By Steven M. Housman
Who Could Ask For Anything More?
I met Michael Feinstein twenty years ago when he was a struggling pianist/singer-songwriter living in Los Angeles. Feinstein was living in a humble apartment situated appropriately behind a landmark he would one day headline, the Hollywood Bowl. It was hard not to notice the grand piano that engulfed the small space of his living room. There were many songbooks and I asked, do you play? What an understatement! He then proceeded to tell me of his aspirations. Understand I had been living in LA for two years and just about everybody I met was a struggling performer of some kind, so I was already skeptical. I chose two songs from a Streisand songbook and Feinstein graciously acknowledged my request. He was probably thirty-five seconds into the first song when I realized this wasnt just another lets-go-to-Hollywood-and-become-a-star type of performer. I actually got goose bumps from his performance and I distinctly remember enthusiastically saying to him, You are definitely going to make it, theres no way around it. Cut to three years later, I caught Feinstein co-hosting a television special on KCET about the musical career of Judy Garland, how apropos. To make a long story short, Feinstein had just released his first CD and was now on his way.
Who knew it would be twenty years later and Feinstein would have built an enormous empire with 22 CDs under his belt, three Grammy nominations, scoring motion picture soundtracks, authoring books, and owning the most successful nightclub in New York City, Feinsteins at the Regency Who knew? I did.
In 1998, Feinstein became a Concord artist where he has thus far recorded Michael and George: Feinstein Sings Gershwin, Big City Rhythms (with Maynard Ferguson Big Band) and the double-CD Romance On Film, Romance On Broadway, in addition to his latest release Michael Feinstein with The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. Currently, the singer is working on a variety of different projects for a new Concord subsidiary label created for him called Feinery, including recording favorite current artists and restoring musical broadcasts from the golden age of radio.
This interview, Feinstein was candid about his career, working for Ira Gershwin, his sister Liza (yes, I asked him about the wedding), his desire to record with Cher, late-night talker Craig Kilborns rumored homophobia and his own personal love-life.
As its been said thousands of times before, Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Michael Feinstein.
I understand that you just released your 22nd album. Congratulations, that is a remarkable achievement. And youve just compiled a greatest-hits collection entitled Anthology. What was the thought process on which songs would be included?
The producer George Feltenstein asked my opinion, but I didnt really want to meddle with what he chose. I thought it would be nice to have his perspective because he knew my catalogue so well. There were eight unreleased versions that I chose to use.
Do you have a favorite song that youve recorded?
There is not one track in particular. On the current Israel Philharmonic disc Im very proud of the arrangement Alan Broadbent did of Stormy Weather, I think thats a great track. Im also very proud of recording Laura because it has an orchestration by the composer David Raksin who is the Dean of Hollywood film composers and hes written hundreds of film scores. I called him up and asked him if he would consider doing his own orchestrations for me and he said yes. That is one of my proudest achievements. Ive recorded this great standard with a version created by the composer.
Do you have a favorite song you havent recorded yet? And if so, why havent you recorded it?
There are many songs by Johnny Green that I hope to cover. Theres a great song he wrote called Easy Come, Easy Go. Thats one of my absolute favorites. Its kind of silly that I havent recorded it yet, but I will.
It is my understanding that you were hesitant about recording Guess Ill Hang My Tears Out To Dry because its so closely related to Sinatra. Are there any other songs you remain hesitant recording because theyre so identifiable with other famous recording artists?
Well, that would I guess have to be on a song by song basis. Practically anything that Nat King Cole has recorded is so great that I dont feel I could do any better. Peggy Lee is one of my favorite singers. I listen incessantly to her and she has an extraordinary catalogue. There are many songs that she sung that I wouldnt touch because I know I wouldnt be as satisfied with my version as I am when I listen to hers. She did an album called Things are Swingin and every track on that is absolutely perfect. There is a song called Life Is For Livin that I love and I dont think Id ever record it because I cant top perfection. When I did I Guess Ill Hang My Tears Out To Dry which is on the new Israel Philharmonic album I felt like I was able to give a slightly different take on it and it was done as an homage to Sinatra. I felt justified in recording it. The greatest of Sinatra tracks whether they were with Nelson Riddle or Billy May, theyre unbeatable, so basically what I do is put that version out of my mind if I feel theres vocally something I can give to it interpretably. Also, sometimes somebody will record a song and not sing the verse or not sing the second set of lyrics. For example, when I recorded Too Marvelous For Words, there were two extra choruses that nobody had ever recorded, so I sang them and felt like it illuminated the song and it also peaks the interest of the audience.
