In the mid-’70s, 20-year-old Michael Feinstein was hired to be Ira Gershwin’s assistant and archivist. Impressed by the young man’s knowledge of his and his late brother George’s music, the iconic lyricist asked: “How many more of you are there?” The gig blossomed into a friendship that lasted until Gershwin’s death in 1983.
Feinstein, a singer, songwriter, pianist, and educator, has a new book titled “The Gershwins and Me: A Personal History in Twelve Songs.” We chatted by phone with Feinstein, who has a local connection as a member of the American Repertory Theater board of trustees.
This isn’t your first book about the Gershwins. “Nice Work If You Can Get It: My Life in Rhythm and Rhyme” was published in 1996. Why did you write “The Gershwins and Me”?
It seemed like the right time with the world changing so quickly and music being devalued. It’s a time that felt right in my soul to try to preserve what had been passed on to me. There are new generations that don’t know about the Gershwins.
What was the first Gershwin song you heard and how old were you?
The first was probably “Swanee,” because my parents had lots of old 78s. I didn’t know it was a Gershwin song. I was probably 7 or 8.
The book is formatted with each of the 12 chapters linked to lyrics to a Gershwin song. Where did the idea come from, and why these 12 songs?
‘I wanted to create a book that was almost like a scrapbook.’
I did not want to create a linear biography because it’s been done very well by others and I wanted to create a book that was almost like a scrapbook, with good bones for organization. We live in an ADD world and I thought it would be fun to use songs as markers. That gave me the opportunity to put the book together with some sense of structure. The songs were ones that I chose either because they are extremely significant as achievements in songwriting or I had particular stories and things to say about specific songs, or they were a favorite of George and Ira’s.
What jumps off the pages for me are the images of letters, postcards, photos, handwritten music, and anecdotes. What was it like when Ira’s wife, Lee, opened a hidden door in their home to you that led to a large, walk-in closet?
It was like an entrance into a magical place — it was my Harry Potter moment. It was, moment by moment, the most transformative experience. At the age of 20, the Gershwin era mattered to me as much as anything in my young life.
What one document or item took your breath away?
The one thing that remains most poignant is the document that Ira saved that was written by his brother, George, a day and a half before [George’s] death. Seeing the deterioration in his handwriting. A George Gershwin signature was always perfect, and to see the signature trail off the line was heartbreaking. This was a moment in time that was a depiction of the tragedy.
You describe the brothers as “two halves of a whole.” Their personalities were very different but they “shared a musical shorthand.” How so?
George and Ira were closer to each other than to anybody else. Ira was very connected to George in a way that allowed him to write lyrics that were more than a collaboration. When Ira would ask George to play a melody, George played exactly what Ira imagined. It was some sort of connection of seamless words and music.
There are so many fascinating anecdotes in the book, including how “Rhapsody in Blue” came about.
“Rhapsody” is a fascinating story because the piece was written as a throwaway for Paul Whiteman’s orchestra. Whiteman gave an interview where he announced that George was going to write a piece for his orchestra, and George said, “What are you talking about? Well, I’ll see what I can do.” After it was performed in 1924, it was as if a musical shot had been heard around the world.
When you perform, do you feel like you have Ira on one shoulder and George on the other?
I do feel a sense of them because they are so often present in my life, and the energy of the music makes me feel their presence.
If they were alive today, what would they be doing?
George would have considered his duality of concert works, symphonies, operas, and musical theater. He also would have embraced modern technology. Ira would have gone along for the ride and continued to write lyrics, but Ira always took his cue from George.