Michael Feinstein: singer, pianist, champion of the American songbook

Part of Neranenah (Jewish Music Fest), he plays Gershwin and more.

How do you devote a concert to the Jewish American songbook?

“That’s easy,” said singer, pianist and musical historian Michael Feinstein. “You just leave out Johnny Mercer and Cole Porter.”

It’s a joke, people. Mercer and Porter are not the only gentiles in the songwriting game. (Hoagy Carmichael would like a word.) But Jewish American songwriters, from Loesser to Kern to Gershwin to Berlin, had an outsize influence on the music of our lives, particularly during that golden period when so many “standards” were created.

That is the period that fascinates Feinstein, who will perform these classics and tell stories of their genesis during a performance Feb. 5 in the 1,000-seat Byers Theatre at the Sandy Springs Performing Arts Center.

Credit: Brent N. Clarke/Invision/AP

Credit: Brent N. Clarke/Invision/AP

His performance is part of the Neranenah concert series, formerly the Jewish Music Festival.

Feinstein knows plenty of those stories first-hand. He worked for Ira Gershwin for six years, cataloging his voluminous collection of recordings, many of them rare air checks of radio performances. During his career he has befriended many of the great interpreters of these songs, from Rosemary Clooney to Liza Minnelli.

As a teenager in the 1960s and ‘70s, Feinstein was already pre-disposed to appreciate the music of the previous era, collecting 78 rpm records of Gershwin recordings.

“I’ve always loved old things,” he writes in his memoir, ”The Gershwins and Me.” Rock and roll was not his cup of tea.

Today he zealously protects and promotes this patrimony, and has built a career out of telling the history of the American songbook through music and tales.

“I’m a dinosaur in many ways,” said Feinstein, 68, in a telephone conversation from his home in the Los Angeles metro area. “But I’m a thriving one.”

Feinstein grew up in Columbus, Ohio, and moved to Los Angeles at age 20 to pursue a career in music. He ended up playing in piano bars at night and selling pianos during the day. A friendship with June Levant, widow of pianist and entertainer Oscar Levant, led to his connection with Ira Gershwin, and soon he was embedded with songwriting royalty.

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

He learned how to share tidbits about this group in between songs when he worked piano bars, keeping his customers entertained. That element of patter has remained part of Feinstein’s performances ever since.

Though he is associated with such intimate venues as the Cafe Carlyle and the Regency Hotel in Manhattan, he has been performing in huge venues for decades. “People seem to think of me as being a nightclub entertainer, but I played the Hollywood Bowl for first time in 1987, playing for 17,000 people,” he said.

Whether playing in a saloon or an arena, Feinstein uses the same approach. At the Hollywood Bowl, “I did the same sort of act I had been doing in clubs. I always direct my attention to every part of the room,” to reach the people in the far-away cheap seats, where he used to sit when he was an audience member.

And, like his engaging chatter at the piano bars, he tells stories. “It’s lucky that I’m facile that way. I know a lot of songs and a lot of stories and I’ve met a lot of writers who wrote those songs.”

Feinstein not only knows a lot of songs, he knows unfamiliar parts of very familiar songs that have somehow disappeared, like the second chorus to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” . . .

“Wait a minute,” he interrupts, with a quick correction. “If I may: The song is ‘Over the Rainbow.’ That’s one of my pet peeves.” He continued: “There is a second bridge, a release that was cut out of the film. I like to present elements of a song that are lesser known. It’s like learning something new about an old friend. It suddenly gets your attention.”

In addition to his career as a performer, Feinstein has hosted Emmy-nominated public television shows, including “Michael Feinstein’s American Songbook,” and serves as principal pops conductor for the Pasadena Symphony.

It would seem that Feinstein’s indefatigable efforts would ensure the survival of the music he loves. Are standards like “I’ll Be Seeing You” and “The Man I Love” in danger of disappearing? “Being a person who is immersed in this music, I don’t have any awareness of the swing in popularity of this music. Or any other,” he said.

“It ebbs and flows, depending on who sings it and how much attention it gets. A popular artist takes a song and sings it, and it suddenly become popular. I think of it as being always present. Like Shakespeare.”


Michael Feinstein

8 p.m. Feb. 5. $44-$74. Byers Theatre at the Sandy Springs Performing Arts Center, 1 Galambos Way, Sandy Springs. citysprings.com, neranenaharts.org.