Speaking of famous - Its pretty well known that Liza Minnelli was instrumental in getting you your New York debut in 1986. How did that come about?
She didnt get me my debut. I was at a party in LA that Liza hosted at which I was then invited to perform at the Algonquin in NYC. It was because of the attention she brought to me in Los Angeles that I was seen by the people who run the Algonquin and they invited me to work there. She was instrumental in getting me tremendous attention and publicity that I could have not possibly gotten without her. Unfailingly generous support.
What is your relationship with her today?
Its wonderful. I saw her show last Saturday night [at the Beacon] and we talk all the time. Were like brother and sister. Weve known each other twenty years now and when we were introduced it was like we were long lost cousins. Ira Gershwin who was my mentor and whom I worked for six years was the best man at the wedding of her mother and father [Judy Garland and Vincente Minnelli]. Liza was named after the Gershwin song and Ira Gershwin was her godfather. I used to see her father at the Gershwin home all the time so I became very friendly and close to him long before I met Liza, so when we met it was like a fete accompli.
Did you attend her wedding?
Could you elaborate?
It was really great because she wanted to create something to let people that know she was happy and that she had made alot of changes in her life. She and David planned the wedding as a celebration and as a time to be with not only family and friends, but also alot of people who had touched their lives through the years that they wanted to share with. It was also important for her to let people see she was in good shape. Basically over the years the press has destroyed her, and even though shes had her problems, there were times when the press was very unfair, so it was her opportunity to let people see she was back in the world. So they accomplished that and it was one of the most extraordinary events I have ever attended. Being at the party afterward, I think I was one of 42 people who sang with a 40-something piece orchestra.
What song did you sing?
I sang Moondance.
Was that a request or did you choose that song?
I chose it because it seemed like a fun song to do for that night. There was such a variety of different people singing and so it was something that was a little offbeat but also had a lyrical philosophy that I thought would be fun for that night.
You mentioned working for Ira Gershwin. Is he your idol as a songwriter?
I think hes one of the greatest, absolutely. Yes, hes an idol of mine.
Tell me about your meeting him when you were starting out.
We met through June Levant, the widow of Oscar Levant who is basically a forgotten man these days but at one time was the most popular concert pianist in America.
Meeting your idol had to be a thrill.
Yes, it was absolutely wonderful because at that point I never got to meet Ira and it was at a period in his life when he was reclusive. Yet through him, I was able to meet alot of other people who were in that same stage of their lives. I was lucky enough to catch these people at the very end so it was an amazing time. Just five years later, many of them were gone so I was so fortunate because it gave me something that Ill always have with me that Ill be able to carry with me the rest of my life.
You also write songs. Do you always collaborate or do you also write solo?
I usually collaborate because I love to work with great lyricists. Ive been lucky to work with such great lyricists as Alan & Marilyn Bergman, Bob Merrill, Lindy Robbins to name a few.
In your career, when did you feel you made it and what happened?
Well, after the party that Liza threw for me at the Mondrian in February 1985, I was still playing in piano bars and I left shortly thereafter. I made a debut in San Francisco at a place called The Plush Room doing an act where people actually paid to come and see me, and not to sit in the lounge and have a drink. I dont diminish those years playing in lounges because it taught me everything that I know. But when I was doing the show in San Francisco, it was an immediate success that got written up in the paper and the run was immediately sold-out. I was booked back a couple of months hence and I remember my agent at that time, Tom Korman, came backstage after one of the shows and started jumping up and down and said were gonna make alot of money. (Laughing) It was the first indication that I realized I could have a solid career singing the songs that I loved.
From most performers I have interviewed they have all mentioned how special Carnegie Hall is. What is it about that venue that makes it so special? Is it the history, the acoustics, what exactly is it?
I believe that every physical space carries an energy from all of the people who have passed through it. Carnegie Hall has the ghosts of thousands of extraordinary creative souls that have been in that space starting with Tchaikovsky who was at the opening of the hall in 1891. It carries an extraordinary mystique that is palpable.
