After his debut at The Dell, a Columbus, Ohio nightclub, and before his six years as assistant to the legendary lyricist Ira Gershwin, he spent his teen-age musical apprenticeship playing and singing. Having access to the Gershwin's unpublished music and previously unknown anecdotal material set him forever on the path of preserving the legacy of American popular music and collecting musical memorabilia. "It's particularly important for me to preserve the songwriter's point of view," he explains; witness his albums in tribute to Irving Berlin, Burton Lane, Jule Styne, Jerry Herman and Hugh Martin.
Then, along came Liza. "She's very responsible for my mass introduction to the world," Feinstein says. "I knew her father for many years before I met her, because Ira was the best man at her parents' wedding and Vincente [Minnelli] used to come over and visit the Gershwin House. Liza was named after the Gershwin song and, by the time we finally met, we were like lost cousins. The first time was at the screening of the restored A Star is Born at the Motion Picture Academy, and then we really connected at a Christmas party of her father's, which I'd been hired to play. After all the guests had gone, she sat next to me at the piano and sang. She said, 'You know, from now on, we're joined at the hip.'"
The official launch of the friendship came when Liza threw him a party at the Mondrian Hotel and invited some of her friends: Liz Taylor, Joan Collins, Melissa Manchester, etc. "It was the kind of party that, if it hadn't been thrown for me, I certainly wouldn't have been invited," he remembers, laughing.
Last Fall, Feinstein added "saloon-keeper" to the already impressive string of hyphenates in front of his name. Feinstein's is a high tone, 140 seat night club in the five-star Regency Hotel on New York's Upper East Side, reflecting the taste and the panache of its namesake. "I've been very hands on with certain aspects," he relates, "particularly in creating the light and sound systems, choosing the menu, the staff, the chairs. It's got to be comfortable. After all, my name's on it, so it can't just be a vanity thing. One of my partners, Bob Tisch, was in the nightclub game in the '50s, and he said, 'Michael, you're taking me back to my roots!'" Feinstein's premiere engagement at the club was just nominated for a MAC Award, and he returns March 28-April 22.
"It's my intention to do one major engagement a year at the club," Feinstein says. "It's a grind doing more, and I want to maintain excitement both for the patrons and myself. I certainly have a lot of adrenalin when I'm performing, but I don't think I could sustain doing two shows a night anymore, the way I could in my 20s. The only guy I know who maintains that superhuman level is Tony Bennett. He works non-stop, and he never even seems to have jet lag! For this engagement, I'll probably be working with a six piece group again, including a pianist, so I'll be up from the piano most of the time." He'll also be recording two new "Live at Feinstein's" CDs, Romance on Film and Romance on Broadway, which will bring his discography up to 20 titles.
"Formulating the repertoire is the most fun," he reveals, "It's a challenging and often nerve-wracking experience. I'm inviting such guest stars as jazz pianists Allen Broadbent and the legendary Page Cavanaugh, who accompanied Doris Day in Romance on the High Seas."
In addition to the upcoming engagement, Feinstein's most exciting news right now is Big City Rhythms, his latest swinging CD, featuring the Maynard Ferguson Big Band. "I'd done tracks with big bands before, but a whole CD was an incredible experience," enthuses Feinstein. "Maynard's a great musician and a wonderful man to work with. He was very sympathetic to creating vocal settings. Musically, it's one the strongest CDs I've ever done. I'm trying to set up a tour with the band, but Maynard already does 200 dates a year." With the support of Ferguson's trumpet and flugelhorn, Feinstein wails on such swing classics as Bobby Troup's "Girl Talk" and Benny Goodman's "Lullaby in Rhythm," plus two of his own compositions, "The Rhythm of the Blues" and "Swing is Back in Style."
Jumping on the swing bandwagon is a logical step for Feinstein, who keeps flexing his musical muscles. But be forewarned: There will be no Michael Feinstein hip-hop CDs in the immediate future.