The term “crooner” applies to male singers with a smooth, sophisticated delivery of standards known as the Great American Songbook. “Crooning is where my heart lies,” says Michael Feinstein, iconic performer and passionate advocate for American popular song, who brings his trio to the Taft Theatre Thursday for a show devoted to crooners and the legacy of Frank Sinatra.
“Sinatra was every kind of singer,” Feinstein says. “He started out as a crooner and he embodies a tradition that includes Sammy Davis Jr., Nat King Cole and Dean Martin. They’re intertwined, musically and culturally.”
Davis, an African-American, enjoyed huge success as a nightclub entertainer and a musical theater star, while struggling with the enormities of racism, as did Cole, the smooth-voiced tenor who died at the age of 42. Martin, one-time partner of comedian Jerry Lewis, was famous for his mellow Italianate baritone. And Bing Crosby, who also will be remembered in Feinstein’s concert, was both a wildly popular singer and actor, enjoying great success from the 1920s into the 1950s.
When asked what he considers essential songs for each singer, Feinstein replies, “Hey There” for Davis, “When I Fall in Love” for Cole and “Everybody Loves Somebody” for Martin.
“With Crosby, it could be any number of things,” he says. “And for me, Cole Porter’s ‘Night and Day’ captures the essence of Sinatra, who first recorded this in the early 1940s and went on to record several more arrangements, from Swing to Disco, God help us.”
It’s no small irony that Crosby was Sinatra’s early idol. Feinstein points out that Sinatra was smart enough to recognize that Crosby had the crooner genre well-covered.
“Sinatra made a conscious decision to sing in a different style and that resolve led to reinventing the way we hear the American Songbook today,” Feinstein says. “Crosby said, ‘A voice like Frank Sinatra’s comes once in a lifetime. But did it have to be in my lifetime?’ ”
Feinstein is as passionate about the quality of his live performance as he is about the material. “I have a set list but it can go awry at any moment, because it does depend on the energy and response of the audience,” he says. “The experience is one where I feel most alive because each performance will be individual and will never happen again.”
Backing him up will be a trio featuring his music director Tedd Firth on piano, drummer Mark McLean and bassist Phil Palombi.
“Working with this trio gives us so much freedom to do whatever we want,” Feinstein says. “There’s an element of spontaneity.”
Feinstein’s devotion to American popular song began as a child growing up in Columbus, Ohio. When he was 20 in 1976, he moved to Los Angeles and worked as assistant to legendary lyricist Ira Gershwin for six years before embarking on his career as performer, producer, artistic director and conductor.
He says those years were the best groundwork he could have.
“An era in American popular music had ended and I was able to meet some of the living legends,” he says. “Ira didn’t want those great songs to be forgotten and he shared so much about their histories.”
Now it’s Feinstein who’s passing on his knowledge and passion to a new generation. In 2007, he established the Great American Songbook Foundation, based in Carmel, Ind., that serves as an archive, research facility and the site of an annual competition. Feinstein is confident the Great American Songbook will endure.
“The music transcends generations and the eloquent expression of the lyrics, their wit and humanity constantly lend themselves to reinterpretation and reinvention,” he says. “These songs will continue to attract artists and audiences because they fulfill something that isn’t met by contemporary music.”
Feinstein, however, does worry that live performances are becoming “an endangered species.”
“So often at our performances, I see people holding up their devices,” he says. “They’re not experiencing the real thing. ...Be in the moment! You won’t hear these songs sung this way again.”
Michael Feinstein performs 8 p.m. Thursday at the Taft Theatre, 317 E. Fifth St., Downtown. Tickets/info: tafttheatre.org.