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'Gershwins And Me' Tells The Stories Behind 12 Songs

Michael Feinstein (right) worked for six years as Ira Gershwin's cataloger and archivist. (Simon & Schuster)

Long before singer and pianist Michael Feinstein became famous in his own right, he had the privilege of working closely with legendary songwriter Ira Gershwin, as his archivist and cataloger. In his new book, The Gershwins and Me: A Personal History in Twelve Songs, Feinstein writes firsthand about the musical world of the American composers and brothers, George and Ira Gershwin.

The book is presented through the stories of 12 of the Gershwins' songs, among them "Fascinating Rhythm," "The Man I Love" and "I Got Rhythm." The book also comes with a CD of Feinstein performing the songs that are central to the book.

Over his six years working with Ira Gershwin, Feinstein had access to rare Gershwin recordings and found unpublished sheet music, which is how he discovered Ira had written another version of the lyric "The Man I Love." Feinstein tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross that "Ira wrote a version that went, 'Someday she'll come along, the girl I love, her smile will be a song, the girl I love.' " When Feinstein found the lyrics for "The Girl I Love," he presented them to Ira, who proclaimed, "Oh, this isn't any good," and ripped up the alternate lyrics. "He felt the song was so popular as 'The Man I Love' that he didn't think it should be monkeyed with," Feinstein explains.

For the song "I Got Rhythm," Feinstein points out that what's special about the song is that most of the lyric does not rhyme. When Ira first heard George play the melody, he wrote a dummy lyric — a set of words that wouldn't be used for the final version of the text, but would give the author a sense of how words will feel with a particular tune.

As Ira began writing dummy lyrics, Feinstein says, "George felt that the use of rhymes with that tune sounded too cloying, so then he started experimenting with words that did not rhyme, which was absolutely taboo ... and he finally decided to create a lyric that had no rhymes ... except for the bridge, which is how it stood."

Feinstein still remembers his early meetings with Ira Gershwin in Los Angeles in 1977: "Ira was in a state of great depression because one of his close friends had passed away," he recalls. "And Ira was already reclusive, and very sedentary." An eager scholar of the Gershwins' work, Feinstein would ask Ira questions about the recordings he was finding, some of them dating back to 1917. "By playing these Gershwin recordings that I pulled out of the closet ... it brought him back, and suddenly he had a spark."


Interview Highlights

On stumbling onto 'one of the greatest musical theater discoveries of the century'

"In 1982, there turned up in Secaucus, N.J., at the Warner Brothers music warehouse — which is the place where Warners kept all of their stock of their published music that they would sell — suddenly somebody who was working in that warehouse, a guy named Henry Cohen, found these boxes and boxes of music that looked like manuscript material, of not only George Gershwin, but of Victor Herbert and Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Schwartz and Cole Porter and Vincent Youmans, and on and on and on.

"And we were called, we being Ira Gershwin, for whom I worked in 1982 ... and they said, 'There are these manuscripts of George's here and lyric sheets of yours and somebody better come and look at them,' and Ira said, 'Oh, no, that stuff was destroyed long ago, that's a mistake.' So he sent me to look and see what was there only because of the insistence of the folks in New Jersey — even though Ira was convinced that we would find nothing. And it turns out that I found, amongst all these boxes, 87 original manuscripts in George Gershwin's hand, plus copies of scores that had been lost for 50 and 60 years. For some reason, they were all there, and it turned out to be one of the greatest musical theater discoveries of the century."

On why George Gershwin would not let white actors and singers perform in his opera, Porgy and Bess

"George had a very special feeling for Porgy and Bess, and he felt that it was his great masterwork. And he wanted to depict these characters in a way that was taken very seriously, at a time when many people didn't want to know or see a work that consisted entirely of an all African-American cast. It's a very volatile period in our history because it's 1935, it's the Depression, and when George undertook the writing of Porgy and Bess, everybody was against him.

"He was considered by some to be a Tin Pan Alley and how could he have the nerve to write an opera? The classical world said: 'This is absurd, who does he think he is?' The Jewish community was agog. Of course the black community said: 'Our own people should be writing about our race, who is this guy to do it?' I mean, everybody was against him — except he had this vision and he had to fulfill it, and he absolutely believed in what he knew, what was inside of him. ... And even after it opened, and it was financially a failure, he still maintained that it would one day be regarded as his greatest work, and, of course, he was right."

On the inspiration for Ira Gershwin's lyric for They All Laughed

"There used to be a famous magazine and newspaper ad that showed a drawing of a man sitting at the piano, and it said above it, 'They all laughed when I sat down to play the piano.' And it was an advertisement for a quickie course in how to learn to play the piano, and that phrase, 'they all laughed,' was something that stuck in Ira's head. And he later used it as the inspiration for a love song, and when he played the song for George S. Kaufman — Kaufman hated love songs — and at first Kaufman liked the idea that the lyric was something that was not in reference to romance, and then when it got to the bridge, 'They laughed at me wanting you,' he said, 'Oh, don't tell me this is another romantic song.' But that was Ira, who was always trying to find a way of expressing love without saying 'I love you,' and that's why he was so proud of They All Laughed."

