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Artist’s Choice: Michael Feinstein on Must-Hear Gershwin Performances

Astaire, Ella, Sinatra and more

Michael Feinstein
Ella Fitzgerald, circa November 1946

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a special fascination with the music of George Gershwin. I first became aware of Gershwin when I heard “Rhapsody in Blue” sometime in my early teens. That was a defining moment in my musical life, because I’d never heard any piece of music that affected me so dramatically. It was not only transforming but also uplifting in a way that felt very personal. From that point on, I was determined to find out everything I could about George Gershwin.

Ethel Waters

“I Got Rhythm”

(Columbia, 1930)

This is one of the first recordings of “I Got Rhythm.” It features jazz giants of that time, but it’s a rendition of the song when it still retained its original rhythmic elements. It was like a Charleston rhythm in the melody that went against the solid 4 of the accompaniment, and the song was very rarely heard that way again. This is sort of a bird’s-eye view of how the song sounded near its creation, and of the possibilities it offered for jazz interpretations to come.

Fred Astaire With Johnny Green and His Orchestra

“They All Laughed”

(Brunswick, 1937)

Fred Astaire is my favorite singer. To me, he was the perfect interpreter of American popular song. While I like the 1952 re-recordings that Astaire made with Oscar Peterson, I prefer these earlier recordings he made of Gershwin songs because they capture the energy of Gershwin, the rhythmic excitement and harmonic palette that were so much a part of 1937.

Ella Fitzgerald

“I’ve Got a Crush on You”
Ella Sings Gershwin

(Decca, 1951)

Many years ago I met Ella Fitzgerald at a radio station. We were both on the same program, and I had the temerity to tell Ella that I preferred her Gershwin recordings with pianist Ellis Larkins to her Gershwin sides with Nelson Riddle [for Verve in 1959]. She paused for a moment and looked at me thoughtfully and said, “I understand, honey. They’re more intimate.” I always thought the combination of Ella and Ellis was supreme. This recording is such a perfect rendering of the song in ballad form.

Sammy Davis Jr. and Carmen McRae

“Who Cares?”
Boy Meets Girl (Decca, 1957)

Sammy and Carmen are so casual about this performance, not in the way they sing but in their collaboration. Carmen takes a chorus, Sammy takes a chorus, they scat and then come together at the end, and you can tell it’s something that magically happened in the studio. It’s a great, swinging rendition of the song.

Frank Sinatra

“I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin'”
A Swingin’ Affair! (Capitol, 1957)

Sinatra’s “I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin'” was one of the few pop recordings of a song from Porgy and Bess from that period. It’s a brilliant reimagining of the song with one of the characteristic instrumental interludes that Nelson Riddle was so adept at crafting. I feel it is Sinatra and Riddle at their pinnacle, and captures insouciance in

the lyric that is unique to this performance.

Rosemary Clooney

“Looking for a Boy”
Rosemary Clooney Swings Softly… (MGM, 1960)

This version of “Looking for a Boy” is a perfect example of how you can take a ballad and, adding a swing beat to it, not only change its musical approach but also give the lyric a different kind of meaning. Rosemary was one of the supreme interpreters of

lyrics. She sings the lyric very tongue-in-cheek, and her voice in 1960 was at its peak. So this is the best of the best.

Gregory Hines and Patti Austin, With John Mauceri and the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra

“For You, for Me, for Evermore”
The Gershwins in Hollywood (Philips, 1991)

This is a multilayered recording. The orchestration used was the original film soundtrack arrangement by Herbert Spencer from the movie The Shocking Miss Pilgrim. Harmonically, it’s very dense and complex. I love how Gregory Hines and Patti Austin took this classic 1947 orchestration and sang the song respectfully but made it a little jazzier and a little more contemporary, without taking anything away from the original setting. Their dueting on this is inspired and lovely.

[As told to Christopher Loudon]

Originally Published