Your career has taken you down different paths, what led you to opening a nightclub in New York? (Feinsteins at the Regency).
I always had an ambition of having a club in New York. It was more of a pipe dream because I didnt see how I could realize it. The Tisch family who own Loews Hotels were fans of mine and they were interested in creating a room in a hotel. We had some meetings about it that made it possible by supplying the physical space and we are equal partners in the club. Its extraordinary because using their initial resources we were able to use a five star staff and have this great space. Of course we had to spend a great deal of money for sound and lights but it turned out beautifully and were now in our third season and Im absolutely thrilled with the success of the room.
How often do you perform at your club?
I perform there once a year. I go there every December at the holiday season. The rest of the time Im on the road, or recording or working on other projects. When I do come to the room I want it to be special for me and I want it to be special to the audience. I dont want to be ubiquitous where people can say oh, we can come and see him anytime. There are alot of New Yorkers who prefer to see me in a nightclub setting rather than a large venue, so it gives me the opportunity to do that.
Do you personally choose the talent that performs there?
No I dont because I didnt want to be in a position of all of my friends coming to me and saying why dont you put me in your room. Its very awkward. Alan Sviridoff who is also my manager runs the room. Certainly I have input where Ill say, Id love it if youd consider so and so but its basically his decision.
Out of all the great symphonies in the world-How did you decide to go with the Israel Philharmonic for your latest CD?
Ive known Zubin Mehta for many years, socially, casually. Hed always said Id love it if you would come to Israel and do a show and I said Id love it too and then that would be it. Then wed run into each other again, until finally he said, this is ridiculous, when are we going to do this? I said, whenever you want. He then gave me the contact information for the Israel Philharmonic offices and we made arrangements for me to come over.
When you were growing up, who inspired you as a vocalist?
The first vocalist I remember with any impact and this was at the age of five was Al Jolson. My parents had 78s that I would play on an ancient record player in the basement of our home. I remember listening to him singing Swanee and it was an electrifying experience. There was something about that voice that made him as popular as he was. It and also the medium of recording captivated me. Knowing that I had been listening to a voice that had been still for many years but was still communicating was something very rich to me. My biggest influences were from a much earlier generation.
As you got older, were there other performers you would listen to more frequently?
Fred Astaire became a mainstay for me even though people dont think of him as a great singer. He was for me the quintessential interpreter of American popular song and remains so, even though he didnt like his own voice. I mentioned Peggy Lee, Sarah Vaughn, Tony Bennett. John Gary was a phenomenal vocalist with a stratospheric range. Also people like Gogi Grant, Giselle McKenzie, Frankie Laine. The earlier records such as Ethel Waters, there are just so many.
If you could have the any vocalist perform for you in your living room past or present, who would it be and why?
The first person that comes to mind is Ethel Waters. She is the real bridge from jazz and blues to modern American popular song. She was a lady who started making racy records, and they called them race records in those times. She would do double entendre songs and straight out blues and then started interpreting the American songbook. She is one of the greatest influential voices of the 20th century. I loved her voice. She died in 1977 right after I moved to Los Angeles and she lived only two miles from me and I never met her.
If you could choose any partner to perform with, who would it be?
There are two, Doris Day and Cher.
Now thats diversity. Please elaborate.
Doris Day is an underestimated singer who as a vocalist never made a bad record. I would love to work with her. I guess thats not happening because shes reclusive, or unless youre an animal and live in Carmel. (Laughs). As far as Cher is concerned, I grew up watching that television show [The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour] and I love the way she sings standards. It would be an absolute thrill to sing a duet with her of some great American classic.
I was informed that you were developing a 6-part Warner Bros. Home Video and DVD on Popular Song - could you elaborate on this?
Its called The Great American Songbook and Im co-producer on the project with Andy Kuehn who directed the film Get Bruce by Bruce Vilanch for which I wrote the score. It will be televised on one of the various networks before it goes to retail. Its going to be a breeze over of American popular song in six parts. Its impossible to cover a vast history in even that many hours. We have the incredible luxury of having carte blanche access to the combined film libraries that are now owned by Tom Werner. We have the films of MGM, RKO Warner Bros. and United Artists, which collectively give us extraordinary film performances of most of the great American popular songs. Im hosting it and I perform a number of things on camera. Then I speak about Jule Styne and Sammy Kahn, youll see Doris day sing Its Magic, Frank Sinatra sing Time After Time and Judy Garland sing The Man That Got Away. Dozens and dozens of others. Were going back to the original negative so the picture quality will be flawless and remastering the sound as well. It will not only be a feast aurally, but visually as well.