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, and this is the voice of George Gershwin.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GEORGE GERSHWIN: Good evening ladies and gentlemen. I've just played for you my personal arrangements of "Fascinating Rhythm" and "Liza." I played these two tunes...

GROSS: We're going to hear more from George Gershwin and a recording of Ira Gershwin singing and hear the stories behind some of their great songs. The recordings are from the collection of my guest Michael Feinstein, who has written a new book called "The Gershwins and Me: A Personal History in Twelve Songs."

Before Feinstein became famous for performing American popular song, he had the privilege of working closely with Ira Gershwin as his archivist and cataloguer during the last six years of Ira Gershwin's life. Feinstein had access to rare Gershwin recordings, and he unearthed rare recordings of unpublished music. Ira died in 1983, long outliving his brother and songwriting partner George, who died in 1937.

Feinstein's new book comes with a CD of Feinstein performing the 12 songs that are at the center of the book. Let's start with Michael Feinstein's favorite recording of the George and Ira Gershwin song "Fascinating Rhythm," featuring George Gershwin at the piano, accompanying Fred and Adele Astaire in 1926.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FASCINATING RHYTHM")

FRED ASTAIRE: (Singing) Grab a little rhythm, rhythm, a rhythm, that pitter-pats through my brain, so darn persistent, the day isn't distant, but it'll drive me insane.

ADELE ASTAIRE: (Singing) Comes in the morning, without any warning and hangs around me all day.

FRED AND ADELE ASTAIRE: (Singing) I'll have to sneak up to it, someday and speak up to it, I hope it listens when I say fascinating rhythm, you've got me on the go. Fascinating rhythm, I'm all a-quiver. What a mess you're making, the neighbors want to know why I'm always shaking, just like a flivver.

(Singing) Each morning I get up with the sun, start a-hopping, never stopping to find that night, no work has been done. I know that once it didn't matter, but now you're doing wrong...

GROSS: Michael Feinstein, welcome back to FRESH AIR, and thank you so much for choosing some great recordings for us to listen to today. Why is the Fred and Adele Astaire version with Gershwin at the piano your favorite version of "Fascinating Rhythm?"

MICHAEL FEINSTEIN: It's my favorite because it has a kind of energy and a snap, an essence of the '20s that has gotten lost with that song through the decades. It is so live and in the moment and energetic and recreates in my mind what it must have been like to be in the room with Fred and Adele and George at the piano. I think it's just an incredible document.

GROSS: How did Gershwin first start working with the Astaires?

FEINSTEIN: George Gershwin first met Fred and Adele Astaire when George was hired as a song plugger, which means that he was working for a music publishing house, playing the piano in a cubicle amongst many other cubicles that featured guys playing the piano, trying to get different performers to perform the songs of this publisher.

And so Fred and Adele were literally kids. They were teenagers who had this very successful vaudeville act, and they met George Gershwin, who was a song plugger, and he played songs that the publisher was trying to disseminate, and at one point he said, you know, I write songs, too.

And Fred and Adele listened to him play some of his own stuff, and I think it was Fred who said, gee, wouldn't it be great if we did a show one day, where you wrote the music, and Adele and I starred in it. And that's exactly what came to pass about a decade later.

GROSS: So the story behind the song, you actually filled in some of the blanks of the story behind the song because you found a draft, a really early draft, of "Fascinating Rhythm." How did you find it, and what did you find?

FEINSTEIN: In 1982, there turned up in Secaucus, New Jersey, at the Warner Brothers Music Warehouse, which is the place where Warner has kept all of their stock of their published music that they would sell. Suddenly somebody who was working in that warehouse, a guy named Henry Cohen(ph), found these boxes and boxes of music that looked like manuscript material of not only George Gershwin but of Victor Herbert and Leonard Bernstein and Arthur Schwartz and Cole Porter and Vincent Youmans and on and on and on.

And we were called - we, being Ira Gershwin, for whom I worked in 1982 - he was, what 83 or 84 at that point - and they said there are these manuscripts of George's here and lyric sheets of yours, and somebody better come and look at them. And Ira said, oh, no, that stuff was destroyed long ago. That's a mistake.

So he sent me to look and see what was there only because of the insistence of the folks in New Jersey, even though Ira was convinced that we would find nothing. And it turns out that I found, amongst all these boxes, 87 original manuscripts in George Gershwin's hand plus copies of scores that had been lost for 50 and 60 years. For some reason, they were all there, and it turned out to be one of the greatest musical theater discoveries of the century.

GROSS: So what did you learn about the early version of "Fascinating Rhythm?"

FEINSTEIN: One of the things I learned was that it had another title, which was "Syncopated City," which was the dummy or working title that George had appended to that tune. So it told me that he wrote the song absolutely as something that was inspired by the city of New York, by the energy of Manhattan, and it also contained a little passage that George plays on that 1926 recording that we just listened to - (humming)...

