Follow him around for a couple of months and you will probably come to the conclusion that it is not easy being Michael Feinstein. He is consumed by a schedule of 150 concerts per year with extensive rehearsals, countless air miles crisscrossing the country from coast to coast, not enough hours in the day to search flea markets and other favorite haunts for music ephemera, recordings and old 78 RPM records with voices from the past, and then those valuable hours needed to catalog and digitize his ever-growing collection.
But then again, on second thought, it must really be wonderful and rewarding to be Michael Feinstein, for he is doing exactly what he wants to be doing, living his obsession and passion to keep the Great American Songbook alive and well, to be enjoyed today, as it was years ago, and preserved for many future generations.
Not everyone in life is as one-goal driven as Michael Feinstein. His career, you might say, got off to an early start when, at the age of 5, he sat down at the piano and began playing, and to this day he has not missed a note. In his youth his parents gave him piano lessons, knowing that it would not improve his playing, but it would teach him to read music. And, at the same time, along came his interest in collecting sheet music and records, noting, “I liked the colorful covers on the sheet music and labels on the records.” Little did he know that this interest would balloon into a collection that now encompasses thousands of items and is housed in New York City, Los Angeles, Carmel, Ind., and a number of storage sites.
Michael worked for two years in piano lounges after graduating from high school in Columbus, Ohio, and then moved to Los Angeles when he was 20. “It was a milestone in my life discovering George Gershwin, and hearing his music changed my life,” Michael said, and it all came about when the widow of the concert pianist-actor Oscar Levant introduced him to the lyricist Ira Gershwin in 1977.
“I became Ira’s assistant, worked with him until he died six years later, and had access to all of the music of George Gershwin, including many unpublished songs he had written and that have since been performed and recorded,” Michael said.
Michael once received a phone call from a person he knows in the Los Angeles branch of Bonhams & Butterfields auction house, asking him if he could come by to authenticate a manuscript it was going to sell. A day later, he was looking at a 92-page musical sketchbook written in the hand of George Gershwin. “Gershwin routinely kept such sketchbooks for the purpose of preserving his inspirations and then have an easy place where he could refer back to his ideas for future use,” Michael said. The book, circa 1920‱930s, contained material from shows that he was currently working on, including East Is West , the Ziegfeld operetta that never happened. “What was most important, it was a treasure of unknown and undocumented Gershwin melodies.”
All other Gershwin sketchbooks were in the Library of Congress and Bonham’s would not identify the sellers, only that they lived in San Francisco. Before it was listed for auction, “I offered to buy it outright, but the seller wanted it to be auctioned due to the potential of making more money than I could offer,” Michael said.
He then contacted the Library of Congress to let it know about the book and ultimately the library bid on it †”for our mutual benefit” †and got it “for the exact same price I had privately offered the seller. While I retain ownership, the original is now on deposit at the Library of Congress in happy confluence with Gershwin’s sibling notebooks.”
Michael continued this tale, saying, “Many years before, Ira Gershwin told me about working on the out-of-town tryout of a show with George and that they were staying at a hotel †Boston, Philadelphia? When they checked out of the hotel and started the drive back to New York City, 45 minutes into the trip George realized that he had left behind one of his notebooks. They dutifully drove back to the hotel, but the notebook was gone. Ira recalled that George was not distressed and simply shrugged and said, ‘Well, there’s more where that came from,’ and continued the journey back to Manhattan. How odd that over half a century later, it seems that the very notebook that Ira spoke of eerily seemed to come into my life, thus completing an unusual circle.”
So while Gershwin stands at the front of the line of Michael’s favorite composers, Jerome Kerns is not far behind, along with Irving Berlin, Johnny Mercer, Harry Warren, Rodgers and Hart and Duke Ellington, who made the Cotton Club famous.
As for singers, Michael dubs Rosemary Clooney the greatest female singer of the Twentieth Century, and during the war years credits Margaret Whiting for her support singing popular songs of that period, many of which were written by her father, Richard Whiting. Of Ethel Waters, Michael says, “She was a groundbreaker in pop music and had great influence on music in America.”
Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole are well represented in his collection of music, as is Tony Bennett, who years ago, not wanting to sing the songs urged by producers, formed his own record company. “Rudy Vallee was convinced that he could make women faint and swoon when he sang,” Michael said, and a letter to that effect, written by his wife, attests to the fact. Rudy’s wife has even said that during performances, girls would throw their underwear on the stage. Another popular singer of the time, Al Jolson, known as the “Salesman of Song,’ was considered sexy, with lots of motion in his body when he sang.
“I know many people who collect the same material as I do, and I meet new collectors from time to time. In fact, I am to meet with one on my next trip West, a man who has a collection to sell, and I am hoping that visit works into my schedule,” Michael said.
Joe Franklin, known as “the King of Nostalgia” and host of the popular Memory Lane radio program, is among the collectors with whom Michael has shared good times. Franklin got his start at the age of 16 as a record picker for Martin Block’s Make Believe Ballroom . In 1951 he started his own program on WJZ and has interviewed more than 10,000 guests during his 43-year run on radio and television. As host of the longest running talk show in history, Joe Franklin recorded more than 28,000 episodes, but “sadly only about 500 of those programs still exist and it is material like this that must be saved and preserved,” Michael said.
In addition to an overcrowded office in Times Square, Joe has 12 storage units around town that come with costly rent. When Michael was asked what ran through his mind the first time he entered Joe Franklin’s office, he simple replied, “This could be me some day.”
