Those under 40 probably aren’t familiar with Neil Sedaka. But just about everyone has heard a version of “Calendar Girl” or “Breaking Up is Hard to Do” somewhere, at some point—be it on an oldies radio station, TV show, or the latest blockbuster romantic comedy.
Sedaka is the scribe behind those golden nuggets and many more, a born entertainer with a flair for melody who went from pumping out songs at a publishing company to teen idol in just a few short years, influencing future piano-pounding megastars like Elton John and Billy Joel—only to have his career blindsided by a bunch of upstarts from across the pond called The Beatles.
But Sedaka rebounded after a decade wallowing in workingman’s clubs in Argentina, notching another wave of chart-toppers like “Laughter in the Rain” and “Love Will Keep Us Together” in the seventies.
Now wait a second, Pete, you’re saying. Wasn’t “Love Will Keep Us Together” done by The Captain and Tenille?
Indeed, it was. But the 1975 smash was written by Sedaka, who also penned dozens of other gems popularized by other artists.
A new book by CBS staffer Rich Podolsky takes readers back to the ‘50s—to the very roots of modern rock and roll—to clear up misconceptions surrounding one of the most prolific-yet-underrated songsmiths of our time. From Sedaka’s Brighton Beach upbringing and doo-wop days in Brooklyn to his tenure crafting pop confections in the Brill Building with Carole King, Neil Diamond, and other notables, Neil Sedaka: Rock and Roll Survivor sets the record straight on a criminally overlooked hit-maker.
Actually, Podolsky’s book un-obfuscates the origins of all Sedaka’s records—from “Laura Lee” and “Oh, Delilah!” to “Laughter in the Rain” and more. If you ever wanted to know where Neil’s infectious nonsense lines like come-a, come-a down dooby-doo down, down came from, or how he strategized an unlikely comeback after years out of the spotlight, these pages are the best place to start.
Written with Sedaka’s full cooperation and featuring quotes from interviews with just about everybody ever associated with the musician, Rock and Roll Survivor provides the most intimate profile possible of a man who went from unwanted child to has-been singer to vindicated songwriting celebrity inside three decades. Notwithstanding a few inspirational tokes of marijuana, there aren’t any drug or alcohol problems to speak of with Neil, nor are Podolsky’s pages rife with promiscuity and torrid love affairs. This briskly-paced portable reader concerns itself solely with straight-laced Sedaka’s songs and the circumstances leading to their creation.
Despite the lack of rehab stints and sex-sploits, a lot of the material on hand is sensitive and couldn’t have been easily divulged and discussed by Sedaka and his peers without opening some old wounds and turning on the waterworks. And nowhere is the emotional pain more excruciating than the book’s beginning, which finds Sedaka’s pregnant mother Eleanor trying to miscarry with repeated roller-coaster rides. Fortunately, she fails (and who knows, maybe the jostling gave Neil his knack for rhythm), delivers the boy, and has a change of heart when teachers tell her she’s got a piano prodigy on her hands. Neil studied at the Juilliard School at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, dazzling his instructors, and by his late teens was in the employ of RCA Records as a tunesmith.
Sedaka’s early partnership with lyricist Howie Greenfield resulted in huge hits by Connie Francis (“Stupid Cupid,” “Who’s Sorry Now”) and other torch singers, giving Neil leverage to launch his own performing career. “The Diary,” “Calendar Girl,” and “Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen” transformed the Russian-Jewish mama’s boy into a bona fide radio heartthrob, landing the once-shy lad on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1961. He met his soon-to-be wife, Leba, while playing regular gigs at resorts like Esther Manor, Grossinger’s, and Shady Nook in the Catsgills.
What Neil didn’t know at the time was that his mother and her mobster-affiliated boyfriend, Ben Sutter, were siphoning his profits and spoiling themselves with lavish gifts all while insisting he and his bride maintain close residency and a humble lifestyle. Eleanor had kicked Neil’s biological father, Mac, to the curb because the cab driver couldn’t afford the pampering she craved, leaving Neil and his sister to suffer her prima donna demeanor and bullish beau. By the time Sedaka confronted Sutter (with the help of childhood friend / attorney Freddie Gershon), most of his earnings had been squandered.
Breaking up may be hard to do, but reading about betrayal from the unlikeliest of sources is just, well, heartbreaking.
Down but determined, Sedaka spent the late ‘60s playing whatever dive bars and lounges would have him. Neil had a wife and kids to support, so he swallowed his pride and regurgitated old piano hits—but kept his writing skills sharp and his eyes and ears open for a second shot at the top. TV / record impresario Don Kirshner issued Sedaka’s 1971 LP Emergence on his own label, but it wasn’t until 1972’s Solitaire that Neil starting making headway again with regular gigs in England. He wrote a few tunes with 10cc (of “I’m Not in Love” and “The Things We Do For Love” fame,” whose members returned the favor by acting as Sedaka’s support band on 1973’s The Tra-La Days are Over.
Teaming with younger, hipper lyricist Philip Cody, and backed by business friends like Maurice Gibb and The Bee Gees, Sedaka secured a steady job opening for the The Carpenters. So glowing were the reviews that Richard Carpenter, bristling at being one-upped by a supposedly washed-up star, fired Neil from the tour. But Neil still had an ace in the hole.
Enter the white-hot Elton John, whose Rocket Records imprint was looking for artists—and whose hit “Benny and The Jets” was a favorite of Sedaka’s young daughter. Turns out Sir Elton was a Neil fan and would be glad having him aboard. Meanwhile, ex-Beach Boys keyboardist Daryl “The Captain” Dragon and his singing girlfriend Toni Tenille released their debut album, borrowing “Love Will Keep Us Together” for its title and lead-off single. The tumblers fell into place, and suddenly—after a twelve-year drought—Sedaka had another #1 hit.
Rocket distributed the next few Neil albums, including reissues of titles previously available only overseas. Boasting the sublime orchestral arrangements of Artie Butler and the mixing expertise of Robert Appere, 1974’s Laughter in the Rain and 1975’s Hungry Years thrust an overjoyed Sedaka back into the spotlight. Appearances on The Tonight Show, Dinah Shore, Merv Griffin, and The Sonny & Cher show followed, exacerbating demand for all things Sedaka in a fickle age dominated by disco and punk.
Minor hits like “The Immigrant,” “That’s When the Music Takes Me,” and “Bad Blood” furthered Sedaka’s legacy, while a stirring ballad remake of his own “Breaking Up is Hard to Do” planted another feather in his cap. Neil’s popularity rescinded again in the ‘80s, but he was content—and grateful for another go-round in the limelight.
Podolsky’s book concludes with acknowledgements, a bibliography, and a meticulously-detailed discography poring over every Sedaka single, album, and compilation. His epilogue makes a powerful argument for Neil’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame—at least as a writer if not a performer. The book features a forward by Sir Elton, who gushes over his mentor and friend: “Great songwriters always reestablish themselves, because they never stop writing great songs.”
Sedaka has sold over 25 million records in his 55 working years and written over 500 songs for himself and others. His material was the focus of the American Idol showdown between Ruben Studdard and Clay Aiken in 2003.