In new book, Michael Feinstein shares his ‘dream job’ with Ira Gershwin

“The Gershwins and Me” (Simon & Schuster, $45) by Michael Feinstein

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

How many of us can check off the top goal in our “bucket list” at the tender age of 20?  Michael Feinstein was that age in 1976 when he secured a position as the official organizers of the personal and professional archives of Ira Gershwin, a gig Feinstein was literally born to fulfill.  

In the course of a six-year relationship which started in 1976, Feinstein, one of the most highly respected popular music entertainers and educators totally immersed himself in the sheet music, programs, personal letters and margin notes not only of Ira Gershwin, but of his equally iconic brother, George Gershwin, whose own career was tragically cut short at age 38 from complications from a brain tumor.

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Feinstein, an Emmy and five-time Grammy nominee, who owns a nightclub, performs all over the world and is also host of the PBS program “Michael Feinstein’s American Songbook.” In his latest book, “The Gershwins and Me” (Simon & Schuster, $45), he lovingly shares his six years of close collaboration with Ira Gershwin from 1976 until Gershwin’s death in 1982.  The book is accompanied by a CD containing recordings of Feinstein performing the 12 Gershwin tunes he has chosen as chapter headings—an item which alone would be worth the price of the book.

George and Ira Gershwin, who collaborated for nearly 15 years before George’s death in 1937, wrote over 800 songs for both Broadway shows and Hollywood musicals.  Their work has more than stood the test of time, earning not only the title of “standards,” but in a literal sense, “classics” of popular music and the jazz idiom.  For his 12 chapter headings, Feinstein selected some of their finest work, including, “Strike Up the Band,” “The Man I Love,” “S’Wonderful,” “I’ve Got a Crush on You,” “They All Laughed,” “Someone to  Watch Over Me” and “Embraceable You.” These immortal songs, springing from the genius of two Jewish brothers with East European roots, were a large portion of the soundtrack for decades of American life, from the earliest days of Tin Pan Alley at the turn of the last century, through the Great Depression until the eve of World War II.

Feinstein, who fell in love with popular music of the Gershwin-Cole Porter era as a teen growing up in Ohio, found his way to Los Angeles in 1976.  Ira Gershwin, like many entertainers whose career spans decades, was a compulsive hoarder of sheet music, recordings on all formats and a vast treasure trove of letters, playbills and other materials that stood in teetering stacks in his L.A. home.  Feinstein got wind of the fact that Gershwin was desperately seeking someone who would have the discipline and dedication to sort through and organize this vast archive—long before computers and the digital age would have made the process much faster.

Feinstein notes, appropriately, “I was lucky to find Ira, but perhaps he was lucky to find me too.” That seems like the understatement of the jazz/pop century.  Feinstein to Gershwin was like a meeting of two great rabbinic sages of the caliber of Rashi and Maimonides.  Feinstein originally offered to take on the overwhelming task of sorting through and organizing Gershwin’s archives for the paltry sum of $1,000, a fee that was increased when Gershwin realized just how much his young disciple would have to wade through. Ira Gershwin comes across as a kindly, grateful mentor.

In the course of this delightful book, whose episodic and anecdotal nature make it easy to read, set aside and come back to frequently, Feinstein assesses the works of both of the Brothers Gershwin.  He calls George Gershwin’s magnum opus, “Rhapsody in Blue” as an example of “quintessentially American music.”  It is not unreasonable to suppose that decades from now, “Rhapsody in Blue” will be considered part of the spectrum of Classical music, along with Beethoven, Brahms and Mozart.

Feinstein also has a tremendous appreciation for Ira Gershwin’s genius as a lyricist, and has strong feelings on how the songs of both Gershwins should be sung.  He singles out both Judy Garland, and to his own surprise, Lady Gaga, for moving renditions of “Embraceable You” and Gaga for “Someone to Watch Over Me,” respectively.

This book is more than a standard memoir or biography.  It is more like a love letter from Michael Feinstein to George and Ira Gershwin.  His words, and his performance of their songs on the CD evoke the full range of emotions of their finest work—qualities that are woefully lacking in much of what passes for popular music of the present era.