It was a celebration of music and one of the most dedicated guardians of the American songbook when the Pacific Pioneer Broadcasters honored Michael Feinstein this month. The multi-platinum-selling, two-time Emmy and five-time Grammy Award-nominated entertainer received PPB’s coveted Art Gilmore Career Achievement Award at the celebrity luncheon held at the Sportsmen’s Lodge in Studio City.
There was an impressive dais. Some couldn’t wait to tell stories about working with the noted pianist and singer, or just praise his love of music. Among the fans of Feinstein were songwriters Alan and Marilyn Bergman, singer Debby Boone, TV and Broadway star Florence Henderson, producer Norman Lear, radio personality Chuck Southcott, Myra Janco Daniels, Saul Levine, Patricia (Mrs. Gene) Kelly, Herb Eiseman, and Paul Jan Zdunek. Presiding over the tributes was Bill Moran, plus PPB president Chuck Street and PPB chair Jeanne DeVivier Brown.
After listening to the notables talk about Feinstein it was clear why he’s been dubbed “The Ambassador of the Great American Songbook.”
More than simply a performer, he has received national recognition for his commitment to celebrating America’s popular song and preserving its legacy for the next generation. In 2007, he founded the Michael Feinstein Great American Songbook Initiative, dedicated to celebrating the art form and preserving it through educational programs, Master Classes, and the annual High School Vocal Academy and Competition, which awards scholarships and prizes to students across the country.
Radio station mogul Saul Levine noted Michael “has done more to preserve this art form than anyone else.” Norman Lear said “music brings people together,” and that is a gift that Michael has given the world through Lear’s Concord Records label.
It all started in Columbus, Ohio, where Feinstein started playing piano by ear as a 5-year-old. After high school and working in local piano bars for a couple of years, he moved to L.A. when he was 20. The widow of legendary concert pianist-actor Oscar Levant introduced him to Ira Gershwin and Feinstein became Ira’s assistant for six years. This allowed him to catalog many unpublished Gershwin songs, many of which Michael has since performed and recorded.
Feinstein gives credit to Gershwin’s influence, “helping me to evolve as a performer, composer, and arranger of my own original music, as well as the classic treasures.” Alan and Marilyn Bergman called Feinstein “a sensitive singer who is passionate about protecting the history of music legends. That is so terribly important because we all stand on those shoulders.”
Debby Boone told stories about Michael’s friendship with her late mother-in-law Rosemary Clooney. She said, “He was always discovering the stories behind her songs. And he was always the hit of the party when he would play the piano. Rosemary loved him.”
Feinstein has a nationally syndicated public radio program “Song Travels.” And PBS has aired three seasons of Michael Feinstein’s American Songbook, a popular TV series that puts the focus on nostalgic music. When he was promoting the show he said he listens to a lot of old things, “but I’m always interested in finding new music, because there’s 12 notes on the piano, 12 notes on the scale, and it’s amazing to think that becomes thousands and thousands of songs. So when I hear something new and fresh things people are still coming up with, I find that extraordinary. I’m interested in what is being created today and how it touches and moves people.”
Feinstein admits he spends a lot of time going through material looking for things and cataloging, to find lost treasures and preserve them. But he also finds the time to do 200-plus shows a year. His schedule has included performances at the Hollywood Bowl, Carnegie Hall, Sydney Opera House, as well as the White House and Buckingham Palace. Paul Jan Zdunek with the Pasadena Symphony said he is “part of our family and makes beautiful music.” This summer Michael replaces the late Marvin Hamlisch as the principal Pops Conductor of the Pasadena Pops.