Embraceable rhapsody: Feinstein on the Gershwins

The great interpreter of George and Ira's work offers a jam-packed love letter

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Any book that includes a CD of Michael Feinstein performing 12 Gershwin songs must be worth having. The popular pianist-singer's effusive paean to the Gershwins is flawed but nonetheless fascinating, informative and often insightful.

The main problem is that it's really several books in one, as indicated in the official bibliographic description as "biography and autobiography." It is both of those, along with digressions that expound the author's (quite interesting) views on songwriting, lyrics and the state of the American popular song past and present. Most of all, the book is a lengthy love letter to the great American song classics, which have been this brilliantly talented entertainer's obsession and his life's work. Still, the parts don't jell, and the reader is left with the impression of some disparate essays bound in one cover.

The biographical elements are split -- or interwoven -- between composer George Gershwin and his older brother Ira, who was George's most frequent lyricist and manager of the Gershwin estate after George's death in 1937.

By Michael Feinstein
Simon & Schuster ($45).

Ira, to whom this book is dedicated, was a shy but difficult man, who worshipped his brother and was devastated by his untimely death from a brain tumor that remained undiagnosed until it was too late. Ira lived in George's shadow, often by choice, knowing he was the less talented of the duo, although in retrospect he was one of the best pop song lyricists of the 20th century. Mr. Feinstein, born 1956, worked for Ira as a young man, got his start as a performer as a result of their association, and remained a friend until Ira's death in 1983.

Ira made Mr. Feinstein one of his literary executors, but "once [Ira's wife Lee Gershwin] inherited everything," the author tells us, "she changed her will to cut me out of the estate. Lee's attorney scared me into signing a piece of paper that removed any residual claims I might have had." Mrs. Gershwin was considered by some to be petulant and vindictive, and Mr. Feinstein later learned that she had substance abuse problems (mostly with prescription medications).

He is, however, infinitely forgiving, even sycophantic, when it comes to this controversial couple. Composer George is sometimes given a second place to them in the scheme of this volume. Mr. Feinstein's adulation of the lyricist allows him to dismiss far too flippantly a disgracefully homophobic line in "Girl Crazy": "On Western prairies, we shoot the fairies/Or send them back to the East."

The best parts of the book are devoted to the author's analyses of the Gershwin brothers' songs, and his recollections about subsequent performers of their music. The author can inspire the reader to rush to YouTube to find an obscure song, and he can describe an artist we've never seen in ways that make us feel we've been at their live performances. He may be a bit harsh when it comes to contemporary pop music, but he has the excuse of being admittedly and unabashedly stuck in the past.

Most of all, Mr. Feinstein's own performances have brought these old songs to life in ways that no printed words could possibly approach. The accompanying CD is a testament to his accomplishments.

bookreviews - music

Robert Croan is a senior editor and former Post-Gazette classical music critic.


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