Michael Feinstein performs the whimsical classics of pop for childen of all ages

July 12, 1992|By Gary Lycan | Gary Lycan,Orange County Register

Singer-pianist Michael Feinstein is a kid at heart, a child at play in a wonderland of music borne out of his growing-up years in Columbus, Ohio.

"My tastes were always eclectic, I just didn't know what it was called. I knew that I liked certain things my parents had exposed me to, and, in retrospect, I know that most of the music I listened to while growing up were recordings of standards," Mr. Feinstein said.

At age 5, he was playing the piano by ear. In his early teens, he was collecting 78 rpm records. At 20, he got a job with the legendary lyricist Ira Gershwin, which turned into a lifelong friendship. A short time later, a party thrown by Liza Minnelli kicked his career into high gear as a interpreter of the American popular song.

"I treat the audience as if they're sitting in living room, in the best sense of that term," Mr. Feinstein said in a 1990 interview.

Two years later, at 35, the song stylist has taken that affection for family one step further and recorded a new album for children called "Pure Imagination" (Elektra Records).

"I hear it's doing well," Mr. Feinstein said in a phone interview from Atlantic City, N.J., where he was performing at Caesars Palace. "I started getting fan mail from kids and friends of mine who had children who had responded to the records I had made.

"It got me to thinking about the music I listened to as a child. I started looking around and listening to music that is available currently to young people. Most of it is all in the same pop-rock kind of mode.

"I thought it would be a very welcome addition to create something different. It certainly has been nice to hear from a lot of parents who tell me, 'This is the kind of record I can put on for my children, and we can listen to it together.' "

The pianist has dusted off some classics and given them new interpretations. He brings a smile to the sounds and a bouncy fun to the beat in such chestnuts as "Teddy Bears' Picnic," "Swingin' on a Star" and "The Jitterbug," the latter a song created for, filmed and deleted from "The Wizard of Oz" in 1939.

"It didn't take very long to get going on this album. In a period of two days, I selected about 80 percent of the material. When I get started, ideas start flying. One person suggested 'I Like Old People,' and another person recommended 'Pure Imagination' from 'Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.'

"I record very quickly. The process of making an album is like most things, a step-by-step procedure. There are many decisions to be made, such as the sequencing, the arrangers, where to record. Conception to recording was about four months. We recorded and mixed in one month, and it came out April 21," Mr. Feinstein said.

The album, targeted to children under 10, includes "Angels on My Pillow," written by Peggy Lee for a Broadway show about her life; "The Mole People," a never-before-recorded spoof of title songs created for a 1950s monster movie; the Disney classic "When You Wish upon a Star"; "Because We're Kids" and "The Dressing Room," created by Dr. Seuss for the film "The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T."; and even "Lydia, the Tatooed Lady," which Groucho Marx delightfully sang in the movie "The Marx Brothers at the Circus."

"I wanted to create a group of songs that are not only whimsical and fun, but have value and teach values, and would, hopefully, inspire some sort of imaginative thinking. I hope I've done that," he said.

Mr. Feinstein admitted, "I hate to practice the piano, but luckily I don't need to when I work every night. I haven't played small cabarets since 1987. I'm quite accustomed to larger venues. I like smaller situations, too, but I've gotten to the point of versatility. I do solo at the piano, others with a band, a symphony or some rhythm sections."

"At Caesars, I played a mix of Irving Berlin, Gershwin, several selections from the kids' album and some more glitzy material for a casino audience, like a Tin Pan Alley medley with a swing or big-band arrangement," he said.

The singer-composer is back in Los Angeles now, taking a break from his road touring. "I have my life structured. I take several months off here and there. Man can't live by performing alone. I still work very hard because opportunities come along you just can't pass up. I've got a contract to write a book. It's due in one year, so I'll necessarily take more time to write and invest in a laptop computer," he said.

Mr. Feinstein lives in the old part of Hollywood and keeps in close touch with his parents in the San Fernando Valley. What does he do for relaxation? "I'm very physical. In the last couple of years I have started to do a lot of exercise. I also have a rather elaborate home video system, so there are days when I never have a need to leave my house. I'm getting a little gray in my hair, and the other day Liza was looking at it and she told me I have to dye it. But I don't know. What's wrong with a little gray?"

By next September, Mr. Feinstein will have recorded three more albums. "I've been working on a continuing series on songwriters. I've done volume one of the 'Burton Lane Songbook' and Jule Styne accompanied me on 'The Jule Styne Songbook.' Scheduling is difficult, so we do it when time is convenient. In June I'm doing an album with the working title 'Isn't It Romantic, Vol. 2,' a follow-up to my 1988 release. It will include some standards and newer material, and be out in time for Christmas," he said.

Mr. Feinstein said he would like to do more albums for children. He tells this story:

"The other night at Caesars there was a 10-year-old girl in the audience. I spotted her and asked her what she was doing there. She told me, 'My parents let me take a nap so I could stay up and see you.' She came backstage, told me she had been playing piano for two years and then she played 'Spoonful of Sugar' for me. She was terrific."

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