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Home » On the Cover » Neil Sedaka: Prolific Songwriter Goes Back To The Basics

Neil Sedaka: Prolific Songwriter Goes Back To The Basics


Over Neil Sedaka’s long career he’s been known for writing songs that catch your ear and make you want to sing along. Hit recordings like “Calendar Girl” (1961) “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do” (two versions 1962 and 1975), “Laughter in the Rain” (1974), and “The Immigrant” (1975) made him a household name for several generations of listeners. His songs have been covered hundreds of times by artists as diverse as Tom Jones (“Puppet Man”), The Monkees (“When Love Comes Knocking at Your Door”), Clay Aiken (“Solitaire”), and Captain and Tennille (“Love Will Keep Us Together”).

“I think the reason I’ve been around 58 years, and that I have been writing songs for 60 years, is that the piano is the magnet that draws me,” explains the Local 802 (New York City) member. “It talks to me and says, ‘Neil, how good are you, really? Can you top the last collection?’ I try to raise the bar and try something different each time.”

Though most widely known for his pop music, Sedaka’s roots are classical and he had early aspirations of being a concert pianist. That all began to change when he discovered pop music. In high school, he formed the doo-wop group The Tokens, and he played some gigs in the Catskills with The Nordanelles. That’s when he first joined the AFM, going to the union office with his father and the whole band to sign up. It’s a membership he’s maintained throughout his career.

Music Out of the Air

Sedaka first began writing pop songs with Howard Greenfield as a teenager. Greenfield lived in Sedaka’s building and Greenfield’s mother thought they should collaborate. “I remember it vividly,” Sedaka says. “I was a 13-year-old pianist and he was a 16-year-old lyricist and poet. She suggested that he knock on my door. It was October 11, 1952. I had known him from the building, but of course, he was an old man at 16. He asked me to write songs and I told him I didn’t know how to write songs. But, he had this little tape recorder Neil-Sedaka-Jukebox(WEB)and he convinced me to write something. It was awful. But listening back, I was fascinated that I could create something out of the air.”

Thus began their prolific co-writing relationship that resulted in more than 40 million records. They began writing for Atlantic Records, with Jerry Wexler and Ahmet Eregün. “We would take the subway in and we had our songs recorded by a lot of R&B artists of the day—LaVerne Baker, Clyde McPhatter, The Cardinals, The Clovers,” says Sedaka. “We were teenagers; when I heard them [played on the radio] I was thrilled.”

Later, at age 18, Sedaka went to work in New York’s famed Brill Building. “Howie and I were the first team to be signed to Aldon Music,” he says. “I was dating Carole King as a teenager, and I suggested she go up. So the second team was Carole King and Gerry Goffin. And then, Barry Mann and Cynthia Wiel.”

As exciting as it was to have his songs recorded by others, Sedaka really wanted to be a performer. “I thought, ‘why am I giving them away when I have this voice?’” he says. “I think people can relate to a singer songwriter more than when a song is recorded by somebody else.”

Song Savvy

As a result of Connie Francis’s success with her recordings of his songs “Stupid Cupid” and “Where the Boys Are,” Sedaka was able to sign a contract with RCA as a writer and performer of his own work. Early on, he produced such hits as “The Diary,” but then he floundered.

After he had a couple of flops in a row and RCA threatened to drop him, he showed how song savvy he really was. “I was desperately trying to see what was commercial at the time. I bought all the hit records from around the world and analyzed them. I wrote ‘Oh, Carol’ by listening to the records. It was a study and it worked. It sold over three million copies,” he says.

Even to this day, Sedaka says he gets much inspiration from other singers and songs. “I’m inspired by listening to the timbre of their voices. For instance, Dinah Washington was one of my favorites. That’s why I slowed down ‘Breaking Up Is Hard to Do’ and did a ballad version. She was the inspiration,” he recounts. “Many of my songs were inspired by other singers’ voices. I hear them on the radio I will think: ‘you know, I can write for that voice, that style, but I can top it.’”

“It’s like a designer,” he continues. “I can take different fabrics from different places. ‘Love Will Keep Us Together’ was a combination of three different singing styles—Al Green, the Beach Boys, and Diana Ross. I loved all those people and I put their singing styles together and wrote that tune.”