Marty Halprein, a retired radio engineer, introduced Michael to the V-discs. “I did not know about them,” he said, “and they certainly represent material that must be saved.” These discs contained music that was specially selected to be heard only by members of the armed forces, they were produced by the government and shipped to military bases around the world. Bing Crosby, Margaret Whiting, Lena Horn and Judy Garland singing “Over The Rainbow” were among the artists included in this project. A small percentage of the discs made survived and are now in private collections.
Peter Mintun, one of America’s favorite society pianists who at one time had his own society dance orchestra, discovered a third music by Gershwin that was not known to exist, a 1934 WJZ recording preserved on a 12-inch aluminum platter used to save radio broadcasts. “These things are so important and must be preserved,” Michael said.
Max Wilk of Westport, Conn., American playwright and screenwriter, keeps his collection in boxes and has a memory filled with obscure songs. “It was wonderful to see his original sheet music copy of Irving Berlin’s This is the Army ,” Michael said. Max Wilk published a good number of books, including one that traced the origins of the musical Oklahoma! , and he co-authored with the late antiques dealer Harold Sack American Treasure Hunt †The Legacy of Israel Sack .
Another collector and well-known performer, Vince Giordano, also started his musical life at the age of 5 with the discovery of a stack of 78 RPM records in his grandmother’s attic. Devoted to vintage music of the 1920s and 1930s, Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks is in constant demand and can be heard regularly at Sofia’s Restaurant Club Cache at the Edison Hotel in New York City. His collection, cataloged neatly in a row of file cabinets, numbers more than 30,000 scores, resulting from finds made while making many cross-country trips. He also keeps an eye on the published obits and has written kind notes to the family of the deceased asking, if by chance, any vintage music is in the estate. Recently he provided period music for the HBO series, Boardwalk Empire .
Every collector has a pattern, a favorite path to take in search of an addition to, what is generally, a full and rich collection. Michael Feinstein is no exception as he visits the Salvation Army outlets, takes a few steps down to an old book shop and haunts the market on 25th Street where “there is no telling what a dealer might ask for a page of sheet music.” One of his best finds came when he was in the company of Margaret Whiting and found several boxes of discarded music in a dumpster. “We backed up a van and loaded them in,” he recalls.
“Music publishers would get rid of old arrangements, and complete orchestrations for shows would be tossed, our musical heritage literally disappearing because people did not understand it was valuable and worth saving,” he said. “A perfect example is a Bing Crosby cassette recorded in 1975 that we tried to preserve by transferring it to a digital format, but it was too old and had not been properly stored. We saved only the first 20 minutes, but are still trying ways to retrieve the rest.”
The music Michael collects has little, if anything, to do with the graphics. “I collect for the music and find songs I have never heard, or interesting things about some of the standards. For instance, ‘Body and Soul’ ended up with three sets of lyrics and ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business’ has an extra set of lyrics that have never been sung †until now. They are even funnier than the ones we all know,” Michael said.
He likes to think back and talk about the 1920s and 1930s, a rich time musically when people were living the good life. People played records, George Gershwin came into one’s life every day, and in the 1920s, when there was an abundance of sheet music published, there were more pianos than phones in homes.
Songs about the war effort did not last, with the exception of “God Bless America,” and the advancement of electronics changed the way we listened to music. The sounds in the 1960s became more important than the song itself.
Michael Feinstein preaches that “music affects people in every way †physically, emotionally, spirituality and therapeutically †and is a proven asset for those marching into war and those with certain ailments.” So there are many, many reasons for preserving our rich music past and, fortunately, Michael is leading the charge. He serves on the Library of Congress’s National Sound Recording Advisory Board and is also director of a popular music series for Jazz at Lincoln Center. In 2008 he created the Michael Feinstein Foundation for the Preservation of The Great American Songbook.
“I was approached by the mayor of Carmel [Ind.] a few years back and offered space for my collection in a new $180 million Performing Arts Center the community was building. It was a wonderful opportunity and there will be exhibition space for some of the collection, and a study center will house much of the rest,” Michael said. The center, scheduled to open January 29, 2011, will host The Great American Songbook Festival and Michael will serve as artistic director.
With music constantly running through his mind he has this recurring thought when he see a piece of music memorabilia for sale. “If I don’t buy it, what will become of it and will it eventually be preserved?” So he generally buys it. But equally as important, it has to be heard and performed and brought back to public attention. “That is the key, letting people hear it,” Michael said. And no one is trying harder to do that than Michael Feinstein.
PBS Hosts Michael Feinstein’s American Songbook
Michael Feinstein’s American Songbook, a three-part series on PBS, includes Putting On The Tailfins , which aired Wednesday, October 6, to be followed by Best Band in the Land on Wednesday, October 13, at 8 pm, and then A New Step Every Day on Wednesday, October 20, 8 pm.
The American Songbook series was produced, directed and edited by Amber Edwards of Newtown, Conn., who met Michael Feinstein while filming the award-winning documentary Words and Music by Jerry Herman . “We conceived it as a chance to hear American music through him with a cultural road trip through music history, and he loved the idea,” Amber said. Filming began in 2008, and the series is now being aired on PBS, “the perfect match for Michael.”
“This is the project I was born to do,” Amber told The Newtown Bee newspaper recently. “I know this music, I sing this music, I perform it&†I share Michael’s vision to keep it alive and try to introduce it to a new generation.
“The approach we take is to try something fresh. A lot of people have described this as a reality show, which kind of gets my dander up. It’s not a reality show, but I suppose you could call it a reality show that’s real. It’s really about something.
“This is really the biggest deal I have ever done and there is something magical about watching something you have made and knowing that there are hundreds of thousands of people watching at the same time. Yet, I always have that wish to reach into the screen and make some last minute change,” Amber said.