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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
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
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
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
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
New Brunswick, 877-782-8311. Tickets online at www.StateTheatreNJ.org.
$25 to $50. Friday, March 28, 8 p.m.
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