It's a little interlude that he plays on that recording that no one knew what it was, and there it is in his hand, written out. So it must have been part of the dance music that Fred and Adele danced to in 1924.

GROSS: And you have another interesting story about "Fascinating Rhythm," which is that George Gershwin told Ira Gershwin that the last two syllables of certain lines in the song had to be two-syllable words. Would you explain why?

FEINSTEIN: Whenever George would come up with a tune, there was a certain way that the words would have to fall on the tune. Ira preferred to write to a melody, but that meant that the words had to be fitted like a suit with a tailor so there was not an accent, as Frank Loesser would say, on the wrong syllable.

(LAUGHTER)

FEINSTEIN: And so - we put the accent upon the wrong syllable, and we sing a tropical song. So George wanted to make sure that (humming) there had to be a word that made sense that was accented at the end of those phrases. So Ira came up with fascinating rhythm, you got me on the go, fascinating rhythm, I'm all aquiver.

And those words that came at the end of the phrase were the ones that had to be the more important part of what the statement would be lyrically. And so it's really the opposite of the way something is usually expressed musically.

GROSS: So the accent on the words had to conform with the syncopation of the music.

FEINSTEIN: Absolutely, that was the trick. Just as with many other Gershwin songs, it was always up to Ira to make sense out of a tune that sometimes was a little wonky or odd rhythmically, and he had to come up with words that would sound inevitable with that odd juxtaposition.

GROSS: So I want to play another song that you've brought with you, and we asked Michael Feinstein to bring some of his favorite Gershwin recordings and some rarities. And this is a song I want to talk with you about. So this is a Peggy Lee recording of "The Man I Love," one of the Gershwins' great songs, with Nelson Riddle's orchestra recorded in 1957.

So before we talk about the song, tell us why you love this version of it.

FEINSTEIN: "The Man I Love" has almost become a cliche in the sense that the song has been heard and performed so many times that it becomes harder and harder as time progresses for a singer to perform the song with great sincerity, one of the reasons being that the song is something that lyrically could be considered maudlin in these days because it's the quintessential torch song: Someday he'll come along, that man, he'll come for me.

So it takes a really great interpreter to be able to take a lyric that borders now on cliche because it was written in a particular time and to make it absolutely immediate and fresh and make it believable. And Peggy Lee, who recorded this song three decades after it was written, sings the song with such connection, sincerity and simplicity, and of course Nelson Riddle's arrangement is one that is supreme in its majesty.

GROSS: It's really beautiful. Let's hear it. So this is Peggy Lee, 1957, "The Man I Love."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE MAN I LOVE")

PEGGY LEE: (Singing) Someday he'll come along, the man I love, and he'll be big and strong, the man I love. And when he comes my way I'll do my best to make him stay. He'll look at me and smile, I'll understand, and in a little while he'll take my hand. And though it seems absurd, I know we both won't say a word.

(Singing) Maybe I will meet him Sunday, maybe Monday, maybe not. Still I'm sure to meet him one day. Maybe Tuesday will be my good news day. He'll build a little home...

GROSS: That's Peggy Lee, with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra, recorded in 1957, the George and Ira Gershwin song "The Man I Love." That's one of the recordings chosen for us today by my guest Michael Feinstein, who has a new book called "The Gershwins and Me: A Personal History in Twelve Songs."

What do you think was innovative about this song when it was written?

FEINSTEIN: The interesting thing about the song is that it was originally a verse. It was something that was an introduction to a different chorus, and Ira and George decided that the music that George had come up with for this verse or introduction that was expendable was so insistent that it should become the chorus of the song.

One of the things that I think is so interesting about the song is that the melody repeats, (humming), but harmonically, it has this downward progression that touches the heart in a way that creates this yearning or longing. It's something that musically, in musical construction, is a form that is more sophisticated for Broadway of that time.

What I mean is that a lot of the songs that were written were created with a sense of the composers trying to create something that was popular, that would be a hit. And "The Man I Love" is a song that is so different from so many of the songs that were created in that time, in that it is a weighty musical affair, and harmonically the bridge is one of the great releases or bridges of any popular song.

As a matter of fact, Leonard Bernstein, whenever he would sit down at a party and play a song, and if he couldn't think of the bridge, he would always automatically play the bridge of "The Man I Love," and it became a great party joke for him.

GROSS: You also write in your book that there was a version "The Man I Love" that Ira wrote that's the "The Girl I Love," and the lyric is different. He didn't just, like, substitute man and girl. The lyrics change. Can you describe how the lyric was changed and why?

FEINSTEIN: Yes, "The Man I Love" is a song that was thrown out of three of the Gershwins' musicals. The first show it was deleted from was "Lady Be Good," for which it was written, and it was introduced by Adele Astaire, and it slowed up the action of the show, and it was cut in Philadelphia after the first night or the first couple of nights, depending on who you ask.

