Sunday, November 7, 2010

C'mon and Hear!

I've resisted listening to Michael Feinstein for years. You'd think I would love him. Over the years he's released songbook albums dedicated to the masters like Gershwin and Porter and lesser-appreciated talents such as Ray Evans and Jay Livingstone. My sister loves him, and she'd openly wonder why I didn't listen to him, especially given my long-standing admiration for Bobby Short.

It's just that whereas Short was always effervescent and passionate when he sang, Feinstein always seemed to me to be cool and highly mannered. He'd sit at the piano with this constant angelic grin on his face and listening to him I felt nothing. So the guy helped the Gershwins' work, gaining the confidence of Ira in the late 1970s. It's a nice story. But he's still boring!

I warmed up to him,though,when he released a collection of Jimmy Webb songs. The sweeping orchestrations lifted Feinstein's vocals and brought a hyper-dramatic tone to Webb's lyrics. I was starting to be moved by what I was hearing.

Feinstein further gained my respect with the 3-part series, Michael Feinstein's American Songbook, which aired recently on PBS. If you love the history of popular music as much as I do, this is a DVD that you may have to put on your Christmas wish list. It's on mine!

What makes the series so remarkable is its clarification of Feinstein's life mission: to preserve the popular music of yesteryear through fastidious archival work and to insure its vitality through performance.

So we're treated to the sight of Michael Feinstein with a mask and rubber gloves on as he rummages through the mold-ridden garage of a sheet-music collector. We shake our heads in amazement as he visits Joe Franklin, New York's longtime late-night talk show host. Hey, most people would call Franklin's surroundings a shining example of the hoarding illness depicted on TLC. But that's all about saving things that aren't essential. Franklin's digs are a gold-mine to any music or pop-culture lover. Hope you got Joe to sign over his belongings to you like Ira did, Michael!

We see Feinstein in the basement of his home, digitizing old tapes and discs of radio shows that he's acquired by visiting "hoarders" like Joe Franklin. An especially moving moment is when he visits an elderly Margaret Whiting and plays her an old radio show on which she appeared. Looking into her eyes as she listens, we can only imagine what she is feeling, but we know it must be deeply pleasurable.

The series also tells the history of twentieth-century popular song. We learn that the invention of amplified sound in the form of the microphone was a watershed event, and we're treated to outtakes of many great performers like Al Jolson, Lena Horne, Bing Crosby, and Frank Sinatra. Figures such as Ethel Waters (who Feinstein posits was more influential on singers than Louie Armstrong) and Alice Faye (who introduced much of the popular songbook in film) are also given their due.

A rich calvacade of musicians--Paul Whiteman, Mitch Miller, Duke Ellington and man more--are placed in historical context by Feinstein. I was furiously taking notes.

I can't wait to get this DVD on my shelf next to the books in my musical history library. Rent it on NetFlix and get hooked like me!

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