When Michael Feinstein comes to the Seneca Niagara Events Center tonight for a tribute to Frank Sinatra, he will be able to put a personal spin to the songs Old Blue Eyes sang. He knew Sinatra personally.
"He was very nice to me," he says on the phone from New York.
"I was a nobody in show business, an unknown kid playing the piano. I was hired to play for a birthday party for Barbara Sinatra. He came over to me, when I was playing the piano. He said, 'How old are you, 12?'
"I did all the obscure songs he sang, to pay attention to him, so he would be surprised by the repertoire, and it worked. Then he and Barbara invited me to dinner. I got to spend time with him. He was great. I was interested in all the history, songs, songwriters, arrangers. I wasn't interested in tabloid stuff. He was very relaxed. I think he recognized my enthusiasm."
Sinatra was just one of the many distinguished artists that have figured in Feinstein's unique career.
Feinstein, 55, is more than an astoundingly successful cabaret performer -- he has almost 30 CDs to his credit, five Grammy nominations, his famous music club, Feinstein's at the Regency, and a PBS series, "Michael Feinstein's American Songbook."
He has reached the top through a genuine love for what he does, which is to research and promote the Great American Songbook.
He embarked on this unusual path in 1977, when June Levant -- the widow of the famous Gershwin pianist Oscar Levant -- introduced him to Ira Gershwin, George Gershwin's lyricist brother. Feinstein subsequently helped research and consolidate the legacy of the Gershwin songs. He grew close over the years to many singers and songwriters, including Western New York's own Ray Evans (who teamed with Jay Livingston to write such classics as "Silver Bells").
"I've met so many people I never dreamed I would meet," he says. "The cumulative experience of meeting all these departed legends has been the gift of learning how to do what I do. My college education was spending time with Rosemary Clooney and Liza [Minnelli] and so many others, something I couldn't possibly have dreamt."
Feinstein's passion for the Great American Songbook has brought him into contact with unpredictable people. As an example, a three-episode special he made for PBS showed him visiting Playboy mogul Hugh Hefner.
"He is a great philanthropist. He really supports the arts in a palpable way," says Feinstein.
Feinstein's passion for musical esoterica hints at his overriding philosophy, that it is important to build on the past. Much as he admires Sinatra, he also looks toward performers who are neglected or unrecognized. "Like Buddy Clark, one of my favorite singers. Or Gogie Grant, who had one big hit, the song called 'The Wayward Wind.' There are just scads of them that people have never heard of. A formidable list of talents forgotten.
"I think one of the problems with our world today is that everything is immediate," he says. "There's no consideration of what has come before. History always repeats itself. We learn from history, in the music world. Everyone has been influenced by singers of the past, whether they know it or not."
WHO: Michael Feinstein
WHEN: 8 tonight
WHERE: Seneca Niagara Casino Events Center, 310 Fourth St., Niagara Falls
INFO: www.senecaniagaracasino.com, 278-4944