Singer and musician Michael Feinstein has become one of the essential voices of a generation, charting a spectacular career that celebrates the music of the Great American Songbook, and bringing iconic popular songs to audiences worldwide. His talents have earned him five Grammy Award nominations as well as Emmy nominations for his beloved PBS television specials and his acclaimed NPR series. Beyond his life as an artist and educator, Feinstein was a dear friend to Barbara and Frank Sinatra, and frequently visited them over the years. In 2011, Feinstein debuted his PBS special Michael Feinstein: The Sinatra Legacy to great applause, a tribute to a man whose kindness Feinstein says he will never forget. Ahead of Sotheby’s Lady Blue: Property of Barbara and Frank Sinatra auction (6 December, New York), we spoke with Feinstein about his favorite Sinatra memories.
As the Ambassador of the Great American Songbook, you have performed the music of Frank Sinatra for live audiences around the world and memorably in your PBS special The Sinatra Project. How did you first learn about the music of Frank Sinatra?
His voice has been with me my entire life. Frank Sinatra’s music is iconic and many people consider him to be the single greatest pop singer of the 20th century. I came to his music, as many did, through osmosis. It was always a part of my life. When I was child I would hear his voice on the radio. I’d see him in movies. His records were in my parents’ collection. When I was five years old I was aware of the voice of Frank Sinatra.
As I grew older and became a musician and a singer, I gained a true awareness of how he changed the face of American popular music by being the first singer to travel around the world performing what we now call American popular standards or the Great American Songbook. He sang popular songs without apology, around the world at the Sydney Opera House and Buckingham Palace. He granted validity to the music I now sing for my livelihood. His influence in that regard, aside from his vocal art, is incredibly culturally significant.
"Every time I began one these very obscure songs, Frank would glance over and give me this perplexed look, with his head cocked to one side. After about an hour, he came over to me and said 'Jesus, how do you know all those songs. How old are you twelve?'"
When did you first become acquainted with Barbara and Frank Sinatra?
As a young person in Los Angeles, I was making my career as a piano player and singer, and would often be hired to play private parties. I received call from Chasen's, the famed old West Hollywood spot, asking me to play Frank Sinatra’s birthday party. Excited and a bit nervous, I arrived early that night. In the back room, where the party would be, there was an upright piano that I began to play, mindlessly, waiting for the guests to arrive. They slowly trickled in: Don Rickles, Johnny Carson, Gregory Peck, Dinah Shore. Then the Sinatras arrived, nodded and took their seats. I was 21 years old and the background music, but I played as many little-known songs that Sinatra had performed as I could muster hoping he would notice me. Every time I began one these very obscure songs, Frank would glance over and give me this perplexed look, with his head cocked to one side. After about an hour, he came over to me and said “Jesus, how do you know all those songs. How old are you twelve?”
After that he and Barbara invited me over to their house. I would go over for parties or dinners and we became friends. Frank Sinatra loved piano players. No matter what city he was in, after-hours he would find a piano bar, and if he liked the player he would give him a couple of hundred bucks to stay on. The man loved music. It kept him happy and he could not get enough of it.
You became quite close to Barbara. How would you describe her love story with Frank?
Barbara shared her life with an extremely famous man with an artistic temperament, but she held her own and guided him in the background with tremendous support. Unlike many people who were intimidated by his fame, she wouldn’t put up with shenanigans and was emotionally his equal. He knew that and respected her for it. Theirs was an extraordinary, enduring relationship, and a testament to Barbara who understood all sides of him, Frank Sinatra in his totality, as an artist and a man. She saw what was in his heart.
"She was at once contemporary and classic and she had a sense of reserve, an ability to always be elegant, but never ostentatious. The way she presented herself was in a way similar to the way she ran the household. The homes were gorgeous, but there was also an element of comfort. You never felt like you couldn’t sit on the couch."
Do you have any favorite memories of her?
When I went to their for house for dinner for the first time, Barbara was so sensitive, making sure I was comfortable and felt included. She introduced me to everyone that night and even asked me if I would like to sing, giving me the incredibly generous opportunity to perform in front of Frank and all these other famous and important people. I demurred because I was too intimidated, but I was so struck that in the midst of hosting this party with so many celebrities, she was mindful of my feelings and making me feel welcome. I never forgot that.
She was also a very glamorous woman, wouldn't you say?
Barbara had extraordinary taste and style. She owned dazzling jewels and the finest designer pieces, but it was never too much. Whatever she wore, it always complemented her perfectly. She was at once contemporary and classic and she had a sense of reserve, an ability to always be elegant, but never ostentatious. The way she presented herself was in a way similar to the way she ran the household. The homes were gorgeous, but there was also an element of comfort. You never felt like you couldn’t sit on the couch. She was a woman who put people at ease. That in itself is an art that she perfected that shown through in the way that they as a couple lived their lives.
Throughout your career you’ve dedicated several projects and performances to the music of Frank Sinatra. What inspired these?
When it comes to a legend like Frank Sinatra people often become intrigued with the persona more so than the art. With the likes of Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley, as well as Frank, it’s the legend that later generations become aware of, rather than their artistic contributions. What intrigues me is Frank’s musical legacy, and I wanted to pay tribute to the gifts that made him famous: his peerless ability to turn a phrase; his way of plumbing the depth of a lyric emotionally; his way of reinventing the way a song is heard or performed by adding a new swing accompaniment. He had a way of making things his own.
And, more than that, it was that Frank Sinatra was so generous to me at the beginning of my career, when I was a nobody. When I’d sit at the Sinatras' parties, I’d ask him questions, about his early days in New York and his musical influences. He’d always mention Mabel Mercer and Billie Holiday. He treated me as his musical peer and I’ll always remember how incredibly supportive he was. His legacy doesn’t need me to perform a song to keep it alive, but I wanted to express my appreciation for what he did for me both on a personal and professional level. And also to remind people of the timelessness of his art.
Do you have a favorite Sinatra song?
There are so many – I have to choose a few. From his early years I love “Some Other Time” and “Time After Time,” both written for Frank by Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn. From the period when he was collaborating with Nelson Riddle, I have to be absolutely mundane and choose his perfect performance of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” It’s an obvious choice because it endures. It’s an indestructible, perfect recording. From his later years, “You and Me, We Wanted It All,” is very powerful. It’s a song of looking back with regret, tenderness and nostalgia and one that he could sing so searingly from his life experience. It’s a song we can all understand and the kind of song Frank Sinatra sang better than anybody.