His extraordinary career now 60 years strong, Neil Sedaka has a new CD, The Real Neil, not to mention a new authorized biography, Neil Sedaka: Rock 'n' Roll Survivor--The Inside Story of His Incredible Comeback. He’s excited about both, but especially the CD.
Having written and sung such landmark 1960s Brill Building rock ‘n’ roll hits as “Oh! Carol,” “Calendar Girl,” “Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen” and “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do,” Sedaka managed to return to the top in 1975 with “Laughter In The Rain.” Along the way he wrote hits for the likes of LaVern Baker, Connie Francis, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, The Carpenters, Tom Jones, The Monkees, The Fifth Dimension and Captain and Tennille while recording albums in several languages and genres.
Busier than ever now, he took a break to talk about his current activities in the context of his past successes.
How did the book come about?
Rich Podolsky, the author, approached me. It was completely authorized. We sat many hours together, and he did a marvelous job. It really is quite a work: It sums up 60 years of a musical career--and it’s an ego trip! A wonderful thing to read quotes from Clive Davis, David Foster, Barry Gibb, Michael Feinstein. Elton John wrote the foreward, and it’s getting wonderful reviews.
It’s quite an honor for someone to write about you, and it’s been quite a career: In a trendy, fickle, changeable business, I’ve been singing for 58 years and writing for 60.
It’s also become a very diversified career.
You work at it. It’s not easy, but you do things not out of commerciality, but things that are close to your heart. I’ve done a classical album with lyrics I wrote to Rachmaninov and Chopin melodies [and other composers’, on Classically Sedaka], an album of Christmas songs, a Yiddish album, an album of children’s songs.
And now, your first concerto, on your new album The Real Neil.
It has all new songs, and I’m very excited about the final one, "Manhattan Intermezzo"—my first piano concerto. I debuted it at the Royal Albert Hall in London two years ago, and have been doing it around the country on symphony [concert] dates.
Of course, your background is in classical music.
I started out as a concert pianist. I was a child prodigy, and went to prep school at Juilliard when I was nine-years-old with a full piano scholarship.
Why didn’t you stay in classical music?
I had to make a decision at 19 to continue in classical or travel the world as a singer-songwriter—and I chose the latter. As much as I love classical music, it’s good for the soul--but not the pocketbook! Over the years I’ve had the great joy of going all over the world and singing in six different languages and writing songs that hopefully outlive me! It’s amazing to turn on the radio and hear songs I wrote over 50 years ago and are still being played.
But why has it taken so long for you to write a concerto?
I was afraid to approach it! My son coaxed me. He said, ‘Dad. You’re a pianist, with a formal classical music education.’ So did Lee Holdridge, my arranger and conductor. Actually, I’m on my fourth piece now, the symphonic “Joie de Vivre”—“Joy Of Life." The concerto, “Manhattan Intermezzo,” represents the combination of ethnic groups—Latin, Asian, Russian—that make up New York. I’m doing it again in two weeks with the Kentucky Symphony.
Was it difficult to write?
I guess I was a little unsure, but from the standpoint of having written songs for so long, I think classical music is going back to melodies. People are tired of abstract [music] and dissonance, and symphony orchestras want crowd-pleasers that are American-sounding and melodic--and entertaining, besides being serious.
Did it take long?
It took me five months to write!
That seems, how to put it…unnatural for you--to take so long.
I’ve become more picky as I go along. I want to raise the bar for Neil Sedaka.
For a guy who’s in the Songwriters Hall of Fame, who’s written countless hits for himself and others for 60 years and counting, is such a thing even possible?
But writing scares the hell of out of me! Even though you’ve done it before, it’s that blank piece of paper staring back at you that’s very frightening.
Of course, you write both the music and the words.
Music comes more easily, lyrics are more difficult. But I’ve had great teachers like Phil Cody, Carole Bayer Sager, and of course Howard Greenfield [lyricist for Sedaka’s 1962 chart-topper “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do” and many other Sedaka-composed hits]. When Howard passed away [in 1986] I started writing lyrics.
What are you working on now?
I’m just starting to write a children’s musical with Philip Norman, who wrote the wonderful musical about me that’s been performed in regional theater in England, Laughter In The Rain--my life story, with 35 songs. He’s a great writer, and did books on John Lennon, The Beatles, Mick Jagger, Elton John. He knows a lot about me, and I thought there are such wonderful works for children, like Annie, and I wanted to do one.
You’ve done children’s works before, of course.
I did children’s albums and two children’s books—Waking Up Is Hard To Do, for which I changed the words to my old rock ‘n’ roll song [“Breaking Up Is Hard To Do”] to make it more child-friendly, and Dinosaur Pet. This inspired me to start the children’s musical, which is now in its infant stage. But that’s the reason I’ve been around this long: I like to challenge myself.
That would include The Real Neil—your first acoustic album.
I wanted to show people how I write on the piano--and the pure form of my songs. These songs—except for “Manhattan Intermezzo”—have no embellishments or production; they're just the way I wrote them at the piano. I thought it would be an interesting thing to show people.
I’ve had a special gift, since I was 13. Howie was 16, and lived in the same building in Brighton Beach. His mother heard me playing Chopin and Bach and convinced him to ring the bell--and we wrote hundreds of songs together. It’s amazing how the creative drive keeps you going!
In your liner note for The Real Neil, you say that the songs are “very personal” and “the culmination of all the years of writing.”
I particularly like “Heart Of Stone” and “Beginning To Breathe Again.” You find that the older you get the more you write about yourself--and from your own soul. Also, for so many of the early years, the lyrics were wonderful and I interpreted them, but they were words put in my mouth, and now people can sense that they’re coming from me. So I’m very proud of the new collection.
It caps, for the moment, at least, such an extraordinary career.
I’ve made 55 to 60 CDs and LPs in six languages, but I've experienced and gone through so many things in life: Ups and downs, being dismissed and neglected, being down for 12 years and then Elton John—a fan of mine--resurrected my career in 1974 by signing me to his label [the resulting label debut album Sedaka’s Back yielded the No. 1 hit “Laughter In The Rain” and “Solitaire”]. “Solitaire” is still my most recorded song, with about 40 cover versions including The Carpenters’ hit in the U.S. and Andy Williams’ in Europe. Even Elvis did it.
It’s a special thing when you’ve experienced so many things in life and can put them down in a tune and convey an emotion and reach people. I’ve noticed that music is very therapeutic: I get emails from people from all over the world, whether they’re physically or mentally down, that say how my music gives them a lift. They’re very happy songs, but they also are emotional, like [his 1975 album titletrack] "The Hungry Years."
And all those hits for others!
I wrote for LaVern Baker, Connie Francis—her first big hit “Stupid Cupid” and her biggest “Where The Boys Are.”
I’m just glad I never changed my name. Sedaka is a strange name, and when I first signed with RCA Victor, people thought it was Japanese or Italian! I was signed in 1958 by Steve Sholes, who signed Elvis from Sun Records. Starting with “The Diary,” I had 10 hits in a row from 1958 to 1963 and sold 30 million records—to the shock of my parents, who thought I would be a classical pianist.
But I had a very unusual voice--a remarkable voice. I can get in a taxi in New York and the cabbie will start driving and won’t even have to turn around: “I hear your voice. You’re Neil Sedaka!” It’s good to have a distinctive voice.
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