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Still going strong

Neil Sedaka keeps trying to ‘raise the bar’

Neil Sedaka has written more than 700 songs in his long and varied career as a performer.
Neil Sedaka has written more than 700 songs in his long and varied career as a performer.

His mother wanted him to be a classical pianist.

His classmates at Brooklyn’s Abraham Lincoln High School wanted him to play rock and roll.

Some prominent cantors who attended his bar mitzvah wanted him to be a chazan.

And what did he want? Neil Sedaka wanted to do it all.

“I’ve tried to reinvent myself, raise the bar, develop, and grow,” said the versatile performer, now in the 60th year of a stellar career. With few awards left to win — a sampling of honors includes induction into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame, a street in Brooklyn bearing his name, and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame — and no sign of slowing down, Mr. Sedaka, who will appear at bergenPAC on August 17, continues to write and perform both classical and pop music. Add to that an album of Yiddish songs, and more recently, an album of child-friendly songs done in collaboration with his own grandchildren, and you get some idea of the man’s creative drive.

Born in Brooklyn in 1939 to a Sephardic father (the name Sedaka is a variant of the Hebrew word tzedakah, charity) and an Ashkenazic mother, and cousin to the late singer Eydie Gorme, Sedaka grew up in Brighton Beach. His musical talent, he said, may have come from his great grandfather, a chazan in the Bronx. In fact, he said, “I just learned a few months ago from a cousin who found an old article that many great opera singers from the Met made special trips to the Bronx.”

Neil Sedaka, who has written more than 700 songs, readily admits to being inspired by composers like George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, and Frank Loesser. “My songs are a combination of the Great American Songbook, rhythm and blues, soul, and Yiddish music,” he said. “They’re a reflection of all the music I heard throughout my entire life.”

He also has been influenced by his Jewish background. “In songs like ‘You mean Everything To Me’ or ‘One More Ride On the Merry-Go-Round,’ you can hear the ‘tam,’” he said. You can hear the flavor. “You can’t take the Jew out of me.”

One of Mr. Sedaka’s earliest memories is of sitting with his mother, listening to the Barry Sisters. In a strange twist of fate, he had the opportunity to sing with Claire Barry at a Folksbiene Yiddish Theatre gala at Carnegie Hall in 2004. (Ms. Barry died 10 years later, in 2014.) At that performance, Mr. Sedaka offered selections from his album “Brighton Beach Memories — Sedaka Sings Yiddish.”

The songs “invoke wonderful memories for me,” he said. Produced with a klezmer band and featuring works such as “Exodus,” “My Yiddishe Mama,” “Mein Shtetele Belz,” “Sunrise, Sunset,” and “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen,” the album, which he called “a labor of love,” was a major success. “People tell me they cry when they put the record on,” he said, adding that he consulted his mother, Eleanor, and his wife, Leba, to ensure correct pronunciation.

Mr. Sedaka — best known, perhaps, for hits such as “Oh Carol,” written for his then-girlfriend, the singer/songwriter Carole King, “Calendar Girl,” “Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen,” “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do,” recorded both as a rock song and then years later as a ballad, reaching number one on the charts both times, and “Laughter in the Rain” — did not start off as a rock and roll wannabe.

Neil Sedaka on his bar mitzvah day in Brooklyn.
Neil Sedaka on his bar mitzvah day in Brooklyn.

By the time he was 9 years old, Neil already had begun intensive classical piano training at the Juilliard School of Music, his ultimate goal was to earn a doctorate in music. His life took a sudden turn, though, when he began to play rock and roll music in high school. Not only did he form a successful doo-wop group, The Tokens, which he left in the late 1950s to pursue a solo career — but he also had the good fortune to meet Howard Greenfield, his longtime songwriting partner.

He and Mr. Greenfield helped create the so-called Brill Building sound in the late 1950s and early ’60s,when they were the first to sign with Don Kirshner and Al Nevins at Aldon Music. (The company would go on to sign Neil Diamond, Carole King, and Paul Simon, among many others.) After Connie Francis recorded his “Stupid Cupid” and, later, “Where the Boys Are,” Mr. Sedaka, now hugely successful, was in a position to sign with RCA as a writer and performer of his own material.

The rest is history.

