The Little Devil that was brought down and found Waking Up Hard to Do.
This American singer/songwriter is nearly 76 years old and his name means Charity in Hebrew. He has written more than 800 songs in the past 61 years, in fact, he only writes the melodies. Other people write the lyrics. When he was 13, he wrote 500 songs over the next two years. He said that he was born with the gift of music and his mother told him that he wouldn’t eat unless the radio was playing music. When he was in school in Brooklyn, his teacher noticed that he had a musical ability and sent a note home to his parents. As a result, his mother had to take a part time job for the next nine months in order to buy a second-hand upright piano. At the age of eight he was practicing five hours a day. At 17, he started a band called the Tokens and at 19 joined other greats like Neil Diamond, Carole King and Paul Simon in 1650 Broadway. At 24, he sold 25 million records, at which time Beatlemania killed his career stone dead in America.
I’m talking about Neil Sedaka.
He was born to Mac Sedaka and Eleanor in Brooklyn’s Madison Hospital New York on 13 March 1939. Mac was a taxi driver and they didn’t have a lot of money. Neil is lucky to be alive because his mother tried to miscarry him. In his own words "My mother gave birth to my sister a year and a half earlier. It was a very difficult pregnancy and she almost lost my sister and her life while giving birth. The doctors advised her not to give birth again. They said it would put her life in risk. So my mother tried to miscarry by getting on the roller coaster at the famous Coney Island amusement park again and again." His mother told him about this when he was 12. Asked if he was upset about it he said "No, not at all. We were very good friends. We could talk about everything."
Talking about his roots, Neil said “My paternal grandparents were born in Istanbul, Turkey, and came to New York around 1910. My father, born on the Lower East Side, drove a taxi for over 30 years in order to put me through The Juilliard School of Music”. His mother was of Polish-Russian descent.
Neil went to school in Brooklyn and as mentioned above, his teacher recognised his musical genius and sent a note home. His mother Eleanor, whose own mother was a concert pianist, got a part time job to buy him a piano when he was eight. At that age, he wanted to be a Doctor of classical music and he practiced five hours a day. When he was 13, his musical ability was so good that he was given a scholarship and asked to play in a competition on New York’s classic radio station WQRX. This was a huge deal because it was judged by Artur Rubinstein. At this stage, he was introduced to the 16 year old Howie Greenfield during a show in the Catskill Mountains. Howie was a lyricist and poet. Over the next two years they wrote 500 songs. Neil wrote the melodies and Howie wrote the words. This was all done behind Eleanor’s back because she had her sights set on Neil being a concert pianist. While in school at 15 or 16, Neil was asked to perform in the school for a show. He played some classical music, which didn’t go down too well. Then he played one of his own songs, Mister Moon, which had all the kids on their feet. He was surrounded by all the girls. Then he realised that he liked the attention and he set his sights from there.
At 17, he started a group called the Linc-Tones. As a result of people hearing him play, he got an audition in the famous Brill Building on 1619 Broadway for a small label called Melba Records and recorded a few songs. As part of this process he was encouraged to change the name to the Tokens. They got some air play, but the group failed and he went solo in 1957. He wanted to be a pop star so bad that on the 45rpm singles that he owned, he used to scratch out the original singer’s name and put in his own its place, just to see what it looked like.
Neil and Howie continued writing songs and they brought them to publishing companies in the Brill Building and also at 1650 Broadway, a block away. They got a recording contract with RCA. This was 1957 when he was 18.Mort Shuman, also a singer/songwriter and high school friend of Neil, sent them to Don Kirshner and Al Nevins of Alton Music in 1650 Broadway who in turn sent them to Connie Francis’s home (born Concetta Rosa Maria Franconero, no wonder she changed her name) to play some songs to her. After playing many songs to her, she got bored because they were all her style and she wanted something different. Neil played Stupid Cupid, a 12 bar blues song, and she loved it. She recorded it and it became a hit.
