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Breakfast With

Michael Feinstein

Monday, September 25, 2000

By Marylynn Uricchio, SEEN Editor

Michael Feinstein is a singer, composer, arranger, popular music scholar, archivist and collector. He has recorded 17 albums, most recently "Big City Rhythms" with the Maynard Ferguson Big Band. Last year he opened a nightclub in partnership with New York's Regency Hotel called Feinstein's at the Regency. Feinstein performed at Benedum Center Saturday as the star of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust's Designs on Downtown gala.

Q How do you get a title like "America's Ambassador of Song?"

A I can feel the weight of that title! It comes from the generosity of the press. Several people have said that about me. I don't claim to be, but I'm not going to argue. It's like trying to wear a crown. I met the Queen Mother many years ago at a royal command performance, and a friend asked if she had a queenly aura. I said, "Well, the crown helps."

Michael Feinstein 

Q You worked for Ira Gershwin for six years. Doing what?

A I was his personal assistant cataloging what he referred to as his "Gershwiniana." He was extremely quiet, shy, self-effacing and very kind. I adored him. He was like my grandfather who happened to be a brilliant hit songwriter.

Q Who has influenced you in your career?

A As a child I was very influenced by one of Pittsburgh's own -- Oscar Levant. He was an extraordinary character, being a brilliant concert pianist, a hit songwriter, composer of classical music and a radio, film and television personality. He had one of the greatest senses of humor. When Eddie Fisher left Debbie Reynolds for Elizabeth Taylor, he said, "How high can anyone stoop?"

Q Is there anyone else?

A I was very influenced by Fred Astaire as a singer. If you consider the number of songs he introduced by Gershwin, [Irving] Berlin, [Jerome] Kern, Cole Porter, Arthur Schwartz, Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer -- they all wanted him to produce their songs in his movies because they became hits. I think he was a great singer. I'm not talking about the quality of his voice. I'm talking about his interpretive abilities.

Q How big is your collection of popular music items?

A Big. Very big. It's thousands of pieces of music. Thousands of recordings. I have a house in L.A. that's 15,000 feet that used to be the Russian consulate. It's going to be in Architectural Digest next month, as a matter of fact. It allows me to display a great deal of the memorabilia, which I haven't been able to do in the past.

Q How's your nightclub doing?

A It's doing great. It's been very successful, and I'm very grateful because it's a big gamble. There's really not a lot of money in the nightclub world because the economics make it a shaky proposition. The cover charge is on the high side -- it's really equivalent to a ticket to a Broadway musical. It can range from $40 to $60. When Rosemary Clooney plays the club, she sells out immediately, but it's the only place that you can see her up close. Everywhere else she's in large theaters, and people love that intimacy. It's a small room that only holds 140 people.

Q Who's the greatest songwriter ever?

A If you want to talk about the greatest number of hits, it's a name that's unknown to most. Harry Warren. He had more hits than even Irving Berlin. He composed the music for dozens of standards and won three Academy Awards. He wrote "Chattanooga Choo-Choo," "I Only Have Eyes For You," "Jeepers Creepers," "Lullaby of Broadway," "42nd Street," "That's Amore," "The More I See You," the list goes on and on.

Q What is it about music that you like?

A Music will always be the most important thing in my life. I've always found that music is something that has sustained me. My parents exposed me to music at a very early age, and when I was 4 and 5 I understood emotionally the effect music had because it made me feel different, it awakened something inside of me that I hadn't experienced before. I think that music, in addition to being a brilliant art, is also mystical. It can heal and it can transform, and it's a bridge to a very ephemeral world that is important for our survival.

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