Then George and Ira tried to put it into the 1927 version of a show called "Strike Up the Band," and that show failed and closed out of town, but it was for the 1927 version of "Strike Up the Band" that they wrote a version called "The Girl I Love," which was sung by Morton Downey Sr., who was a very popular high-voiced Irish tenor.

And Ira wrote a version that went: Someday she'll come along, the girl I love. Her smile will be a song, the girl I love. And the ending was: For her I'll do and dare as ne'er before. Our hopes and dreams will share forevermore.

And the show closed. The lyric, the male version was never published, and then the song eventually became popular on its own when it was picked up by Helen Morgan and became this great Gershwin standard.

GERSHWIN: Well, many years later when I was working for Ira, I found the lyric for "The Girl I Love," and I showed it to him, and he said, oh, this isn't any good. And he immediately ripped it up.

(LAUGHTER)

FEINSTEIN: And I said oh no, but I thought I have to, you know, let the author have his way, and I didn't take it out of the wastebasket, I respected the fact that he didn't want it heard. He felt the song was so popular as "The Man I Love," he didn't think it should be monkeyed with.

And then shortly thereafter, a script for the 1927 version of "Strike Up the Band" turned up because the script was lost, and in it was once again the lyric for "The Girl I Love," and when Ira looked at the script and saw the lyric on that day, he said, hey, this isn't bad.

(LAUGHTER)

FEINSTEIN: And I said oh, well, can I sing it? He said sure.

(LAUGHTER)

FEINSTEIN: So that day he was in a different mood, and that's why the lyric was saved.

GROSS: So which way do you usually like to sing it, "The Man I Love" or "The Girl I Love?"

FEINSTEIN: It depends on the audience. You know, I have sung it both ways, and sometimes I play it instrumentally. When I first recorded it as "The Girl I Love," I recounted in the notes of my first album a story of playing Ira a recording of the San Francisco Gay Man's Chorus singing "The Man I Love."

And at that time it made Ira very uncomfortable, even though he had no prejudice or anything against gay rights, and he knew that I was gay, but he never expected to hear that song sung by a very masculine and robust chorus as "The Man I Love." And he said OK, I've heard enough of that.

And I recounted that story in the notes of the album and got a very nasty note from a guy saying how dare you, and I'll never listen to your music again, missing the point of what I was trying to express. But I do switch it around depending on how it feels.

GROSS: Ira Gershwin you say was comfortable with gay people, but he just couldn't imagine the song being sung by a man to a man or by a woman to a woman.

FEINSTEIN: No, he never conceived that, even though so many of his friends were gay, and George also was very matter of fact about it. In one letter he wrote to Ira, he was recounting he was at a party, and he said Herbie Fields and a sweetheart, referring to Herbie Fields' boyfriend. So it was not an issue for them.

GROSS: My guest is Michael Feinstein. His new book is called "The Gershwins and Me." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Michael Feinstein, and he has a new book called "The Gershwins and Me: A Personal History in Twelve Songs." And he worked with Ira Gershwin - for about six years?

FEINSTEIN: Yes, yes, six years and one month.

GROSS: An issue you raise in the book is whether George Gershwin was gay because there was speculation about that. Who did the speculating?

FEINSTEIN: Well, so many speculated that George Gershwin was gay because he never got married. And somebody once said to Oscar Levant, you know, George is bedding all those women because he's trying to prove he's a man. And Oscar Levant said: What a wonderful way to prove it.

(LAUGHTER)

FEINSTEIN: There have always been rumors circulating about George's sexuality, and I addressed it because so many people have asked me about it, and it's important to the gay community to identify famous personalities as being gay. In the case of George, it's all rather mysterious because I never encountered any man who claimed to have a relationship with George, but a lot of innuendo.

Yet Simone Simon said that she thought that Gershwin must be gay because when they were on a trip together, he never laid a hand on her, she said. Cecelia Ager, who was a very close friend of George's and whose husband Milton Ager was George's roommate, once at the dinner said, well, of course, you know, George was gay.

And Milton said: Cecilia, how can you say that, how can you say that? And she just looked at him and said: Milton, you don't know anything.

(LAUGHTER)

FEINSTEIN: But when I asked her about it, she wouldn't talk about it. So it still remains a mystery. My own theory is that I think that the thing that mattered most to George was his music. I think he could have been confused sexually. I don't know. I think that he had trouble forming a lasting relationship.

Kitty Carlisle talked about how George asked her to marry him, but she said that she knew that he wasn't deeply in love with her. But she fit the demographic of what his mother felt would be the right woman for him.

GROSS: Just one more question about this. When you were in your 20s and started working for Ira Gershwin, there were still, you know, several of the, you know, great American songwriters from the '20s and the '30s and the '40s who were, you know, still around. They were older, but they were around.

And I'm sure some of them were gay. They probably knew you were gay. But were you - did you have a whole list of secrets that you had to keep? Do you know what I mean? Because that generation, those generations, they weren't out, and they probably were not going to come out.

