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1:03 am
Sat October 13, 2012

Michael Feinstein: What I Learned From The Gershwins

Originally published on Sat October 13, 2012 10:38 am

Michael Feinstein, the singer and pianist known as the "ambassador of the Great American Songbook," has a serious pedigree to back up that title: a real-life connection to one of America's greatest songwriting teams. It's the subject of Feinstein's new memoir, The Gershwins and Me: A Personal History in Twelve Songs. (A CD of Feinstein singing those songs also comes with the book.)

George Gershwin, the legendary composer of Porgy and Bess, Rhapsody in Blue and many classic songs, died in 1937 — long before Feinstein was born. However, through what he calls a "series of coincidences," Feinstein was introduced to George's brother and writing partner, Ira — then 80 years old, notoriously reclusive, and the last person Feinstein would have dreamed of getting to meet. He ended up spending six years working for Ira Gershwin as a cataloger and archivist, as well as the aging lyricist's eyes and ears to the outside world.

Feinstein spoke with NPR's Scott Simon about his time in Ira's employ, the lasting impact of George's untimely death, and the Gershwin masterwork Porgy and Bess.


Interview Highlights

On Ira's reaction to the loss of his brother

"George was the person to whom Ira was closer than anybody else on the planet. They had collaborated together for almost 20 years — George's music to his older brother Ira's lyrics. And Ira could not conceive living life without George, because George was truly his world. It was the kind of experience that Ira never got over. In the years that I knew him — 50 years after George's passing — he still would get very, very depressed if he started to talk about George, because he felt that nobody ever came close to the kind of talent that George displayed on this Earth. [He went on to work] with Aaron Copland and with Kurt Weill and with Burton Lane and Harold Arlen, and he said that of all of the people he worked with, only George was one whom he considered to be a true genius."

On the song "They Can't Take That Away From Me"

"It's a song that came to mean a lot to George right before his death, because his good friend Johnny Green had made the first recordings of the songs from [the 1937 film] Shall We Dance, from which the song is taken. And as he played the recording of 'They Can't Take That Away From Me' for George, George started crying and kept saying, 'Thank you, Johnny, thank you.' A month later, he was gone, and the song became his epitaph. It was the thing that was played on the airwaves after his passing, and was mistakenly referred to as George's last song. But it was the last song that he lived to see become popular, and it's a song that haunted Ira for a while — until he started to listen to the songs from Shall We Dance one day, and they actually helped him to begin to recover, realizing that he really had to go on and live his life."

On Porgy and Bess and Stephen Sondheim

"Sondheim said that if he was on a desert island, the one thing he would take — if it could only be one piece of music — it would be Porgy and Bess. It is incredible theater. ... When Sondheim was visiting the Library of Congress where the manuscript of Porgy and Bess is housed, he was so overcome with emotion while holding the score in his hands that he shed a tear — he shed several tears. One of the tears actually fell onto the original manuscript, and he was horrified. But now I guess it's been anointed by Sondheim's DNA."

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STRIKE UP THE BAND")

MICHAEL FEINSTEIN: (Singing) Let the drums roll out, let the trumpet call, while the people shout, strike up the band...

SIMON: The 1927 classic "Strike up the Band." Michael Feinstein strikes up his own song of praise to George and Ira Gershwin with this tune. His musical tribute comes in a new book. It's called "The Gershwins and Me: A Personal History in Twelve Songs." It includes a CD of Michael Feinstein singing those very same songs that are in the book. And Michael Feinstein, also known as the Ambassador of the Great American Songbook, joins us now from New York. Thanks very much for being with us.

FEINSTEIN: Thank you, Scott. My pleasure.

SIMON: George Gershwin, often considered the classic definitive American composer, died in 1937 at the age of 38. This, of course, was long before you were born. But you knew and worked for his brother, Ira Gershwin, who was also often his lyricist. How did you walk in to Ira Gershwin's life?

