Michael Feinstein Takes Us Down the Backroads in Gershwin Country

Grammy and Emmy-nominated musician Michael Feinstein, a keeper of the American Songbook, has lived a life that if presented on screen, would be too crazy to believe. The icons (who have earned that title rightfully), the music, the performances, the collaborations, and the chance meetings would spring up on Michael’s journey like characters waiting on the side of the yellow brick road. This season, he debuts a new album that is almost too delicious to believe. Called Gershwin Country, Michael reimagines the music of Ira and George Gershwin through a country music lens with a series of duets featuring the biggest names from the genre including Dolly Parton, Alison Krauss, Brad Paisley, Lee Ann Womack, Amy Grant, and Rosanne Cash. Did we mention it was executive produced by Liza Minelli?

The album was inspired several years ago by a conversation Michael had with none other than poet Maya Angelou when the two chatted about their love of music. Who knew that Angelou was such a country music fan? Many country music artists have covered the Great American Songbook, there is a symbiosis between the two genres. In today’s music where autotune and electronic riffs fill the airwaves, country music artists may be the last leaders in telling stories through original music.

The bones of the classic American Songbook are malleable and can be interpreted in many ways. The symbiosis is that the country genre is based on melodic music and lyric interpretation and country music artists know how to tell a story and to interpret a lyric in a way that makes it their own, so the Songbook, in that sense, is a natural for country artists.

Feinstein admits that he is a very tough critic of his own work, but because this is made of duets, is his most satisfying album yet. The first track on the album that was recorded was Dolly Parton’s “Love is Here to Stay.” From that session, Michael was able to move forward with a truly clear idea of what the sound of the recording should be and where it was going. By the time this album was completed, even this musical impresario learned something new.

I learned a certain spontaneity or openness in recording because I worked with the most amazing group of musicians in Nashville. Recording in Nashville is different from recording any place else because these are very, very well-educated musicians, musically speaking, and yet they also have the tremendous ability, or tremendous gift, of improvisation. So even though there were blueprints for the arrangements on the recording, so much of it happened spontaneously, be it a key change or a riff or any other device that was incorporated into a track. It was coming up with an idea and then immediately being able to realize it through the extraordinary gifts of the musicians who were present.

Michael’s relationship with the Great American Songbook started when he was 20, when, after moving to LA, was introduced to Ira Gershwin who hired him to catalog his extensive collection of records. This would turn into a six-year gig during which Michael would come into intimate contact with unpublished music and rare recordings that would expand from Ira’s collection and include that of his composer brother, George.

I had grown up idolizing the work of George and Ira Gershwin. First, it was the music of George and then it was Ira’s lyrics, and I discovered the songs. I met Ira in July of 1977, and when I knocked on the door of his home in Beverly Hills, my knees were shaking. His wife, Lee Gershwin, let me into the house and when I saw Ira sitting at a table at a distance from the front door, I got even more scared.

The minute I sat down with him, he was very welcoming and sweet. He disarmed me with his charm, even though he was very quiet and shy and retiring, he was sensitive. He sensed how I was feeling and did everything he could to put me at ease, even though he was not in very good health. That was the beginning of a relationship that only got better from that first meeting. I was able to speak his language and he started to tell me some anecdotes, some stories about collaborating with his brother. I knew all his references and he was a bit taken aback by that at first, but then he realized that I knew his world. And from then on, I was in. I spent six years with this beautiful gentle soul. Those years profoundly changed my life and the way I looked at the world, it was beautiful.

His love affair with Gershwin music and the Great American Songbook was just beginning. His first professional brush with Broadway would be as the musical consultant of My One and Only, a celebration of the Gershwins, and his first CD was titled Pure Gershwin. By the late ‘80s, he was starring regularly on Broadway in a series of concerts celebrating the music he had become so close to. His star was on the rise, and he would appear on PBS specials, TV shows, NPR, and a dizzying number of concerts. He would appear at some of the world’s most iconic venues with some of history’s most iconic singers and songwriters. Many have called him one of the most important musical forces of our time. But no matter how many stars he has collaborated with, or how many Presidents he has performed for, he will never forget his roots, full of bittersweet memories.