FEINSTEIN: Yes, yes, it's true, there are things that I know about certain personalities and songwriters that I am still sworn to secrecy about because they're not things that they would want revealed.

GROSS: Right, right. Michael Feinstein will be back in the second half of the show. His new book is called "The Gershwins and Me." Here's one of his favorite recordings of the Gershwin song "I've Got a Crush On You," featuring Ella Fitzgerald and pianist Ellis Larkins recorded in 1950. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Michael Feinstein. Before he became famous for his performances of American popular song, he worked as Ira Gershwin's archivist during the last six years of his life. In Feinstein's new book, "The Gershwins and Me: A Personal History in Twelve Songs," he draws on his memories of Ira Gershwin and his knowledge of rare Gershwin recordings and unpublished music. The book comes with a CD of Feinstein performing songs he discusses in the book.

We asked you to bring with you some rare Gershwin recordings - recordings of their songs or recordings featuring the Gershwins. So this is a recording of an interview on the radio with George Gershwin. And it segues right into him performing a song. So tell us what we're hearing.

FEINSTEIN: This is a recording from Rudy Valle's "Fleischmann' Hour." Rudy Valle was one of the biggest stars of the media at that time and he had everybody on his radio show. And the great thing is that he had songwriters on his show, including Cole Porter and many others. And George Gershwin was on his program several times, and thanks to Rudy Valle, who saved everything, this radio transcription still exists, because there are so many other recordings of George on the radio that were destroyed that I wish to God were around. But because of Rudy Valle's very healthy ego, this recording was saved and it is the only interview with George Gershwin. There are recordings of Gershwin's speaking, and even though this is scripted, it still is pretty interesting. And then you hear this amazing spontaneous performance of George playing "I Got Rhythm."

GROSS: OK. So let's hear it. And what year did you say this was?

FEINSTEIN: This is 1933.

GROSS: OK. So this is Rudy Valle interviewing George Gershwin on Rudy Valle's radio program.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RUDY VALLE: When you work with your brother Ira, which comes first, the words or the music?

GERSHWIN: Usually the music. I hit on a new tune, play it for Ira and he hums it all over the place after a while until he gets an idea for the lyrics, and then we work the thing out together.

VALLE: Are you working on anything new right now, George?

GERSHWIN: Yes. Ira and I are working on a new show called "Pardon My English." The thing is already in rehearsal and we're still trying to finish the score.

VALLE: What contemporary American composers do you most admire?

GERSHWIN: Jerome Kern and Irving Berlin. Both of them have been very helpful to me. Incidentally, I believe Kearn's "Show Boat" score to be the finest light opera achievement in the history of American music.

VALLE: And I agree with you. Tell me, how did you get your start in music, George?

GERSHWIN: Well, I left high school to take a job as a song plugger at Remick for $15 a week.

VALLE: That's 45 less than I used to get. Remember, I said I was going to ask questions any member of the audience might think of. How much money do you make now, George?

GERSHWIN: About half as much as you do, Rudy. How much is that?

VALLE: Well, it's not as much as I told this afternoon (unintelligible). Now look, George, let's remember we're artists after all. One more question. Which of your show tunes do you prefer yourself?

GERSHWIN: This one, Rudy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: That's George Gershwin playing "I Got Rhythm" on Rudy Valle's radio program in 1933. And before that we heard Vallee interviewing George Gershwin.

So let's talk about "I Got Rhythm," which we just heard. What makes that song special?

FEINSTEIN: One of the things that is unique about "I Got Rhythm" is that it's a song that for most of the lyric does not rhyme. When Ira first heard George play that melody, he started working with different ideas and he wrote what is referred to as a dummy lyric. In other words, a set of words that will not be used for the final version of the text but are words that give the author a sense of how any words feel with a particular tune. Because with any given melody, when you set words to it, they take on a different feeling or vibe - if you will. And Ira would sometimes write a dummy lyric to get a sense of what kind of final version he was going to have to create, and it also told him where the accents were, where he had to accent certain phrases. So he started experimenting with rhyming dummies and he wrote: (Singing) Roly-poly, eating solely. Ravioli, you better watch your diet or bust. Lunch or dinner. You're a sinner. Please get thinner; losing all that fat is a must. (Speaking) And he felt that, that the use of rhymes with that tune sounded too cloying. And so then he started experimenting with words that did not rhyme, which was absolutely taboo. And he came up with something like: (Singing) Just go forward. Don't look backward, and you'll soon be winding up ahead of the game. (Speaking) Something like that. And he finally decided to create a lyric that had no rhymes in it except for the bridge, and that's how it stood.

GROSS: And just recite the lyric for us.

FEINSTEIN: I got rhythm. I got music. I got my man. Who could ask for anything more? I got daisies in green pastures. I got my man. Who could ask for anything more? And so on.

GROSS: Ethel Merman became the first person to sing this song. How was she chosen?

