A Bridge Called Feinstein

Nearly a century has passed, but the music lingers, and, I hope it always will. “Someone to Watch Over Me” is an absolutely lovely song. It was written 13 years short of 100 years ago, in 1926, for a Broadway show called “Oh, Kay,” a musical about bootleggers, an idea that seems no less distant. By any measure, “Someone to Watch Over Me” is an old song. And yet, the list of singers who have performed it make me question that 1926 date: Keith Jarrett, Barbra Streisand, Willie Nelson, Bennie Wallace (in fact, I bought the album last month, and “Someone” is the title track), Elton John, Sinéad O’Connor, Susan Boyle, Marcus Roberts…the list goes on.

George GerhswinWhen he wrote the music for “Oh, Kay,” George Gershwin was 28 years old, That was seven years after his first hit song, “Swanee,” sung by the era’s superstar, Al Jolson, and if not quite the standard it was for half of the 20th century, it remains a classic. The same year that he first recorded another song that has run the better part of century, “Fascinatin’ Rhythm” with another pair of very famous stars, Fred and his sister/partner Adele Astaire. By that time, Gershwin had already composed, and become justly famous for, a more serious work commissioned by bandleader Paul Whiteman called “Rhapsody in Blue,” written in a form that wasn’t quite classical, wasn’t quite jazz, and wasn’t quite what we would now call pops. Still to come was Porgy and Bess, Hollywood, and in 1937, at age 38, the brain tumor that ended his life. By that time, George Gershwin was a national treasure.

Time passed. There was a war, then significant changes in the nation’s culture. The old songs, well, they didn’t matter so much any more. Sure, they were played on the radio, but newer forms of entertainment eclipsed many of the first half century’s great success stories.

And that’s why, when most people met a teenager who was crazy for the old songwriters and the old 78 rpm records, they didn’t make much of his hobby. In time, the collection required serious shelving (78s are quite heavy, and quite fragile), and the collector was learning the names of the composers who wrote those songs. Eventually, he made his way to Los Angeles, where he haunted the used record stores in hopes of finding treasures. He found a collection of records by Oscar Levant, a Gershwin friend, which led to Levant’s surviving spouse, which led to a dream job.

Ira Gershwin was looking for a new secretary–his long-time helpmate was dying–and our young hero got the job. He astonished the aging lyricist with his encyclopaedic knowledge of the music of the 1920s and 1930s (and 1940s, for that matter), and his astonishing depth of detail about all things Gershwin. And that’s how Michael Feinstein, born September 7, 1956 became the world’s greatest expert on Ira Gershwin, born December 6, 1896 (and on his brother, George, born two years later, in 1898). But Michael Feinstein had just begun.

Michael FeinsteinBy the mid-1980s, Michael Feinstein was recording these songs, breathing new life (and a great deal of love) into the old records. And, because he had researched, catalogued and organized the entire Gershwin library, his work combined the verve of a dedicated performer with the wisdom of an academic. This led to recordings of music by Irving Berlin, then more Gershwin and more by other songwriters (sometimes, singing alongside them). In short, Michael Feinstein built a bridge from gentlemen songwriters born at the turn of the last century, and generated enough excitement to build a career for himself, energize any number of other performers to pay attention to this music, and then, he opened a cabaret so that the music could be heard live.

And then, he wrote a book about all of this, about his adventures in with the Gershwins, his love affair with the music, the history of the era and why it resonates today, and lots more. The book includes a CD filled with a dozen tracks, some rare, all interesting. It’s there to make absolutely certain that everybody who owns the book will have the opportunity to enjoy the music.

One small warning: Mr. Feinstein is not lacking in enthusiasm, and he is not lacking in detail. This coffee-table book is also a longish read, perhaps something to be enjoyed by reading a chapter every once in a while rather than reading it all through, in a single sitting, as if it was a novel or a traditional biography. It’s more than that, and so, it’s got an unusual title: The Gershwins and Me: A Personal History in Twelve Songs.

Gershwin book

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