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Feinstein keeps the music playing in 'Songbook'

THE SHOW "Michael Feinstein's American Songbook"

WHEN | WHERE Beginning tonight at 8 on WNET/13. It continues the next two Wednesdays.

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Feinstein is on a mission, and we should thank him. He's saving a vital part of America - our music. His work, divided between performing familiar favorites and collecting music, is woven into a three-part documentary.

WHAT TO EXPECT In the first episode, "Putting on the Tail Fins," Feinstein pays homage to Rosemary Clooney, whom he considers "the greatest female singer of the 20th century." They did about 200 shows together, and Clooney referred to Feinstein as her "sixth kid."

In next week's "Best Band in the Land," the film teaches how important music was during World War II as the government issued a monthly hit kit - words and music to five American tunes and one Allied tune - sent to 2 million soldiers.

By the third episode (Oct. 20), "A New Step Every Day," he reminds us how small towns and cities once had nightclubs, and people dressed up, went out and had fun.

A LIFELONG HISTORIAN All his life, Feinstein has been rifling through dusty stores, thumbing through LPs, then lugging home treasures to catalog. A center in Carmel, Ind., is under construction to house his collection.

Feinstein's affinity for these songs led him to masters. As a young man, he worked for Ira Gershwin. He says, "Everything is a continuum. Elvis Costello and Billy Joel have a sense of history and have taken past music and created something."

Mementos from this continuum fill the exquisite mansion he shares with partner Terrence Flannery, who in the documentary discusses how he runs their day-to-day lives so Feinstein can concentrate on his work.

HIS MESSAGE "We are all responsible for preserving our heritage and music," Feinstein says. "It exists because it is passed on from one person to another. I hope people will have a greater awareness of this music and not throw away anything that could be valuable to a future generation."

COMING TO LI Feinstein will be performing at the Tilles Center on Oct. 23, co-billed with Marvin Hamlisch.

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