Life & Culture

Interview: Neil Sedaka

Mother tried to kill me (then got me a piano)


It's the ultimate kvell," declares Neil Sedaka. "How much prouder can one be than to see your life on stage?

The veteran singer is talking about the experience of sitting in the audience and watching Laughter in the Rain, the show that celebrates his life and career, which is currently touring the UK.

"The first night was so emotional," he continues, "my wife Leba and I, we had to stay over a second night and see it again."

Sedaka has been, in his own words, "a fighter, a survivor, in this very trendy business", for almost six decades. The musical traces his varying fortunes as a performer, from his breakthrough as a songwriter in the 1950s to Laughter in the Rain itself, the song which topped the American charts in 1975, marking a return to form when he was 35 after years in the wilderness.

"The show is about someone who has so many ups and downs in his career, yet reinvents himself and remains emotionally stable - look, not even I know how I did it."

Also revealed on stage are some shocking details of his early years: "The show goes from my birth and my mother, Eleanor, trying to abort me on a roller-coaster because she had a very bad pregnancy with my sister. But as a result - through osmosis or something - I became a roller-coaster freak. I love them and growing up close to Coney Island, in New York, I rode all of the roller-coasters as a kid."

He still goes back to Brighton Beach, in Brooklyn, and makes a point of visiting Neil Sedaka Way, the street named after him there. "It was a great honour," he says. "Usually you have to be dead to have a street named after you."

Once Eleanor gave birth to her son, she proved to be the indefatigable Jewish mother. The show tells how she worked in a department store to earn the money to pay for his first piano. "But then the plot thickens," he says. "I go to the Juilliard [music school] to be a concert pianist. When I was 19 my mother told me that she had a lover. Of course, I was very shocked, but I wanted her to be happy. I know it sounds strange but my sister and I came to terms with mother having a lover as long as she was happy and my father accepted it. He was a very sweet soul, but very cheap - he was a cab driver - and he was happy that a man was buying my mother furs and jewels and taking her round the world."

Eleanor's lover turns out to be Sedaka's manager, the very man responsible for guiding his burgeoning career. "And as the play unfolds, we see that it's my money that's paying for all of this," says Sedaka. "I fire him as my manager - my mother begs for me to keep him on the staff, but I fire him and then my mum takes an overdose of sleeping pills and has to be rushed to hospital". It is perhaps surprising that he has no qualms about this episode being shown on stage. "I don't mind," he says simply. "It's the real emes, the truth."

But he adds: "We all made up eventually, and my mother subsequently left him and my parents were married for 47 years happily. That's also in the show!"

Eleanor died six years ago aged 89. Would he have allowed such challenging material to be included in the show if she were still alive? "She didn't want to hide the fact that she had a lover. She wanted her children and her friends and family to know about it, so there were no bones hidden. She was ahead of her time," says Sedaka.

The singer describes himself as "a spiritual person, but I'm not religious for organised religion. I am very proud of being Jewish." He has visited Israel many times and says he might tour there later this year. "I did several records in Hebrew" he adds.

His surname Sedaka, which is a varient of the Hebrew word for "charity", must go down well in Israel. "My Hebrew name is Nissim, which means 'miracle'," he laughs. "And every time we go to a synagogue, there's the tzedakah box, the charity box, so the name has been very helpful to me in many ways." He has sung in various languages; Spanish, Italian - and Japanese. He is a big hit in Japan. "Yes, they thought Sedaka was a Japanese name before they saw me," he says.

At least two of his most famous songs have been hits all over again in recent years. Solitaire featured in the top-rated TV show American Idol, and he has made a new recording of Breaking Up Is Hard To Do.

"I made it a torch song. I had a great love for Dinah Washington and I pictured her singing it, so I slowed it down. And of course the sentiment of the song is so universal. Ten years ago, my son was dating a girl and she gave him an ultimatum: 'If you don't marry me, I'm leaving you'. Despondent, he got into his car, turned on the radio and there was his father singing Breaking up is Hard to Do. He called me: 'My own father has to haunt me after such an emotional experience.'"

Did he marry the girl? "Yes! Ten years very happily married. They have three beautiful children. I have three adorable bubalas."

He reveals that the family are about to arrive in the UK where he is receiving an Ivor Novello Award next week. He also has got news about Laughter in the Rain. "I'll let the cat out of the bag - I'll be coming to Manchester when it plays there. I'll be in the audience on May 17 with my wife, my son and my daughter-in-law."

He is especially excited about revisiting the city. "I like Manchester - I've played it many times. The people have a lot of chein, a lot of heart, and the audiences are very receptive."


BORN: March 13, 1939 in Brooklyn, New York.

EARLY LIFE: Grew up in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. Sedaka’s father, Mac, was a taxi driver, the son of Turkish immigrants. His mother, Eleanor, was of Polish-Russian descent. After showing musical promise, his mother took a part-time job in a department store to pay for a second-hand piano. In 1947, he won a piano scholarship to the Juilliard School of Music.

CAREER: Had chart success in the 1950s and early 1960s with songs including Oh! Carol, Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen and Breaking Up is Hard To Do. Career waned in the late 1960s but revived in early 1970s with songs including Laughter in the Rain and Love Will Keep Us Together.

FAMILY: Married Leba in 1962. Two children.

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