FEINSTEIN: Well, it's an amazing story because I was always an obsessive collector of Gershwin songs and such from the time I was I a kid. And when I moved to California at the age of 20, through a series of coincidences - buying some used records that belonged Oscar Levant, the great Gershwin interpreter, I met Levant's widow, June Levant, who eventually introduced me to Ira Gershwin, who was 80 years old and reclusive and the last person on earth I would have ever dreamt of having a chance to meet, and yet I was given this entre to his life and ended up spending six years working for him.

SIMON: What did you do for Ira Gershwin?

FEINSTEIN: I was initially hired to catalogue his collection of phonograph records, which dated back to 1917 and was wondrous to play in. And then he made me his archivist and I became as well his eyes and ears to the outside world. If anybody was doing a Gershwin show or needed a representative, they would send me to take a look at it and report back to Ira.

SIMON: Well, let's not waste any more time just talking, and listen to some of the music and then follow-up with questions. One of the songs you selected is "Someone to Watch Over Me."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME")

FEINSTEIN: (Singing) I'd like to add my initials to her monogram, tell me where is the shepherd for this lost lamb...

SIMON: My gosh, what a heart-piercing song. As you write in the book, written for a 1926 musical, that I must say was new to me, called it Oh, Kay" K-A-Y. You say this melody actually began as a dance number.

FEINSTEIN: Yes. It's interesting because Gershwin had to always to come up with interesting and rhythmic dance pieces for the various shows that they worked on. And they wrote a lot of shows, sometimes two a year. And so he came up with a melody that went (hums) - syncopated - (hums). He was playing a tune for Ira and he was distracted by something his sister said. And as he was talking to her, he slowed down. And when Ira heard George slow down the tune, he said wait a minute. Maybe that could be the big ballad in the show, and that's what it became.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME")

FEINSTEIN: (Singing) How I need someone to watch over me...

SIMON: Of course, you include a song from "Porgy and Bess," 1935. I have to ask first, I was expecting it to be "Summertime."

FEINSTEIN: Yes. "Summertime" is so well documented and covered, and so I really wanted to explore something else from "Porgy and Bess." And it wasn't easy to choose one piece because it is truly Gershwin's masterwork, something that he claimed that he would be remembered for, even though "Porgy and Bess" was a failure in his own lifetime. So, I chose "I Got Plenty of Nothing."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I GOT PLENTY OF NOTHING")

FEINSTEIN: (Singing) I got plenty of nothing, and nothing's plenty for me.

It's a song that George was very proud of. He wrote it as the first important song that Porgy would sing in "Porgy and Bess." And when he first played it for Todd Duncan, who was the original Porgy, he introduced it to him by saying this is the song by which you'll be remembered.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I GOT PLENTY OF NOTHING")

FEINSTEIN: (Singing) ...as the things that I prize like the stars in the skies are all free. Oh, I got plenty of nothing...

SIMON: 'Cause you note in the book a lot of people, a lot of critics maybe more than people, just didn't like this show.

FEINSTEIN: Yeah. Actually, "Porgy" got more positive views than negative, but it still was considered a failure by everybody.

SIMON: What about - and, look, somewhere in the world tonight I suspect somebody'll be performing "Porgy and Bess" and it will move audiences all over again. But what about the criticism - and if you hear it, you might hear it in this song - that it was a stereotype of African-American life?

FEINSTEIN: It was. But "Aida" is a stereotype maybe of Egyptians. You know, is "Carmen" a stereotype? I mean, they all are stereotypes in that sense.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I GOT PLENTY OF NOTHING")

FEINSTEIN: (Singing) I ain't a' frettin' 'bout hell till the time arrives. I'll never worry long as I'm well...

SIMON: What do you think, Michael, wound up making the opera not just a classic but a hit years after George Gershwin's death? What did people begin to respond to?

FEINSTEIN: The opera is musically the most extraordinary masterwork. And it is a very compelling story. It is a story that is stereotypical but it also is one that is immensely moving. Sondheim said that if he was on a desert island, the one thing he would take, if it could only be one piece of music, would be "Porgy and Bess." It is incredible theater. It is great drama. And it is musically an extraordinary accomplishment - not only the composition but the orchestration. It's a great, wonderful work.