But the following Sedaka songs failed. He was given one more chance by RCA. He knew this was his final opportunity. So he bought and researched all the number one songs in the charts. He took them apart. In his own words, "I analysed what they had in common. I discovered they had many similar elements: harmonic rhythm, placement of the chord changes, choice of harmonic progressions, similar instrumentation, vocals phrases, drum fills, content, even the timbre of the lead solo voice. I decided to write a song that incorporated all these elements in one record. "He had cracked the music code. Neil struggled and listened to Little Darlin’ by The Diamonds and made it more melodic and different. The label told him to put a girl’s name in the title. A previous girlfriend was Carole King, so he named it “Oh Carol”. It sold 3.5 million records and he got a royalty cheque of $4,200. In excitement, he ran to his parents with the cheque and they told him that he read it wrong. It was $42,000. This payment convinced his mother to accept that he should be in pop as opposed to classical music. In response to Oh Carol, Carole’s husband wrote a song that Carole recorded, called “Oh Neil”. "Oh! Neil, I've loved you for so long, I never dreamed you'd put me in a song, I'm Carol, and I live in Tennessee, I never hoped that you'd remember me." It failed. Oh Carol was recorded in seven languages.
Between 1958 and 1962, Neil and Howie sold 25 million records and had 10 number one hits including “The Diary,” “Oh! Carol,” ” Stairway to Heaven,” “Calendar Girl,” “Little Devil,” “Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen,” “Next Door To An Angel,” and “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do.”
In 1958, whilst playing at the Esther Manor near Monticello in New York State, Neil met 16 year old Leba Strassberg daughter of the owners, Esther and Irving. It was love at first sight for Neil. He knew he was going to marry Leba before he even spoke to her! They got married at the Manor in 1962. Leba, who is a highly competent businesswoman, has been Neil’s driving force and his manager since the mid 70s. She has said that, "Neil may not be the world’s greatest songwriter, singer or performer, but nobody can do all three better."
His first song that he sang himself was “The Diary” which sold 600,000 copies.
Howie and Neil mastered the art of doing the two and a half minute single, getting an entire story into 2.5 minutes. The song sounded like they were written in 5 minutes, but in fact they took a lot of work. It was hard to do. Neil admitted that when they couldn’t find an ending to their songs, they just faded them away.
Due to Neil’s training, he didn’t just write songs in four chords or 12 bar blues. He wrote them in pentatonic, harmonic & melodic minors, diminished, dominant 7th& 9th, minor & major blues, and augmented, extraordinary key changes. I haven’t a clue whether he used phrygian, dorian, Lydian, mixolydian, etc.
All through those years, he lived quite frugally and gave all his money to his parents to manage it. His only indulgence was to buy a new car every year.
However, and this is the big however, his mother was having an affair with an air conditioning salesman, Ben. Strange as it may seem, it was with his father’s consent. "My mother had a lover for 30 years, and my father accepted it. He was very poor and told my mother, 'Honey, if there's someone taking care of you and of all your needs – it's fine with me. As long as you go out to nice restaurants and it doesn't cost me one cent, it's okay. The important thing is that you're happy.' Asked how he found out about it, he said "She told my sister and me about it when I was 20. She managed me, and not so good it seems, but I was okay with everything until she suggested that her partner manage me. He was an air conditioning systems salesman, and he managed me for four or five years, and it was pretty bad. He had no idea. My career was down. In the end, when I informed them that they were no longer my managers, my mother tried to commit suicide by taking sleeping pills."Where did she sleep at night? "She would move from one to the other." She must have been fit!
They stole all his money. Neil was broke.He never spoke to Ben again and it was a year before he spoke to his mother.
This coincided with a downturn in his popularity and the introduction to America of The Beatles, the Rolling Stones and many more. The British Invasion had arrived. His career was over. He couldn’t get a recording contract. Neither could Johnny Cash, Bobby Rydel, Connie Francis, and many more. They all got swept away. Overnight these stars looked old fashioned.
Neil and Leba were living in Brooklyn with two small children. He went from playing the Copacabanna, probably the most infamous club in NY City, to playing to 12 people in Montreal. He did studio sessions playing the piano for $50. Asked what he was doing there, he said that he was the piano player. “It was a terrible shock to my ego”. The time had come for Cat Stevens, Carole Kings Tapestry, Joni Mitchells, Gordon Lightfoot. It was album time, and Neil was never seen as an album artist. So he brought out Emergence. It did ok, but not great.
Howie travelled a lot and also wrote for other people. Neil recognised that he needed a new style of lyric. He needed a lyric that painted pictures. Phil Cody had just brought out a new album that flopped. He said that his parents must have bought all of them. Neil liked his lyrics and asked him to write with him. Howie was out. He wrote his final song for Neil called “Our last song together”. If you listen to the words, it says it all. It was time to turn the page. This will be our last song together, Words will only make us cry, This will be our last song together, There's no other way to say good-bye.