Image: Art Streiber

After I moved to Los Angeles, I started playing in piano bars. Most of them were gay bars and they were places of celebration. I met so many special people, many of whom died only a few years later. It hurts my heart when I think about it, when I think about that time and the feeling of freedom and abandon and true joy that existed in those clubs that is different from the way it is now. There certainly is a lot of fun in clubs but, for me, the community that I had at that time was something I never experienced again. I’d play the piano till two in the morning and then we’d all go out to a restaurant, usually a Thai restaurant on Sunset Boulevard or Hollywood Boulevard that was open to four in the morning. We’d just party all night. When I started touring and performing in theaters and concert halls, I had to become much more disciplined in my life. I had to stop partying, smoking pot and had to clean up my act, so to speak. I guess I’m just saying I missed those days of abandon. I’ve come to recognize what is important in life. And that is, simply put – gratitude. Take nothing for granted ever.

With project after project coming his way so early on in his career, when did he stop and take notice that he was becoming a sensation?

It’s a funny thing, I think that every performer is always desiring more. I’ve seen some of the biggest names in the biz grapple with insecurity, looking at the career of somebody else who always had something that they didn’t have. So, there’s always that hunger to achieve more. As far as the realization that I’d reached a level of esteem, if that’s the word, it was probably after I had success on Broadway in 1988, when I was well out of playing piano bars. By that point, I played the Hollywood Bowl, which was pretty amazing because it all happened so fast. The experience of Broadway ran for months and so many people came to see the show and that was incredibly special for me. I was still young and fresh and yet there were so many people who came backstage that I would go, “Oh my God, how thrilling to meet so and so!” That gave me a sense of having accomplished something. And, it was with old songs, songs that were considered passe. Yet, there I was making a living from it.

And make a living he has. The names he has performed with and befriended is a gay man’s (or any entertainment lover’s) fantasy. With so many of our favorite divas taking center stage in Feinstein’s life, who have been his standouts?

Working with Nancy Wilson. Nancy Wilson is one of the greatest jazz singers of any time and she was someone I idolized. When she agreed to work with me, I was thrilled beyond words. We were to perform a duet and she didn’t want to rehearse! She said, “Oh, we’ll just fake it.” And I said, “Please, please, can we go over this?” She said, “No, honey, it’s going to be fine.” And my God, we got out on stage, and it was magical. It just all came together. That was amazing to me because I’m not a jazz singer, I’m not an improviser, and as she was. It was magic and I will never forget that because it was all chemistry the way it just came together. I loved working with Rosemary Clooney, who was my second mom. Debbie Reynolds was another extraordinary force of nature.

Elaine Stritch. Working with Elaine was great because we were remarkably close and we were intimate friends. We shared a lot of secrets with each other and as brassy, bold, and tough as she was perceived, she did amazingly kind things for me. My father was in New York and was extremely ill and had to go to the hospital where we needed to get him into a room. He needed to be admitted, but there were no rooms available. I called Elaine and, wouldn’t you know, she knew somebody, called a doctor and got my father a private room at the hospital. Those are the kinds of things that she would do if she loved you. And if she didn’t, boy, watch out.

Image: Kathy Hutchins

And of course, there’s Liza. Not only have the two appeared together in performances of every kind (even on social media!), but they have also become close friends. Not only does Liza serve as executive producer for Feinstein’s new album, but the two also perform “Embraceable You,” a favorite of Liza’s father, Vincente Minnelli. Vincente not only was close friends with the Gershwins but chose Ira to be Liza’s godfather. Of course, Michael and Liza would connect.

When I first met Liza, she said, “Okay, from now on, we’re joined at the hip.” I was taken aback by that because it seemed to be very enthusiastic hyperbole. I never dreamed that I would become close to her. We really bonded at her father’s house when I was playing at his Christmas party. And after everybody left, Liza was still there, sitting next to me on the piano bench and connecting musically on that level was extraordinary. The key moment that we became close was about three to four months after we met. We were hanging out every single night and Liza made a choice to go back to rehab because she was scared by what was happening in her life. She left on a private plane, which was supplied by Frank Sinatra, and I didn’t know if I would ever see her again. I thought, well, this was a wonderful few months I will always treasure. I didn’t know how different her life would be after she came back from rehab. We were able to reconnect when she came out of rehab and that’s when we truly and deeply bonded. She is a stalwart friend. In many ways, I owe my career to her.

With so many stars that have crossed Michael’s path what makes a star a “star?”

