great love for the songs that I perform. Even when I was quite young, I had a curiosity about that, that didn't necessarily translate to other things. Because of that, it was as if my career was already clear to me in some subconscious way. When I first started playing the piano, I would look at the sheet music my parents had from earlier days. I was fascinated by it. I looked at the date it was published, the pictures of performers on the cover. It eventually turned into a career. It wasn't as if there was an aha! moment.
>Ray Evans was born in Salamanca, near Buffalo. Could you share some memories of him?
He was a wonderful guy. He was like Santa Claus -- he liked everybody and everything. He was thrilled if you knew anything about him. He didn't consider himself a star or a celebrity. He drove a Studebaker from sometime in the early '60s. The reason he owned that car was that Studebaker was a sponsor of "Mr. Ed." (Livingston and Evans wrote the theme to the show.) And evidently the producers didn't have the money to pay him, so they gave him a car. It was in perfect condition. So driving around Beverly Hills, you'd see that old Studebaker.
>You were 20 when you met Ira Gershwin. What was that like?
I had become friends with June Levant (widow of pianist Oscar Levant). She created an introduction to Mrs. Gershwin. Mrs. Gershwin invited me to the house. And as I got there, she was pulling into the driveway. I greeted her, she said hello, she put her key in the door, and as the door swung open, I saw Ira Gershwin sitting there. He was older than I had imagined, and I got very nervous. And she introduced me, and I shook his hand. I started trembling. I couldn't believe I was meeting this icon of American music. He was very sweet and invited me to sit down. He could see I was a bit taken aback by the whole experience.
>Over the six years you worked with him, what was the atmosphere like?
He was sedentary and infirm, and he didn't feel very well many days. I would find that I was the person who had to cheer him up by distraction or diversion. He and I became very close. I looked forward to going over there every day. It always filled me with wonder. I could find some artifact. Once I found a pipe, the pipe that George Gershwin had smoked.
Sometimes his facts would be wrong. I'd say, "Ira, that was in 1930, not 1931." He said, "You have an advantage. I've only lived my life, but you've thoroughly researched it."
-- Mary Kunz Goldman