That Time I Talked to Neil Sedaka

There are fewer musicians left who were present at the birth of rock and roll, and yet Neil Sedaka walks among us. Signed as a Brill Building writer (along with lyricist Howie Greenfield) as an 18 year old in 1958 after a cold call audition, Sedaka chaperoned Tin Pan Alley into a pop song collosus. Speaking on the phone from Los Angeles– at 75, his New York twang is now more of a faint tremelo– Sedaka remembered: “At first, Howie and I were writing songs that sounded like Gershwin and Irving Berlin, but after hearing “Earth Angel” by The Penguins on the jukebox of our local sweet shop, I knew what I wanted to do. Carole King dated when were teenagers and we were both turned on at the same time because we thought writing rock and roll songs would make us look cool (because I played Bach, I was never very popular). It took some doing to convice Howie– he thought “Earth Angel” was off-key– but after awhile, we came up with the goods. We’d go into our little office for five days a week, eight hours a day, and write songs, record them, and then three weeks later, they’d be on the radio.”

The son of a poor taxi driver– the family grew up tight to the Atlantic coast in Brighton Beach, New York– Sedaka was a classical music prodigy; a piano player who, when he was nine years old, attended the Julliard School of Music Prep Division on a scholarship. “It was hard for my parents, at first, to accept that I wanted to play rock and roll,” he said, “but as soon as the royalty cheques came   in, they understood. I was the first of the Brill building songwriters to sing and perform my own songs (“Calendar Girl,” “Breaking Up is Hard to Do”) and I ended up buying my parents and sister a house. It was important for me to sustain this success, and to keep working hard to produce, because, in those days, the world of rock and roll was filled with one-hit wonders. I wanted to stay one step ahead. I was very conscious of the fact that you could come and go, and I think that’s what gave me my work ethic and is one of the reasons I’ve managed to stay around for so long: the fear of disappearing as quickly as I appeared.”

Sedaka/Greenfield yielded hit records for other performers– “Stupid Cupid” for Connie Francis and “Another Sleepless Night” for Jimmy Clanton– but it was the songwriter who benefited most from the work: “You Mean Everything to Me”, “Run, Samson, Run,” “Little Devil,” “Happy Birthday, Sweet Sixteen” and a handful of others amounting to a combined eight top 30 hits over two years between 1960-1962. “Calendar Girl” and “Breaking Up is Hard to Do” were signature songs that puttied early rock and roll and pop against the wave of The Beatles, The Who, Dylan and The Stones. Suddenly there was less room on the radio for Sedaka’s music, and after demoing “It Hurts to be in Love,” which would become a top ten song for Gene Pitney, RCA refused to release the recording, feeling that Sedaka’s time had waned. “With the exception of the lead vocal, everything you hear on that song,” he said,” is me: the ooohs and ahhhhs, the handclaps, the piano, the arrangement. I would have had a comeback hit record, but, instead, it was Gene’s. Even he said to me, “Why don’t they just release your version with your singing?” but RCA had lost faith in me.”

In 1966, Sedaka was without a label and his momentum as an artist had stalled. He abandoned America and moved to England, which was still mad for early rock and roll and where he was regarded as a musical pioneer. He met admirer Elton John at a party in 1973 and the encounter changed the course of his life. “I saw what Carole had done (the enormous hit album, “Tapestry,” which included many of her own compositions) and she gave me hope that I could make an album, too. Elton John saw this potential, and I signed to Rocket Records, which is how “Sedaka’s Back,” was born. I’d come back after ten years away from the charts, “Laughter in the Rain” charting number one on Bllboard (February 1st, 1975). People ask me how I felt about it, and I tell them: joy, elation, all of that. A lot of folks in the business thought I was this ghost from the 1950s, but, in the end, I think I proved them wrong.”

One thought on “That Time I Talked to Neil Sedaka

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s