SIMON: I gather, speaking of Stephen Sondheim, he left, if you please, a personal memento on the original score.

FEINSTEIN: Oh, yes. Yes. When Sondheim was visiting the Library of Congress, where the manuscript of "Porgy and Bess" is housed, he was so overcome with emotion while holding the score in his hands that he shed a tear. He shed several tears but one of the tears actually fell onto the original manuscript. And he was horrified. But now I guess it's been anointed by Sondheim's DNA.

SIMON: We're speaking with Michael Feinstein, who has a new book and CD, "The Gershwins and Me: A Personal History in Twelve Songs." Let me ask you about another song - but first a little bit in the chronology. As we get into the 1930s, George Gershwin began to have some symptoms that worried those who loved him.

FEINSTEIN: Oh, yes. He started to have headaches, occasional headaches, and of course people were devastated when it turned out to be a very serious and real disease that felled him.

SIMON: Yeah. Well, that introduces this song among the 12 you pick. And the title becomes particularly heart-tugging when you realize that the was nearing the end of his life.

FEINSTEIN: Oh, yes, yes. "They Can't Take That Away From Me." It's a song that came to mean a lot to George right before his death because his good friend Johnny Green had made the first recordings of the songs from "Shall We Dance," from which this song is taken. And as he played the recording of "They Can't Take That Away From Me" for George, George started crying. He kept saying thank you, Johnny, thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "THEY CAN'T TAKE THAT AWAY FROM ME")

FEINSTEIN: And a month later, he was gone. And the song became his epitaph. It was the thing that was played on the airwaves after his passing and was mistakenly referred to as George's last song. But it was the last song that he lived to see become popular. And it's a song that haunted Ira for a while until he started to listen to the songs from "Shall We Dance" one day and they actually helped him to begin to recover, realizing that he really had to go on and live his life.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "THEY CAN'T TAKE THAT AWAY FROM ME")

FEINSTEIN: (Singing) The way you wear your hat, the way you sip your tea, the memory of all that, no, no, they can't take that away from me. The way your smile just beams...

SIMON: Can you help us understand the enormity of Ira Gershwin's loss when his brother died?

FEINSTEIN: George was the person to whom Ira was closer than anybody else on the planet. They had collaborated together for almost 20 years - George's music to his older brother Ira's lyrics. And Ira could not conceive living life without George because George was truly his world. And it was the kind of experience that Ira never got over. In the years that I knew him, 50 years after George's passing, he still would get very, very depressed if he started to talk about George because he felt that nobody ever came close to the kind of talent that George displayed on this earth.

SIMON: And, of course Ira Gershwin went on to work with a number of other composers over the years and did some very fine work.

FEINSTEIN: He did. He worked with Aaron Copland and with Kurt Weill and with Burton Lane and Harold Arlen. And he said that of all the people he worked with only George was one who he considered to be a true genius.

SIMON: You suggest in this book that music's come to play a different role in popular culture these days than it did in the time of the Gershwin's and you regret that.

FEINSTEIN: Very much so. You know, I was thinking about one of the presidential debates recently and how one of the problems we have in the world, or certainly in our country, is the fact that music is not as important as it was, and music at one time was such a communal experience in our country in a way that is not understandable now. And I think that it is the lack of that common bond of music that has created this divide politically because we've lost the common ground. We've lost the thing with the arch that has brought us all together. And I see that time and time again. I mean, it is so palpable to me, that we've lost something so important and I pray we can get back to it somehow.

SIMON: Michael Feinstein, host of an NPR show, Song Travels, and the author of the new book, "The Gershwins and Me: A Personal History of Twelve Songs." Michael, thank you so much.

FEINSTEIN: Thank you. It was a blast.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "THEY CAN'T TAKE THAT AWAY FROM ME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.