FEINSTEIN: Ethel Merman was an extraordinary performer. For people who don't know her work, she had a voice that was so courageous that it was Irving Berlin who said you'd better never write a bad song for Ethel because if you do, you'll hear it.

(LAUGHTER)

FEINSTEIN: And in the early days of Broadway, she had this voice that could be heard all the way through the theater, and she had become successful in vaudeville. And Vinton Freedley brought Ethel Merman to sing for George Gershwin. I think she was 18 at the time, and George heard this kid perform and he couldn't believe it. He played the songs that he had written for the character that Ethel was to portray in "Girl Crazy" and when she finished singing these songs he was so bowled over that he knew that he found the perfect person to introduce, among others, "I Got Rhythm."

On the opening night of "Girl Crazy," Merman stopped the show and had to repeat "I Got Rhythm" multiple times. And it was Roger Edens, who later who became very famous in Hollywood, who came up with the device of having Merman in the second chorus of "I Got Rhythm" hold this note for an elongated number of bars.

GROSS: So I'm going to play an excerpt of Ethel Merman singing "I Got Rhythm" in 1937. This is one of the recordings you've brought with you, July 12th, 1937, at a broadcast memorial for George Gershwin - this was right after he died. And we'll just play an excerpt and we'll hear that held that you're talking about because you've got a great story about that held note. And I'll confess on FRESH AIR, I am not an Ethel Merman fan, but I really like this recording. I'm really glad you brought it with you. And it must have been a very moving day to do it, because how shortly after his death was this broadcast?

FEINSTEIN: George died July 11, Sunday, July 11, and on July 12 there was this memorial broadcast where people were blindsided at the fact that he was gone at the age of 38. And suddenly these close friends of his were asked to perform on radio, which had to be incredibly difficult, and this performance of Merman singing "I Got Rhythm" is to me not only her most authentic but it's the earliest complete existing recording of her singing it.

GROSS: Wow. OK. So this is Ethel Merman, July 12, 1937.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I GOT RHYTHM")

ETHEL MERMAN: (Singing) I got rhythm. I got music. I got my man. Who could ask for anything more? I got daisies in green pastures. I got my man. Who could ask for anything more? Ol' man trouble, say I don't mind him. But you won't find him around my door. I got starlight. I got sweet dreams. I got my man. Who could ask for anything more? Who could ask for anything more? Ooh, who could ask for anything more? Ooh...

GROSS: That's Ethel Merman singing on the radio at a broadcast memorial for George Gershwin, recorded July 12, 1937, the day after he died. It's one of the recordings that my guest, Michael Feinstein, has brought with us today, one of the rarities that we're hearing. He has written a new book called "The Gershwins and Me: A Personal History in Twelve Songs."

That held note that she does twice in that passage that we heard, you write that Ira Gershwin, who you worked with for the last six years of his life, hated that.

(LAUGHTER)

FEINSTEIN: He did. He wasn't a fan of Ethel Merman, you know, and Ethel knew that and she told everybody that Ira was gay, which made him laugh. So there was some weird energy between the two of them. But yeah, he didn't like Merman holding that note and he found her voice rather off-putting, even though George loved it. And so one day as a joke I spliced together Merman holding that note and made it about six times as long as it is normally sung, and I said, Ira, I have this great record of Ethel Merman singing "I Got Rhythm." I want you to hear it. So she goes ohhhh. She holds the note forever and ever and ever and ever, and Ira is listening and his eyes were getting wider and wider and he's looking at me and finally starts laughing. He says I give up. I give up. OK. Stop. Turn it off. I surrender.

(LAUGHTER)

FEINSTEIN: Is great fun.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: My guest is Michael Feinstein. His new book is called "The Gershwins and Me."

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: My guest is Michael Feinstein. His new book, "The Gershwins and Me," is based on the six years he spent working with Ira Gershwin as his archivist. We asked Feinstein to bring some rare Gershwin recordings.

Well, we should hear Ira Gershwin sing, and you've brought with you just something I never thought I'd ever get to hear, which is Ira Gershwin singing an excerpt of "Porgy and Bess," which was, you know, just a - was and is a masterwork by the Gershwins. And this is not one of the famous songs from "Porgy and Bess." Describe what it is that he's singing.

FEINSTEIN: This little theme - I shouldn't say little theme, I don't mean to belittle it, but this musical connecting section which is not a song - not an aria - was musically Ira's favorite phrase in "Porgy and Bess." He just loved the pathos of this musical sequence as sung by Porgy, so much so that when Ira had a party with some friends in the late '30s and someone brought over a home recorder, he actually sang this section. And when he would listen to that sequence in the actual recording of the opera - as magnificently orchestrated by George - he would close his eyes and lean his head back and just be in throws of rapture. And so it's really marvelous that this recording exists, even though Ira would be the first to tell you that he had a terrible voice.

GROSS: And so this was recorded at a party?

