Ahead of his Adelaide Cabaret Festival performance, Michael Feinstein chats about just what makes the music of Frank Sinatra and the surrounding era so consistently popular, and his own ambassadorship of the Great American Songbook.
Few people are more qualified to interpret and recount the music and surrounding life of Frank Sinatra than Michael Feinstein. The singer, pianist and archivist worked for Ira Gershwin for years, cataloguing his enormous collection of music, and became friends with titans of 20th century American music, including Frank Sinatra himself. As such, he’s become an ambassador for the Great American Songbook, performing hundreds of shows annually.
“It all happened gradually, or by default if you will,” he says of his assumption of this ambassadorship. “I’ve been doing it for a while now, so I find that the songs themselves find new audiences and I love being able to sing a Sinatra standard like I’ve Got the World on a String, and know that somebody may be hearing it for the first time.”
This ‘Great American Songbook’ is not so much a solid-state collection of tunes, but an “ever-evolving” body of work that “lives from generation to generation”, says Feinstein. “They’re classic songs that have stood the test of time. Things like Over the Rainbow, Singin’ in the Rain – dozens and dozens of famous songs that have been reinterpreted by all kinds of artists over the years. It’s classic American music of the 20th century that still has a lot of juice for today’s world.”
Frank Sinatra is certainly one of the most emblematic artists of the modern American canon. Feinstein will bring Sinatra’s oeuvre to life, alongside stories and music from his friends of the era, for Adelaide Cabaret Festival this week.
Just why is it that Sinatra still resonates so strongly in the public consciousness?
“I think it’s partially due to the longevity of his career, which spanned 50 years,” says Feinstein, who notes that while Ol’ Blue Eyes excited audiences with his “incredible charisma” and the “feeling of being on the edge when he sang” he was constantly embracing new music and finding fresh ways to interpret classic songs.
“He would take a song like Night and Day that he first sang as a ballad in the ‘30s, and in the ‘50s he did it as a swing number with Nelson Riddle, and in the ‘70s he did it as a disco number,” says Feinstein. “He was always trying to find new ways to sing the songs. It’s like finding a different setting for a classic diamond.”
Likewise, Sinatra was obsessive about quality, and getting everything right.
“He was not passive. A lot of singers would go into the studio and be handed the music, and they’d sing it… Frank Sinatra told the producer what he wanted. He’d say, ‘I need more brass here,’ or ‘I need the strings to play another phrase’ or ‘I need this quieter’. That was his code, though. He had to get it right, because those records would be around forever.”
Feinstein’s knowledge of the last century’s music, and the events that surrounded a lot of its production, is encyclopaedic. As such, his insight into the lives of these 20th Century superstars is a fascinating complement to his own impressive arrangements and renditions of said music.
“I knew Sinatra. He was a friend and he talked a lot about different singers. He loved Ella Fitzgerald, he loved Dean Martin, he loved Judy Garland. He listened to everybody and he did have favourites.
“You know, as much as he loved Ella Fitzgerald, in an interview with one of the major magazines in America in the ‘60s he criticised her phrasing. He said she breathes in the middle of a phrase and she’d cut off the thought of a song. Ella was very hurt by that – very hurt. But he spoke his mind, consequences be damned.”
It is this sort of personal insight that audiences should expect from Feinstein’s performance in Adelaide, which will add to their own understanding of those songs, the era they hail from, and the unique personalities who created them.
“First and foremost, my shows are always very entertaining,” says Feinstein. “They’re a lot of fun, but I do put the songs in a context and it makes them so much more resonant to know the background about the song or the recording session or how Frank felt about something, or another artist.“
Asked whether he thinks it’s nostalgia for these times-gone-by that powers the popularity of Sinatra’s work and the Great American Songbook, or simply their timelessness, Feinstein leans to the latter.
“I think that the songs themselves have emotions and values that appeal to people today,” he says. Certainly there are older generations that have memories and nostalgia connected with the songs, but I think that the songs resonate with people because we still have romance, we still have love, and people appreciate the eloquent way in which the songs are crafted – those beautiful lyrics and melodies. “
Michael Feinstein: Sinatra and Friends
Friday, June 23, 2:30pm & 7:30pm
Her Majesty’s Theatre