When singer and pianist Michael Feinstein says he has a personal connection to songs by George and Ira Gershwin, it isn’t just idle prater between numbers in his popular performances of the Great American Songbook. Before he became a headliner, Feinstein worked as Ira’s assistant for six years and received a de facto master class in the brothers’ musical genius.
In his new book and CD combo, The Gershwins and Me: A Personal History in Twelve Songs (Simon & Schuster, $45), Feinstein shares those lessons learned in a lyrical way. He uses a dozen Gershwin hits as chapter themes to illuminate the brothers’ lives, their storied careers and their profound influence on not only Feinstein’s career but the music industry as a whole.
“The Gershwins were superstars in the music world,” Feinstein tells American Way. “People knew that when they heard a Gershwin song it had some sort of special magic in it.”
From works like Porgy and Bess and Rhapsody in Blue to songs including “I Got Rhythm” and “Someone to Watch over Me,” the Gershwins’ astonishing range and prodigious talent sparked disbelief among some critics. Those naysayers were silenced when George died unexpected at age 38 in 1937. Ira devoted the final 46 years of his life to preserving the Gershwin legacy.
Feinstein now carries on that mission in his mentor’s place. He does so in his concerts, of course, noting that “Ira put that era in context in a way that made it live for me, and he gave me a sense of how to approach and interpret these songs.” Feinstein also spreads the word through his PBS television show Michael Feinstein’s American Songbook as well as his Great American Songbook initiative. Headquartered in a $160 million performing-arts center in Carmel, Ind., the initiative strives to introduce popular American songs to young listeners far more familiar with Lady Gaga than the Gershwins.
“It’s a wonderful thing to share the music we love with succeeding generations,” Feinstein says. “I hope people will embrace the Gershwins’ music and make it a part of their lives.”