Phil was as different as chalk and cheese to Neil. He was a hippie and it forced Neil to write different types of melodies. They sat down one afternoon and wrote three songs, one of which was Solitaire. While Neil recorded it, he admits that others did better versions, like Karen Carpenter, Shirley Bassey and Andy Williams. Don Kirschner didn’t like the song initially and it caused a rift between Don and Neil. Over 60 artists covered Solitaire.
Neil wasn’t earning money in America and he was broke. His manager, Dick Fox, said that he could get him work in England in the working mens’ clubs. So he moved Leba and the kids to England for three and a half years. Neil said that “it was a very sobering experience”. Leba did the announcement and the lights. He was amazed that people spoke, ate and smoked during the performances. He performed in the Batley Variety Club. This held around 1600 people who paid six shillings and six pence entrance fee. This also got them chicken or scampi in a basket with chips. This reminds me of Red Island in Skerries where I used to work as a bouncer and bar man around that time. Batley was big enough to get the best artists at the time, like The Bee Gees, Shirley Bassey, Tina turner, Tom Jones, Roy Orbison, Eartha Kitt, Louis Armstrong, Morcambe and Wise, to mention but a few.
Neil found this very hard work. He didn’t give up and kept pushing forward. He needed a new edge. Harvey Lisberg introduced Neil to 10cc. He recorded the album Solitaire with them in their Strawberry Studios in Stockport. It did well in UK and also charted in the US, but not enough to reignite his career.
He got a gig at the Albert Hall, where he met Elton John. Elton was just starting his Rocket Company Label and he encouraged Neil to sign. Elton said “So the basic plan was as simple as finding out what he wanted to have on his album – which turned out to be a compilation from his British albums. It had been like Elvis coming up and giving us the chance to release his records. We couldn't believe our luck. This is like giving us gold bricks”. Neil threw a big party in his flat (must have been a big flat). Many greats turned up, like Paul Mc Cartney, Rod Stewart, Elton John and his partner John Reid, the Carpenters and others. It was a huge success and opened Neil up to that network.
He missed working with David Bowie. "Yes, what a missed opportunity. It was before 'Ziggy Stardust' and I didn't know him. Suddenly this weird thing walking in to studio. He was dressed strangely, very pretty. I didn't even know if it was a man or a woman. He said to me, 'You're Sedaka, right? I love your music. I heard you play with 10cc and I was wondering if I could play the guitar with you.' I was very shy and wary in terms of my recordings, so I said, 'Thanks a lot but it's just not right for me.' What a stupid thing to do, what a stupid thing. He's such a talented man."
Elton put some of the Tra-La Days are Over and the LA Sessions and in an album for America, “Sedaka’s Back”. It charted at number 95 in America & gradually moved up to number 70. When Neil and Leba were in their car in England going to a gig, they heard the legendary Casey Kasem play “Laughter in the Rain”. The album went to number one. Neil was back in America.
At this point Neil was earning $30,000 per year. “Laughter in the Rain” earned him $6 million in a year. The song was a combination of three styles from the Beach Boys, Diana Ross and Al Greene. Al used a lot of augmented chords. To the untrained ear, you wouldn’t recognise this, but it made it unique and earned him $6 million.
The song was released in America during a time of turmoil and recession. Gerald Ford became President and he pardoned Nixon, who was probably the most hated man in the world because of Vietnam. It brought a sense of hope to the people and also reminded them that they needed fun.
Within one year Neil had three songs in the American Charts, “Laughter in the Rain”, “Love will keep us together” and “Bad Blood”. Not bad for an artist who was thrown on the heap and written off. I remember that time. I used to go to the Harbour Bar in Rush and there was a pianist in the cabaret lounge who used to play Neil Sedaka. That was the closest I got to his music.
He was possibly the only artist who ever had two hits with the same song, “Breaking up is Hard to Do”. The first one in 1962 and then a slowed down version in 1976, which was a style of blues ballad. This one had loads of chord changes that the normal joe wouldn’t recognise, but made it great.
Between 1974 and 1977 his US albums were issued on the Rocket label and between 1977 and 1981 they were on the Elektra label, because Neil had a falling out with Elton. Elton, in the latter years of the contract, was putting less money and effort into Neil and Elektra also didn’t put too much effort. This resulted in Neil losing popularity again. So in 1981 he didn’t have a label.