Back to Basics

Over the years, Sedaka’s songs have run the gamut. “I’ve done children’s CDs, Christmas CDs,” says Sedaka, who has recorded in six different languages. His latest album, Real Neil (2013) is his first acoustic album. “I wanted to show how I write the basic song at the piano and I felt that people are interested in how I create,” he says, explaining why he made an album stripped of production “gimmicks.”

Of late, he’s also returned to his first passion, classical music. Sedaka’s first symphonic piece “Joie de Vivre,” premiered about four years ago and he is currently working on another, “Russian Rhapsody.” Real Neil’s bonus track is his classical piano concerto Manhattan Intermezzo.

Though more challenging than pop music, he says classical composing allows him more freedom. “Harmonically, rhythmically, you don’t have to write for a certain market or commerciality. You can write something that is close to your soul and express yourself musically,” he says.

Though Sedaka’s songs have been covered by everyone from Elvis Presley to Frank Sinatra to Abba, Sedaka says he never really wrote for anyone. “I write for my own records, for my own voice,” he says. “I’ve had ‘Solitaire’ covered by more than 60 versions and ‘Breaking Up Is Hard to Do’ even more than that.”

“It’s an honor if a great singer covers my song,” he continues. Among his favorites are covers of “Solitaire” by Shirley Bassey, Karen Carpenter, and Clay Aiken; and recordings of his songs by Connie Francis, Andy Williams, Johnny Mathis, Peggy Lee, and Patsy Kline.

Sedaka has his theories as to why his songs are so well covered. “My songs are an interesting combination of pop and evergreen standards, with a bit of rock and roll and a bit of theater,” he says. “I write in a comfortable vocal range, with my voice, at the piano. It’s no more than an octave and a couple notes.”

Writing songs that other musicians recorded kept him going during difficult times. When the British invasion hit, Sedaka dropped off the charts and he worked only as a songwriter for 13 years. Ironically, he left for the UK to revive his career. There he met Elton John who was a longtime fan. He invited Sedaka to record on his new Rocket record label. Sedaka’s Back (1974) and The Hungry Years (1975) became top sellers worldwide. Two songs that Sedaka wrote with Phil Cody, “Laughter in the Rain” and “Bad Blood,” hit the top spot on Billboard’s Hot 100, helping to restart Sedaka’s career and get him back out in front of audiences.

These days Sedaka prefers to write alone. “I find it much more rewarding. People aren’t putting words in my mouth and I can express myself,” he says. “I begin at the piano with either a tune or a poem.”

Over his long career Sedaka has seen many changes in the music industry, and he tries to stay current, listening to today’s latest voices for inspiration. “I go back to Stevie Wonder and Peter Gabriel, but I think some of the new people are delightful. I like melodic and intelligible lyrics.” Sedaka says that Local 47 (Los Angeles, CA) member Bruno Mars is his favorite among the younger artists.

Sedaka readily concedes that today’s musicians face bigger challenges than he did. “There are so many millions of people on the Internet,” he says. “Everybody can make a YouTube video.”

Advice from a Pro

For young songwriters he offers this advice: “There are two ways of writing, either with the market or completely against the market, and both can be successful,” he says. “Sing and play in front of as many people as possible and see how the material goes over. Take criticism and don’t be afraid of disappointments and turndowns. You can’t keep great talent down, but you have to have something that makes you different.”

As for singers who want to have as remarkable a voice as he has at 72, he adds, “Your voice has to be cared for. Don’t go into a loud room where you have to shout to be heard. No ice drinks; you have to keep it warm. It’s like being an athlete. If you stop singing for a while, the first concert back is like climbing a mountain.”

“I remember Pavarotti telling me, ‘Oh Neil, after 70 the voice is going to go,’ but I’ve been lucky,” Sedaka says. “You almost have to learn how to sing all over again. You use your diaphragm more. You have to pick and choose the notes and pace yourself.”

Sedaka is currently working on a Broadway show that will tell the story of his long career. “I think it’s the ultimate; I’ve done everything else,” he explains, adding that he thinks his life has been interesting. “I’m a survivor. I had to overcome a lot of diversity, and I came back after 13 years of being off the charts.”

As he begins to focus more on this project, Sedaka will be touring less in the coming years. “This is my last heavy touring year, of a 58-year career,” he says. “I’m going to pick and choose the shows next year. I love being on stage, but the traveling is difficult.” This Fall he has shows planned in Las Vegas, Canada, and seven concerts in England, including at Albert Hall.

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