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This article by Mary Jasch was prepared for the March 26, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Grandaddy of Pop Song

Neil Sedaka never had a voice lesson in his life, but

sang to legendary stardom with 15 Top 20 hits. He first touched the

ivories at eight, then entered Juilliard only a year later. For 10

years he delved into the classical repertoire, but quickly jumped

into rock and roll fame. To Sedaka, his genius is simple.

"I was a child prodigy," he says. "I learned by just doing

it."

With a repertoire of timeless standards that stretches over five decades,

from "Stupid Cupid" and "Oh, Carol" in the ’50s, and

"Laughter in the Rain," his Number One hit in the ’70s, to

jazz and classical in the ’90s, this Norman Rockwell-of-pop keeps

rolling on. New Jersey fans can share in the reverie on Friday, March

28, when Sedaka performs at the State Theatre in New Brunswick. It’s

a varied program with tight music from a band that has been together

for over 25 years.

Born in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, in 1939, Sedaka didn’t come from

a musical family. His father Mac was a taxi driver and his mother

Eleanor was a housewife. He and his late sister, Ronnie, grew up in

a loving, sociable family. Sedaka’s only connection to a musical genealogy

was his grandmother. who purportedly played piano but whom he never

really knew.

Sedaka began his rise to stardom at age eight, plunking the keys on

a neighbor’s piano with one finger. He took lessons for a year, then

auditioned for the Juilliard School where he studied until he was

19. Throughout his teens, he performed frequently in concerts and

competitions, and Artur Rubenstein voted him one of New York City’s

finest young classical pianists.

Even as a child he sang for his supper. He taught piano at 13 for

$2.50 an hour, and was a music counselor at summer camp at 15 and

16. He doo-wopped for two years and recorded two hits with The Tokens,

a band he started in 1955 when he was 16.

"I was supposed to go to Russia for a competition, but they heard

I was involved in American capitalist rock and roll, so they canceled

me out," he says.

Sedaka teamed up with a neighbor, Howard Greenfield, to write songs,

sometimes writing one a day. From ’59 to ’63, they sold over 25 million

records. Their partnership lasted 30 years. As the first to sign with

Aldon Records — followed by Carol King, Paul Simon, Neil Diamond

— they were the center of the pop music industry producing wholesome,

romantic tunes like "Calendar Girl" and "Happy Birthday

Sweet Sixteen."

His special brand is recognized by multi-tracking his

own voice, blending the styles of hits from other cultures and music

genres into his own. He recorded on Elton John’s label, Rocket, and,

for better or for worse, launched the careers of the Captain and Tennille

with his tune "Love Will Keep Us Together."

Over 1,000 rock and roll songs and 52 records earned Sedaka gold and

platinum, five Grammy nominations, numerous awards including the Songwriter’s

Hall of Fame, six BMI Awards, a street in Brooklyn named after him,

a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, a likeness in the Madame Tussaud

Wax Museum, and an autobiography. Major stars have recorded his songs,

among them Gloria Estefan, Patsy Cline, and Cheryl Crow. With a bow

to his roots, he produced more gold in the 1990s with "Classically

Sedaka," his biggest selling CD at concerts with his lyrics to

the melodies of classical legends. He produced "Tales of Love

and Other Passions," a CD of original and jazz standards.

Lyrics come to him as they often do to others. "Sometimes it comes

from something in my life or a story that’s told to me, or I’ll read

a novel and be inspired by a certain line," he says. "Sometimes

I’m inspired by the music and I write the lyrics depending on what

the melody might paint. It’s so fascinating to write lyrics."

In the nature of Sedaka’s simplicity and humility, he finds it incredible

that people pay to hear him sing. "Sometimes when I’m driving

to Las Vegas and I see my name on a billboard I’ll say to myself,

`Oh, Neil is in town.’ It’s like I’m two different people — the

person and the singer."

Still singing after all these years, he finds joy in performing and

keeping in shape. He takes a two-mile brisk walk every morning, plays

tennis and skis, but never naps. "I am very energetic. Me and

Dick Clark, we don’t age. There’s something about the adrenaline rush

that’s done something chemically to me. I can rise to the occasion

under stress."

Sedaka practices anywhere, including his New York office where two

pianos await his touch and the staff feels well treated whenever he

sits down to play. He keeps his forever-young voice in shape by sleeping

eight hours a night and not going to noisy places like discotheques

where he has to shout to be heard. He stays away from iced drinks

and he keeps singing. "Like a gymnast, if I don’t sing for two

weeks, the first concert I do is tough," he says. "The more

I sing, the better I keep in shape."

Sedaka says he needs the feedback he gets from his audiences. "I

need people. I’m not a loner. I love to please, to give. I did get

back quite a lot over the years. It’s a marvelous give and take."

Next, he plans to cut an album of Jewish folk songs, many of which

are not written down but have been sung through the generations. "I’ve

always had a very warm place in my heart for these songs," he

says. "Every time I hear them, I weep. They’re so beautiful. I

think that now the Jewish people need this kind of lift. I can record

what I want to do. I pick and choose what I want to play."

He says he could never do anything else, and these days

Sedaka performs two weeks of every month. Leba, his wife of 40 years,

chooses fun places for him to perform. The pair sometimes travels

with their parrot, Echo, between their two homes in New York and Los

Angeles. With two grown children, they just became grandparents of

twin girls in California.

The things he enjoys in life are simple — "the grandchildren,

friends, good dinners, and a nice glass of Chardonnay," he says.

"I think going to a movie like `The Pianist’ is great. I’m a very

sensitive man. I love a good cry. These are things that touch me."

What he wants in life are peace of mind, to bring happiness to people,

to be a good father, husband and grandfather. "I want to have

immortality through my work, and to be able to get along well with

my peers," he says.

"I love what I do," he says. "I love to perform and sing.

It’s a great gift and I’m a regular person. It never went to my head.

I never forgot where I came from. I can appreciate what I do. I worked

very hard for it."

— Mary Jasch

Neil Sedaka, State Theater, 15 Livingston Avenue,

New Brunswick, 877-782-8311. Tickets online at www.StateTheatreNJ.org.

$25 to $50. Friday, March 28, 8 p.m.


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