BY ELLIOT STEPHEN COHEN
“You can see this show is ‘live’ and not lip-synched,” Sedaka laughingly told the audience at Ocean Grove, New Jersey’s Great Auditorium last Saturday night. The veteran singer-songwriter was good-naturedly referring to a thunderous speaker malfunction which necessitated redoing his most-covered song, “Solitaire.”
Throughout his 90-minute set, the Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee flashed an easygoing charm, while repeatedly displaying a warm, self-deprecating sense of humor, even while dancing.
Remembering how he came to RCA Records in 1957, the now 75-year-old silver-haired singer jokingly commented, “They had just signed Elvis Presley, and they needed another sex symbol.”
Prior to Sedaka’s entrance, a huge video screen showed photos of performers who have covered songs from his impressive 50-plus-year catalog, along with snippets from them. However, it felt much too long and too self-congratulatory, as some songs were repeated three or four times.
Nevertheless, it was Sedaka, of course, whom the audience came to see perform those songs, and others. Forsaking typical showbiz glitz, the show was a very laid back, no-frills affair, which sometimes resembled a master songwriting workshop, as he recounted the very colorful stories behind his biggest successes.
Sedaka was backed by a fine four-piece band which included long-time Blood, Sweat and Tears bassist Jim Fielder (who was, unfortunately, largely inaudible from where I sat in the fifth row), the excellent keyboardist Eric Bikales, who came to the forefront twice when the composer left the piano stool to sing center-stage with his mike. The sole backup singer, Jennifer Somo, joined Sedaka at one point to duet on “I Should Have Never Let You Go,” which was originally a father-daughter hit with daughter Dara.
The Brooklyn-born singer offered a sampling of his early hits :“The Diary,” “Oh, Carol,”(inspired by then-girl-friend Carole King) "Where The Boys Are," co-written with long-time songwriting partner Howie Greenfield for Connie Francis, "Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen,” the original uptempo version of "Breaking Up Is Hard To Do," and “Calendar Girl.” At one point, Sedaka left the stage while a 1961 video of the later song was shown of the then jet-black-haired 22-year-old singer lip-synching to a host of scantily clad young women. Upon returning to the stage, Sedaka told the crowd (I wasn’t sure if he was joking or not) that he was recently in a California restaurant and a woman approached him, saying she was in that particular video. “She was old!” Sedaka deadpanned. He also recalled being on a bus in Japan in which his recording of“Oh, Carol” was being played. Proudly telling the driver, “I’m Neil Sedaka,” the driver replied, “Yeah, and I’m Elvis Presley.”
Recalling how his first run of hits ended when The Beatles arrived in America in 1964, he merely admitted, “It was bad.” For the next decade, he and other contemporaries like Paul Anka focused more on writing songs for other artists, before they both experienced a brief mid-1970's resurgence. In Sedaka’s case, it was helped by super fan Elton John who signed him to his new Rocket Records label. This brought Sedaka back to the pop charts with hits like “Bad Blood” (which included John on back-up vocals), “Laughter In The Rain” and a ballad remake of “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do.” However, his biggest success during that period was having The Captain & Tennille cover “Love Will Keep Up Together,” which not only won a Grammy, but was also the biggest-selling single of 1975.
Sedaka passionately performed all of those songs, along with a pair of new ones from his most recent album, “The Real Neil ;” “You” and “Beginning To Breathe Again,” which both rival his best 70's work.
For good measure, the Julliard-schooled pianist ably demonstrated his versatility and virtuosity on Chopin’s classical composition, “Fantasie Impromtu.”