My 50 Years at the Top of Pop
Chart-topping music legend Neil Sedaka tells Laurence White why he has penned his last pop song
At an age when most people would be thinking of a happy and well-earned retirement, singer-songwriter Neil Sedaka is about to embark on a new career. Having spent nearly 50 years as one of the great iconic pop stars, writing more than 1,000 songs and having his work performed by such legends as Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley, Neil, now 70, is going back to his first love, classical music.
Neil, who is coming to Belfast’s Waterfront Hall on June 18 as part of a 12-city UK tour, enrolled at the prestigious Julliard School of Music as a precocious eight-year-old, training as a classical pianist. At 16, he was heralded by Arthur Rubenstein, regarded as among the greatest pianists of the 20th century, as one of the best New York high school performers.
Now, at the age of 70 and having written a symphonic piece, Joie de Vivre and a sonato, Manchester Intermezzo, Neil is giving up composing pop songs.
“Pop music is quite a limited framework and structure, whereas in classical music the exploration is limitless. I started as a concert pianist and I am now going back to my roots,” he says.
However, he stresses, he is “very proud” of his pop songs, which include timeless classics such as Oh Carol, Calendar Girl, Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen and Breaking Up Is Hard To Do.
“I have written more than 1,000 songs during my lifetime [the first when he was just aged 13] and I wouldn’t be where I am today without them.
“But you have to know when to bow out and my latest collection, the Music of My Life, will be my swansongs. I regard these 11 songs, which I will be featuring during my tour, as my crowning glory. Although I don’t think I will ever write another pop song, I will still perform my music. There is still a large audience out there for me.”
The new collection includes his first salsa song, written half in English, half in Spanish. “I have been a great lover of Latin music for as long as I can remember,” he says.
Although now concentrating on classical compositions, he has no regrets of a life spent in pop. “It is one thing to perform a great Beethoven piece, but it is much more rewarding to go out on stage to perform lyrics and melodies that you have written yourself. And, of course, pop music has its financial rewards.”
The sheer span of his writing, much of it with childhood friend Howard Greenfield, has led many to regard Neil as primarily a composer, but he holds a different view.
“I consider myself first and foremost as a singer. There are many great songs in history, but it is the interpreter, the singer, who is the one that stands out.
“I feel I have been underrated over the years as a vocalist. People say I am a composer first, but I think the reason I became a success is because of my voice. It is very distinctive, a remarkable voice.”
He pays tribute to his loyal UK fans — “I think the music has reached them emotionally” — and is particularly looking forward to his Belfast date. “I have been there before and have found the audiences very responsive and happy to sing along.”
Song writing, he believes, operates on three levels — emotional, intellectual and spiritual. “The emotional comes from times when you have undergone some trauma or crisis and writing is a way of getting it off your chest. The song Solitude fits that bill.
“Laughter in the Rain, on the other hand, is an example of the intellectual writing, something that emerges from the sub-conscious mind and is then embellished.
“I have also experienced the spiritual experience a few times where the song writes itself. I believe it comes from a higher power and that one is just chosen as a middle man. That happened a couple of times during my new collection and also when I wrote Breaking Up Is Hard To Do.”
With such a huge back catalogue, picking a favourite song is like choosing a favourite child, he says. But Laughter In The Rain will always hold a special place in his heart as it was the song in 1974 that brought him back into the pop charts after an absence of 14 years.
Sedaka and Greenfield were among the original creators of the ‘Brill Building’ sound in the late 1950s and ’60s and the prolific songwriting duo sold 40 million records between 1959 and 1963.
But in 1964 the American music scene was turned upside down when the Beatles launched the British invasion. Neil was among those solo artists who found it difficult to chart with the new fashion for groups, although his songs still found favour with stars such as Sinatra, Presley, Tom Jones, The Monkees and The Fifth Dimension.
It was 1974 before his solo career was truly resurrected, thanks in part to his friendship with Elton John. Neil recorded two albums for the Rocket label, Sedaka’s Back and The Hungry Years, which went on to become best sellers worldwide.
And recently he has been reaching an entirely new generation of fans with a CD Waking Up is Hard to Do, a re-writing of some of his most famous songs for a children’s audience.
It was partly inspired by his three grandchildren, twin girls, Amanda and Charlotte, and boy, Michael Emerson. They are the family of his son Marc — Neil also has a daughter Dara from his 46-year marriage to “the lovely” Leba — who adapted the songs. The five-year-old twins feature as back-up vocalists.
“I have always tried to develop and grow. I have done all sorts of albums, collections of standards and evergreens, Christmas songs and even an album in Yiddish.
“I now don’t record simply for commercial reasons. I am doing things I always wanted to do and the children’s album is an example. The tots may think they are new songs, but their parents and grandparents will remember the original versions.”
Neil has enjoyed one of the longest lasting marriages in showbusiness to Leba, his wife of 47 years. She acts as his manager, working with promoters, lawyers and accountants, and leaving him free to pursue his musical career.
It is a career that has brought him many accolades, including being inducted into the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame, having a street named after him in his hometown of Brooklyn and being immortalised with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
And now celebrated UK writer Philip Norman has written a musical, Laughter In The Rain, about Neil’s life between the ages of 13-35. It features several of Neil’s hits.
So could it be another Mama Mia? “I’ll take that,” he says without hesitation.
As our short telephone interview ends, I wish him luck with the tour. He replies: “Luck is important, but more important is courage. I have had a lot of fans over the years and they have made it comfortable for me to go out on stage and perform.”
So what is in store for the fans on the latest tour? “They will be solo concerts, just me, a piano and videos. It will be the pure form of the songs, the way I wrote them, just at the piano. I feel people are interested in the personal side of my songs, why I wrote them and how I wrote them and that is what I aim to give them.”
An Evening with Neil Sedaka, Waterfront Hall, Belfast, Thursday 18 June, tel: 9033 4455