Was his mother happy about this? After all, she wanted him to be a classical pianist. “My mother was not happy,” he said. “I had to wait until she left the house to write my rock and roll songs. But she was okay after I got my first check.” As for the chazans who wanted him to join their profession, they no doubt were disappointed as well. At his bar mitzvah, which had taken place years before in Manhattan Beach’s Temple Beth El, “all the chazans were crying. They said, ‘He has to be a chazan.’”

Asking Mr. Sedaka about his favorite song is like “asking a parent to say which child he likes best,” the singer said. Still, if compelled to do so, he probably would say “Laughter in the Rain,” released in 1974, because it was responsible for his remarkable comeback.

At the time, he had been off the charts for 13 years.

“The Beatles changed the face of music in the ’60s,” Mr. Sedaka said. While he still kept busy as a songwriter, writing pieces such as “The Hungry Years” for Frank Sinatra and “Solitaire” for Elvis Presley — not to mention other hit songs for Tom Jones, the Monkees, and the Fifth Dimension — it was difficult to pursue his solo singing career. So while the United States fell prey to the British Invasion, Neil Sedaka went to England, “where fans were faithful to me and to original American rock and roll.” There he met Elton John, both a fan and a record producer. “He put me on his label and my album, ‘Sedaka’s Back,’ went to number one.”

In his new CD, “I Do It for Applause,” Mr. Sedaka has “gone back to his roots,” including a classical piece as his last track. “It’s my first symphonic piece,” he said, adding that he recorded the work, “Joie De Vivre,” with the London Philharmonic in England. The 12-song acoustic collection represents “the culmination of 63 years of writing. My main objective is to always top the last collection, raise the bar, and reinvent Neil Sedaka.”

At his August concert, Mr. Sedaka will perform a few songs from the new collection. “But I’ll do the old hits,” he promised, adding that he’s proud of the lyrics he wrote with both Howard Greenfield and Phil Cody. Now, however, “No one is putting words in my mouth. Now it comes from deep down inside me.”

He’s performed at bergenPAC several times, Mr. Sedaka said. “My music brings back memories for people. The songs are therapeutic, even when people are down in the dumps. Music has that ability. I never knew it. I only realized it in my older days. When I was feeling down, I’d put on an old Sedaka record and smile.”

Mr. Sedaka first met his wife, Leba, at the Esther Manor, a kosher hotel in the Catskills. They’ve been married for 53 years now. Esther Strassberg, who owned the hotel with her husband, Irving, was Leba’s mother. “I played at all the kochalains” — the Jewish boarding houses with communal kitchens and dining rooms, Mr. Sedaka said. Part of a band, he also played gigs at hotels, including for comedians Totie Fields and Jackie Mason.

Leba and Neil Sedaka have two children. Dara is a recording artist and vocalist who makes television and radio commercials, and Marc is a screenwriter in Los Angeles and the father of Sedaka’s three grandchildren, twin granddaughters Amanda and Charlotte, and a grandson, Michael.

Fortunately, his grandchildren love Mr. Sedaka’s old rock and roll music. “But they wanted to change the words to make them more child-friendly,” he said. Thus, we now have “Waking up is hard to do,” “Where the toys are,” and “Lunch will keep us together.” These and other songs were compiled into a CD called “Waking up is hard to do.”

The CD, a family collaboration involving Marc, Amanda, and Charlotte — the twins made their recording debut as backup vocalists on it — led to a series of books based on the songs. “Dinosaur Pet,” featuring Marc’s new lyrics for “Calendar Girl,” was released in May 2012 and reached number three on the New York Times’ bestseller list.

Mr. Sedaka has no plans to retire in the near future. “There’s a certain magic when you get in front of an audience, something you don’t get from records or television,” he said. “There’s an adrenaline rush. It’s a marvelous feeling.” He wants to go out while he’s still in top form. Unlike older performers who read teleprompters or whose voices are shot, “I would like to know when to bow out.” In the meantime, though, “I’ll give it a little bit more,” he said.

And why not? “My fans are still supporting me after 60 years. I reach them emotionally. It’s more than just a recording — it’s a live person with a God-given gift, and I love to share it.”


Who: Neil Sedaka

What: In concert

Where: At bergenPAC,
30 N. Van Brunt St., Englewood

When: On August 17 at 8 p.m.

Tickets: Call the box office,
(201) 227-1030

Information: Email boxoffice@bergenpac.org.

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