FEINSTEIN: Yes. It was a party at the Gershwin house. And among the other people who were present were Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg and Milton Ager, who wrote "Happy Days Are Here Again," Alexander Steinert, who was the vocal coach of "Porgy and Bess," Doc McGonagall, who was a comedy writer who wrote special material for Bea Lillie and later became a Trappist monk, and Leonore Gershwin, Ira's wife, and Anya Arlen, Harold Arlen's wife, who was a Goldwyn Girl, and a young pianist named Serge Kavy(sp), whom I know nothing else about. But it was a typical songwriter gathering, the sort of thing that Ira always had in his house through the decades. At Ira's house, if you drove by and the porch light was on, even if it was 3:00 in the morning, you knew that he was up and you could go in and hang out with him.

GROSS: So before this, I want to add that - to ditto what you said, that he's not the greatest singer. He's sometimes really off key when he sings, and that's especially true in the very beginning of this part, but then he kind of settles in, so be patient when you're listening to this.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: And he's really, you can tell he's feeling it. He's not a singer, but he's really feeling this. So this is "They Pass By Singing" recorded in 1938 at Ira Gershwin's home at a party from "Porgy and Bess."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THEY PASS BY SINGING")

IRA GERSHWIN: (Singing) No, no, brother. Porgy ain't suffer no woman. They pass by singing. They pass by crying. Always looking. They look in my door and they keep on moving. When God made cripple he mean him to be lonely. Nighttime, daytime, he got to travel that lonesome road. Nighttime, daytime, he got to travel that lonesome road.

GROSS: That's Ira Gershwin singing a passage from "Porgy and Bess," recorded at his home at a party in 1938. And my guest Michael Feinstein, the singer and pianist, brought this with him today. Michael Feinstein, as you probably know - if you know anything about him, then you know that he loves American popular song and is a great historian of American popular song and original researcher of it.

He's found all kinds of archival things that no one ever knew about. And now he has a new book called "The Gershwins and Me: A Personal History in 12 Songs." You have some very interesting history about "Porgy and Bess" in your book. And just - you know, I had started reading about "Porgy and Bess" when the revival that was recently on Broadway was staged.

And you write about this in the book, but it's just amazing to think if this had come to pass, how would we think of "Porgy and Bess"? Originally, George Gershwin wanted the Met, the Metropolitan Opera to perform "Porgy and Bess." They would only do it with their white opera singers in blackface. And George Gershwin's reaction was?

FEINSTEIN: No way, Jose. There was no way he was going to allow "Porgy and Bess" performed by whites in blackface, because he felt it was demeaning to the race, demeaning to the subject of the opera, and he felt that it would become a caricature, even though he loved the voice of Lawrence Tibbett.

And Lawrence Tibbett actually made the first commercial recordings of "Porgy and Bess," supervised by George. And there was even talk later on, after George's death, of Tibbett doing it in blackface. But the family - Ira actually put a stop to that.

The point is that George had a very special feeling for "Porgy and Bess," and he felt that it was his great masterwork. And he wanted to depict these characters in a way that was taken very seriously at a time when many people didn't want to know or see a work that consisted entirely of an all African-American cast.

It's a very volatile period in our history, because it's 1935. It's the Depression. And when George undertook the writing of "Porgy and Bess," everybody was against him. He was considered by some to be a Tin Pan Alley guy, and how could he have the nerve to try and write an opera? The classical world said, oh, this is absurd. Who does he think he is?

The Jewish community was agog. Of course, the black community said our own people should be writing about our race. Who is this guy to do it? I mean, everybody was against him. Except he had this vision and he had to fulfill it. And he absolutely believed in what he knew was inside of him. And that's what's so extraordinary.

And even after it opened and it was financially a failure, he still maintained that it would one day be regarded as his greatest work. And, of course, he was right.

GROSS: So the Metropolitan Opera wanted their signers to do it in blackface, because they didn't believe they'd be able to find enough African-American singers to perform the show, the opera?

FEINSTEIN: That's very true. That's true. That was one of the considerations. It wasn't the only one, because they also were concerned about the box office. But it's true that George had trouble finding the cast that he wanted, because "Porgy and Bess" is an odd amalgam of opera and Broadway. Some critics said that the songs were its greatest weakness, and other critics said that the songs were the best part of the work.

And, of course, when it was revived in 1942 by Cheryl Crawford, it was done as a Broadway musical with dialogue and songs. They took out the recitative on which George had worked so hard.

GROSS: My guest is Michael Feinstein. His new book is called "The Gershwins and Me." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Michael Feinstein. Many people know him as a performer, a singer and pianist who loves American popular song. He's also a historian of that song, and has spent a lot of time over the years in archives unearthing things that nobody knew existed. And now he has a book called "The Gershwins and Me: A Personal History in 12 Songs." He worked with Ira Gershwin during the last six years of Ira Gershwin's life.

There's a great story about how you got to know Ira Gershwin, and it's through your obsession with finding sheet music and recordings, like, old recordings.

(LAUGHTER)

FEINSTEIN: Yes.

