For many music lovers, Michael Feinstein is the greatest performer of the Great American Songbook singing today. For the past 25 years, his acclaimed recordings have preserved and refreshed that well-loved catalogue of numbers written between the 1920s and the 1960s. His New York club is probably the classiest attraction on the city’s cabaret circuit and next year he will return to Broadway with his own show. But before that Broadway date, the five-times Grammy-nominated artist and his piano arrive at the slightly less showbiz destination of… Radlett. The Radlett Centre to be precise, where next week Feinstein will be warming up before a concert at the London Palladium a few days later.
Audiences at both venues can expect classics from greats such as Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Johnny Mercer and, probably most importantly for Feinstein, the Gershwins. It was as a young performer that Feinstein struck up a friendship with the lyric-writing half of possibly one of the greatest musical partnership of all time, George and Ira Gershwin.
“Ira expanded my appreciation of music,” says Feinstein, sitting in Hampstead’s New End Theatre. It’s not the first time the theatre’s owner/artistic director Brian Daniels has produced Feinstein in London and the New End is even getting a cut of the Palladium box office, for which Daniels has issued statement expressing his “immense” gratitude.
“But Ira also expanded my understanding of lyrics,” continues Feinstein, “and also understanding of their inspiration and craft. He opened up a world to me.”
It seems an unlikely friendship. On the one hand, a relatively unknown piano player in his twenties plying his trade in the cocktail bars of Los Angeles, and on the other, an ageing giant of American music-making, the man who put words to They Can’t Take That Away From Me and S’Wonderful.
It came about when Feinstein was spotted in 1977 by the widow of Oscar Levant — the pianist and actor — who introduced the young performer to Gershwin.
“The first thing I think of when I picture Ira is that he was diminished physically, but very sharp mentally,” remembers Feinstein. “He was very alive inside that old body of his. And very excited to spend time with a young person who spoke his language.
“I was so well acquainted with Gershwin music by the time I met Ira, he was surprised by how much I knew. One day we had a gentle dispute about the date a show occurred. He said: ‘Oh no, I remember it clearly. It was Ethel Merman, it was Girl Crazy so the year was 1930,’ and I said: ‘Actually it was 1931’, and I got a reference book to show him I was right. Ira said: ‘Well, you have an advantage over me. I’ve only lived my life. You’ve thoroughly researched it.’”
It was a period in Feinstein’s life that became even more influential when he met Ira’s neighbour, the singer/actress Rosemary Clooney — George’s aunt. She and Feinstein became so close, he called her his Beverly Hills mother; she called him her sixth kid.
“She was my favourite female singer and one of the great interpreters of any kind of song,” says Feinstein. “That friendship was an endless masterclass. We did a show together and she gave me a plaque that was on her dressing-room door when she was at the Palladium with Bing Crosby. So I will certainly be thinking of her and probably speaking of her that night because of that memory.”
It will not be Feinstein’s first night at the Palladium. That particular debut occurred in 1988 when he shared billing with Julio Iglesias, the Golden Girls and comedian Jackie Mason in a Royal Variety Performance in front of the Queen Mother. It was the first time Mason had appeared in the UK. Feinstein remembers talking to the comedian backstage.
“He said to me: ‘I don’t care if I’m a hit. I’m already a hit.’” And when Feinstein told him how excited he was to be playing at the Palladium in front of the Queen Mother, Mason said: “Ha! It’s a big deal to sing for some yenta with a crown?”
Feinstein tells the story in a perfect “Noo Yoik” Jackie Mason accent. And with comic timing that is as good as Mason’s too. That patter, the ability to entertain between songs, comes from all the years playing piano bars when Feinstein was starting out. It was there he learned not only to deliver a song, but how to keep the audience engaged between the numbers. For live performers, it is an ability that separates the men from the boys — and the women from the girls.
“So many artists who are recording successes don’t know how to perform live,” says the 53-year-old singer. “I remember when Whitney Huston came to do her first live show in New York it was a disaster. She basically just stood there and didn’t know how to do much else. And then she was groomed and learned and became quite adept. Some learn and some don’t.” If Houston gets faint praise from Feinstein, others get down-right derision. Especially those who think they can get away with bad versions of great songs, and especially if those songs are from the American songbook. “There are many people who don’t sing them well,” he says, “but I won’t mention Rod Stewart.”
But is there not a danger that a musical talent such as Feinstein’s might be better directed towards new music instead of preserving the past? He answers the impertinent question head on and with passion.
“I am a musical innovator.” he says. “It’s not possible to keep the songs fresh and glowing for a present-day audience unless the music has a present-day sensibility. So if it appears to be sublimating talent, I understand what you’re saying. But it’s fiendishly difficult to interpret these songs well. And I do interpret them. I play them vastly differently from the way they were written. I change the chord structure, the phrasing, the key and the routines. That’s what makes them fresh again.
“Some people say derogatorily that I’m a traditionalist. But a lot of times they are ignorant about music and what I’m doing. My greatest desire when singing these songs is to bring through the intentions of the writers. And although sometimes I’ll do very different interpretations to achieve that, the bottom line is that I understand the point of view of these songs. And as far as I’m concerned, I can’t do better than that.”