Michael Feinstein was born in Columbus, OH, and developed an interest in the piano and in show music at an early age. After moving with his family to Los Angeles in 1976, he met Oscar Levant's widow, who in turn introduced him to Ira Gershwin. He was hired by Gershwin in 1977 to help organize The Gershwin archives, and continued to work with the lyricist until Gershwin's death in 1983.
In 1984, Feinstein launched a career as a pianist and singer devoted to the music of the '30s and '40s, playing at private parties in the Los Angeles area. He had a seven-month residence at the Mondrian Hotel, during which Liza Minnelli threw a party in his honor (February 1985) that got his name around. In January 1986, he opened at the Algonquin Hotel in New York, where a six-week engagement stretched to 16 weeks.