In 1975, Neil was the opening act for The Carpenters on their world tour. There is controversy over how and why Neil was fired from the show, but he was fired. One theory says that Richard fired him because he was becoming more popular than The Carpenters and another says that in a show in Las Vegas, he introduced Tom Jones, whereas it was Richards’s job to do that. In the melee, The Carpenters manager, Sherwin Bash, was also fired. At the same time, the Carpenters had a major hit with Solitaire.
The Hungry Years came out in 1976. Phil Cody said that was not his style of song and suggested he ask Howie to write it. Neil did. It was about a couple who were getting a divorce and they missed their hungry years from before. They set goals and achieved them, but missed the one on being together. It’s a sad song. Howie and Neil were back together again until Howie’s death in 1986, a few days before his 50th birthday.
Amarillo was written around 1968-9 and was given to Tony Christie. The song was a reasonable success. Thirty five years later, Peter Kay lip synched a video for charity in 2002. In 2005, Peter did it again for Comic Relief. Tony Christie then did the song again and it stayed in the charts for seven weeks. In 2006 Tony released the song again. This time called Is This the Way to the (England) World Cup to mark the appearance of the England football team at that summer's FIFA World Cup finals .It was used yet again later that summer by the Central Band of the Royal British Legion prior to the Men's Finals of the 2006 Wimbledon tennis tournament.
Troops from the Royal Dragoon Guards in Iraq recorded a spoof version of the song which shut down the Ministry of Defence computers following huge downloads.
On 7 April 2006 Neil was singing Amarillo on stage with the intention of Tony coming on as a duet. After the first verse he was interrupted by a man who walked on stage. Neil seemed annoyed with this. But the man was from the Guinness World Records who presented Neil with an award for the most successful hit single of the 21st century. The man left and Neil and Tony continued with the song.
Presently, Neil and Leba live in an apartment in Manhattan, a small palace just a three-minute walk from Central Park. Dozens of gold and platinum albums he received over the years decorate its walls, alongside a fine stereo system and an Andy Warhol portrait of him. "I've been told it's worth quite a lot of money," he says. Some of the apartment buildings wouldn’t allow him in because he was a Jew and they were afraid of the paparazzi. So are parts of the US still racist or what?
He also owns a house in Los Angeles, where he lives half of the year, and used to own a private plane. "I owned it together with Morris Gibb of the Bee Gees, when I had more than 150 concerts a year across the US. It cost us $3.5 million, and it was real fun. Immediately after our performances we would get on the plane and land wherever we wanted without all the airport mess."
He sees the greatest moments of his career as “Getting a star on the Los Angeles Walk of Fame, the fact that a street in Brooklyn has been named after me, that my songs from 50 years ago are still being played on the radio, that I still make people happy."
Speaking on his music skills he said that it’s pointless having the skills if you don’t have the drive as well.
Early 2010 brought another set of new songs, The Music of My Life, which was packaged with a disc of his greatest hits. As the decade rolled on, Neil remained a fixture in the U.K., calling the country his home and, appropriately, most of his albums were released primarily in Britain. This included reissues - Ace compiled his song writing efforts with Howie on a 2011 set called Where the Boys Are, a two CD set of his Rocket albums. The Tra-La Days Are Over and Overnight Success appeared the following year -- as well as the new album The Real Neil, which comprised new songs with re-recordings of old tunes.
He’s still doing concerts, but very few. His website has six listed for this year, 2015, all in the US. Last week, on 10 February 2015 he was honoured by The Footlighters with the Connie Francis Lifetime Achievement Award on 12 February 2015 at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino. Tickets were $100, $150 and $200.
He has two children, Dara, who sang the female part on the Neil Sedaka duet "Should've Never Let You Go", and Marc and three grandchildren, twins Amanda & Charlotte and Michael. His father, Mac, died in June 1981 of cancer (Neil sang to him on his deathbed when he briefly opened his eyes. It is said that hearing is the last sense to go) and his mother, Eleanor, died on 23 March 2006, aged 89. He is still married to Leba after 53 years.
I’ll leave the last quote with David Foster, a Canadian musician, record producer, composer, songwriter and arranger, “Some song writers write songs that the whole world knows, Neil writes songs that the whole world sings.”
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