GROSS: So tell us the story of how you were, what, in your early 20s when you came upon the collection that ultimately led you to Ira Gershwin.

FEINSTEIN: I was 20 years old. I had moved to Los Angeles from Columbus, Ohio. I was collecting records, and I was looking for a particular recording by Oscar Levant, who was the greatest interpreter of Gershwin music. And I went into a record store in Hollywood, and I was shown this cache of recordings that had belonged to Oscar Levant, including private recordings of Gershwin that had never been released.

I bought these records from the guy in this used record shop, who told me they came from the estate of Oscar Levant. I was working as a piano salesman, a terrible piano salesman. I couldn't sell them. I could demonstrate them, but people wouldn't buy them from me.

And this lady I worked with gave me the phone number of Oscar's widow, June Levant. I called her up out of the blue. She invited me over because I told her I had these records that somehow had been carried out of her house, and she didn't know they were gone and wanted them back.

She met me and realized that I had this passion for Oscar Levant's work and for George and Ira Gershwin's work, and we became friends. And she started introducing me to various people in Hollywood, and eventually told Ira's wife Leonore about me when June and Lee had lunch. Lee Gershwin asked to meet me. I came over to the house, and I was suddenly sitting there with Ira Gershwin and with Lee.

And they asked me to start working for them, cataloguing Ira's collection of phonograph records. So I was hired as a discographer for a job that I thought was only going to take several weeks or maybe a couple months at most. And it was during that time that I became very attached to Ira, and he to me. It turns out that Ira was in a state of great depression, because one of his close friends had passed away.

And Ira was already reclusive and very sedentary, was not in great physical shape. And by asking him questions and playing these Gershwin recordings that I pulled out of the closet that went back to 1917, it brought him back. And suddenly, he had this spark and he seemed to be coming out of this depression.

And one day, I was sitting there and I was whistling. I was cataloguing one of these records and writing down data about it, sitting behind Ira, who was in a swivel chair, and I was whistling a Gershwin tune. And Ira was reading the paper, and he swiveled around the chair with his feet and said Mike, that's the verse of "Beginner's Luck."

He said I wrote that with George in 1936 for "Shall We Dance." And I said I know. He said, well, how do you know that? I said, well, I know a lot of your songs. He said, you do? I said yes. And he started quizzing me, and he realized that this 20-year-old kid knew his catalogue, knew his work. And then he asked me to play the piano for him, and I did.

And he looked at me with this very odd expression, and he said something like: How many more like you are out there? And I suddenly realized that I was an anomaly. I was unusual, and I hadn't really put it together. But for Ira, he couldn't believe that this 20-year-old kid would have any interest at all in his work. And it revitalized him. It brought him back to life.

And Lee Gershwin pulled me aside and said you've given my husband a new lease on life. I want you to stay in this house as long as you can. She said, I know that you'll eventually go on to do other things, but I'm going to open up every closet and drawer, and I want you to just keep Ira occupied and do what you can for him. So I was there for six years, until his passing.

GROSS: We have time for one more song, and I want this one to be your version of a song. The new book that you wrote comes with a CD of your recordings featuring Cyrus Chestnut at the piano. And this is a recording made just for the occasion of the book. And I thought we'd end with "They All Laughed." And you tell a great story in the book about the inspiration for Ira's lyric for this.

FEINSTEIN: There used to be a famous magazine and newspaper ad that showed a drawing of a man sitting at the piano, and it said above it: They all laughed when I sat down to play the piano. And it was an advertisement for a quickie course in how to learn to play the piano. And that phrase, they all laughed, was something that stuck in Ira's head, and he later used that as the inspiration for a love song.

And when he played the song for George S. Kaufman, Kaufman hated love songs. And at first, Kaufman liked the idea that the lyric was something that was not in reference to romance. And then when they got to the bridge, they laughed at me wanting you, he said, oh, don't tell me this is another romantic song.

But that was Ira, who was always trying to find a way of expressing love without saying I loved you. And that's why he was so proud of "They All Laughed."

GROSS: OK. This is Michael Feinstein with Cyrus Chestnut at the piano on the CD that accompanies Michael Feinstein's new book, "The Gershwins and Me: A Personal History in 12 Songs." Michael Feinstein, thank you so much for coming to talk with us and for bringing some great recordings with you. Thank you.

FEINSTEIN: Oh, thank you, Terry. I'm very grateful to be on your show.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THEY ALL LAUGHED")

FEINSTEIN: (Singing) They all laughed at Christopher Columbus when he said the world was round. They all laughed when Edison recorded sound. They all laughed at Wilbur and his brother when they said that man could fly. They told Marconi wireless was a phony. It's the same old cry. They laughed at me wanting you, said I was reaching for the moon. But, oh, you came through. Now they have to change their tune.

(Singing) They all said we never could be happy. They laughed at us, and how. But, ho, ho, ho, who's got the last laugh now?

GROSS: Michael Feinstein's new book is called "The Gershwins and Me." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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