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The Gershwins and Me
A Personal History in Twelve Songs, by Michael Feinstein.
Simon and Schuster, 352 pages, £32.00 ($45.00)
Includes a CD of Feinstein's recordings of 12 tunes.
Michael Feinstein was born in 1956. He started to learn the piano at the age of five. Before long he had decided that he preferred the kind of music reproduced exclusively on 78s.
Through pianist Oscar Levant’s recording of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue Feinstein became aware of Levant, who had been very close to the Gershwins, having been the first pianist to record the Rhapsody. Levant, a prominent TV performer at the time, and regarded by Feinstein as a genius, was addicted to prescription drugs and sleeping pills. He spent time in and out of mental hospitals before he died in 1972.
In 1976 in a used record store in Hollywood the young Feinstein discovered some of Levant’s personal record collection. These were acetates, movie studio discs and private recordings going back to 1934. Feinstein bought the lot for the then considerable sum of $200. He relates how he next contacted Levant’s widow, June. When they met he surprised June by sitting at the piano and playing Blame It on My Youth. By that time it was Levant’s only well-known tune.
Through June Levant he met Ira Gershwin and Ira’s wife, Lee. Feinstein describes how, in the Gershwin house, Lee Gershwin took him to a closet packed from floor to ceiling with records and all sorts of other media. Lee said she needed someone to organise the contents of the closet. Ira wasn’t well; he had trouble walking, and had described himself as being a “Rhapsody in Bruise”. Suddenly, Michael Feinstein was hired. He was twenty at the time; there was a sixty-year difference in age between Feinstein and Ira Gershwin.
Feinstein explains how the closet was a seemingly bottomless treasure trove, and how Ira Gershwin was delighted to discover how much Michael Feinstein knew about his work. Feinstein’s important account of the Gershwins and their legacy goes on to tell the Gershwin story through twelve songs, even coming up to Lady Gaga's 2010 performance of Someone to Watch Over Me. Michael Feinstein sums it all up when he says: “George Gershwin has comparatively brought a lot more joy to the planet than many religions.”
To that I say “Amen”.
John Robert Brown
Review first published in Jazz Journal, September 2013. Used by kind permission of the editor. Reproduction forbidden without permission.