I understand you have a book coming out entitled The Sound Of Healing. Can you tell me something about it?
It will be coming out probably in the fall of 2003. Its about the extraordinary power of music. There are so many different modalities that use music in an unconventional way. Of course theres music therapy thats regularly taught in Universities and many music therapists who apply their trade in hospitals, convalescent homes and rehabilitation centers. I know first hand the effect it has on Alzheimers patients because for many years I played in Alzheimers wards to people who were completely lost in their own reality, and sometimes no reality. Sometimes theres a song that permeates in their brains thats a trigger. Ive done a lot of reading on spiritual applications of music. This book will sort of be an overview of different possibilities from the scientific to the anecdotal just to open peoples minds to the different possibilities that are out there.
I know you dont wear your sexual preference on your sleeve, but do you ever feel any tension or prejudice when you perform outside of large cities such as NY and LA?
Generally no, it never crosses my mind. Recently, there was a comment a stagehand made and I was so shocked. I dont know how many people know about my personal life. I mean its not something that Ive hidden but I dont think about it.
Were you ever advised by people in the industry to keep hush about your personal life?
Always, but I never paid much attention to it because luckily we exist in a time that has changed alot of things. It was never a real concern. From the time I started performing I was never hidden about who I am. Even though I didnt talk about it, God knows I played in many gay bars when I started in LA and thats where I really developed alot of my ability. It was probably the gay bars that I could do the repertoire I wanted to do. Standards and showtunes, those were the places people wanted to hear them. There were very mixed audiences especially when I first started playing in LA. Many celebrities would come to these clubs because they wanted to hear these repertoires. So I ended up meeting a lot of wonderful people in the industry, straight and gay. These people werent concerned about such things. Sometimes somebody will come up to me with a wink and say, I remember you years ago, do you remember the Cabaret on La Cienega? As if Im gonna blush or something (Laughing). Of course Im gonna remember it, it was instrumental in my career. One time I was playing the Cabaret and there was a character actor who was a very close friend of Ira Gershwin named Paul Stuart. He happened to have been in Citizen Kane, and he somehow ended up in that club one night, even though he was straight, he was so shocked to see me there I thought he was gonna pass out! It was so out of context to him seeing me there as this kid who was working for Ira Gershwin. During my break I went over and said hello to him and he started stuttering I-I-I-just think its beautiful and I thanked him (Laughing).
I was watching late night television recently and caught your interview and performance on The Late Show with Craig Kilborn. I was a bit surprised that you chose that particular show to appear. Kilborns humor and his audiences attitude always screamed homophobia to me. Did you consider that before you agreed to appear and did you sense any homophobia during the taping?
Absolutely no homophobia. People had said that but he actually asked me to appear on the show. Hes a huge fan of American popular standards and pop classics and he liked my work. He could not have been more hospitable. He came into my dressing room before the show and we were talking about songs, I mean the staff couldnt have been nicer. He was great. He said Id love for you to meet my girlfriend and well get together sometime. So, I dont know about any of that. Ive heard the rumors but it wasnt my experience.
You sing such romantic songs - do you think of yourself as a romantic?
Is there anybody special that you share your life with?
Yes, he likes to be very much in the background. If I were to continue, hed kill me (Laughing). Weve been together five years now.
If I were to open your CD player right now, what discs would I find?
The most weird things. Playing in the background now is Johnny Green and his Orchestra who was one of the great MGM conductors and songwriters. He was a close friend of mine. I collated all of his recordings from the 30s and 40s and put them on CD. (Laughing) You can probably tell my taste is very obscure. I also listen to alot of vocalists and alot of film soundtracks and classical music. One of my favorite composers is Eric Korngold, I listen to alot of his stuff. I love listening to the voice of Johnny Mercer. Its pretty unusual stuff. I also like to listen to alot of jazz pianists. I love all kinds of jazz piano. I just love music!
© 2003 Steven M. Housman. All Rights Reserved.