I guess I could quote the James Mason’s speech to Judy Garland from A Star is Born when he discovers her in that first scene in the nightclub. But I think it is very difficult to put into words what defines a star because there is something impossible to capture in words. Stardom is an odd thing. There are many different reasons people become stars, but the most enduring are ones who have the ability to connect very deeply with the hearts of other people on a level that is transporting. They have this God-given ability to present their art in a way that is, on one level, larger than life but also reminds us about something in ourselves that attracts us to their personality.

Michael married his longtime partner in 2008, the fabulous Judge Judy performed the ceremony. Michael’s sexuality was neither being hidden nor was it being celebrated. It just was.

In my late teens, I was out to everybody in my circle of friends and in the community theater where I appeared, but I wasn’t out to my parents. My mother found a Playgirl magazine hidden in my room and had a meltdown when I confessed to her that I was interested in people of the same sex. Her response was, “You have to promise never to tell anyone.” And I said, “Mom, I, I can’t promise that.” But when I moved to California, I lived very openly. God knows I was playing lots of gay bars and there were write-ups in the local gay rags and all that, so it was no secret. When I started to get notoriety, I didn’t talk about my personal life, or at least not about that part of my personal life, because I was scared. I was frightened to talk about it, even though I was out in so many ways, but there was something about it that scared me, I’m sorry to say. But I still would do things on stage that were not exactly being discreet. I remember being on stage with Rosemary Clooney at the Greek Theater. We were doing a couple of numbers together.  At the end of the show somebody yelled, “You go, girl!” I looked at Rosemary and said, “You think they’re talking to you or me?” This got a big laugh out of the audience. So, in that sense, I wasn’t in the closet.

But, yeah, I did have trepidation about coming out. At that time, it was drummed into your head that you couldn’t come out and have a successful career. Everybody shared that belief and it was a collective belief.

Labels from the LGBTQ community are now often fixed in each headline to take advantage of our current boom in media. Michael has befriended some of the biggest gay icons in entertainment and still, there has not been that kind of labeling for him or his career, it has stayed very mainstream. Does he feel part of the LGBTQ community?

Yes. Yes, I do. I have a deep desire to connect with other people who share a certain aspect of their being with which I can resonate.  There are certain things that are innately understood between us that others would not understand in the same way.

There have been times when I’ve felt isolated from the community because I was characterized as being conservative and being Republican. None of this was ever true. I played several times for the Reagans and the Bush family, but I played for them because they were Presidents. I turned down the offer to play for George, the elder Bush’s, inaugural celebration because I didn’t want people to perceive me as politically supporting him. But I also felt, very strongly, that bridges are built by connecting with people who have different points of view from our own.

When W. Bush asked me to play at the White House on Valentine’s Day, I told my partner, now husband, Terrence, that I didn’t want to do it. He said, “Well, I’ve never been to the White House and I want to go.” He said, “Isn’t the White House for everybody?” I said, “Yeah, that’s true.” So, I contacted the Social Secretary and I said, “Okay. I’d be happy to play for the President on Valentine’s Day as long as Terrence and I are treated as a couple.” And they said that absolutely, we would be treated as a couple. And we were, and that to me was building bridges amongst a group of people who were almost all Republican because it was a private event with just the Bush’s closest friends and supporters. And so there I was with my life partner, mixing with people who probably didn’t approve of our lifestyle, but I’d like to think that their exposure to us and my music earlier in that evening created some sort of empathy or understanding in their souls.

After his multi-decade career and his colorful journey, what has Michael learned the most about music?

The most important thing is always being true to your heart. I wish that I had been truer to my heart when I was younger. Now, I am absolutely true because my soul tells me what is right. I know in my gut what I’m supposed to do, and I try and always listen to that voice. So, when it comes to making music, the sky’s the limit, just follow that muse, keep going for it. I turned down opportunities when I was younger because I was scared. It wasn’t until later that I learned to say “yes” and then figure out how to do what they are asking. When I started doing that, most of the time, I rose to the occasion, and I was able to fulfill what was asked of me.

Gershwin Country is now available wherever you get your music with a portion of all proceeds benefitting MusiCares®, a partner of the Recording Academy® that provides a support system of health and human services across a spectrum of needs, including physical and mental health, addiction recovery, preventative clinics, unforeseen personal emergencies, and disaster relief to the music community.

Photo: Art Streiber





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