Life & Culture

Neil Sedaka, the kosher Carol singer


One of popular music’s greatest singer-songwriters, Neil Sedaka's many enduring hits include a serenade to a famous girlfriend and fellow musician, and who is about to tour the UK

Neil Sedaka’s new album improbably offers the opportunity to make some of his best-known songs into a ringtone for your mobile phone. On purchase of “The Show Goes On,” fans will be able to download “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do,” or “Happy Birthday, Sweet Sixteen.”

We meet just after Sedaka, the quintessential singer-songwriter, has celebrated a birthday — not a 16th but his own 67th — in Palm Beach, Florida, with his wife and family. An indefatigable performer, Sedaka was appearing locally in a couple of concerts and doubtless paying a filial visit to his 89-year-old mother, Eleanor, who lives in Sedaka-funded splendour in Fort Lauderdale, just up the road. It is, says Sedaka, “wonderful to be able to call your mother your best friend.” Yes, he is an avowed and proud mama’s boy.

His astonishingly long career owes a lot to women: Eleanor, of course, who took a part-time job in a department store in order to pay for a second-hand upright piano for her prodigy son; his famous girlfriend, Carol King, née Klein, for whom “Oh, Carol” was written; and his wife of 44 years, Leba Strassberg, whom he met in the Catskills and who became his inspiration and his manager.

These days, Sedaka, who is about to set off on a UK tour, lives in some style on Park Avenue, Manhattan. But life in 1940s Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, where he grew up, was very different. “My father, Mac, was born on the Lower East Side to parents who had immigrated to the States from Istanbul,” he tells me. “He became a taxi driver, and my mother (until her decision to go out to work) was a housewife.” The Sedakas’ two-room apartment was “very crowded.” Indeed it was containing, as it did, Sedaka, his sister, their parents, his paternal grandparents, and no less than five aunts.

“It’s always said that my parents were musical,” Sedaka says, “but that wasn’t so. My grandmother, on my mother’s side” — Eleanor Appel came from a Polish-Russian family — “was said to have played the piano but she died when she was 26, so there was no way of knowing if I inherited that. But my mother’s father, so the family story goes, had some sort of a vaudeville act, where he sang — and he’s also believed to have written songs. We were told that he’d written a song called ‘Let A Smile Be Your Umbrella on a Rainy Day,’ but that he’d sold it for just $50. Actually, we looked up the song but someone else has the writing credit. Anyway, it’s a nice story — and it is a very nice song.”

Even if his parents weren’t musical, Sedaka had a musical barmitzvah. “I sang the haftorah so well that there wasn’t a dry eye in the temple,” he recalls. “All the rabbis said I should become a cantor, but my parents had other ideas.”

By the time he was barmitzvah, at Manhattan Beach’s Temple Beth El, Sedaka was attending classes at the prestigious Juilliard School of Music, and, he says, had suddenly realised that he was able to write songs. Although he was practising piano five or six hours a day, he didn’t resent not being out on the streets with his friends.

“I loved it,” he insists. “Besides, playing piano got me invited to all the parties… well, it was fun going to the parties but being able to write songs, that was special. And I realised,” he says without irony or undue modesty, “that I had a natural, remarkable voice, and that I wanted to be a singer-songwriter” — something which hardly existed in 1952.

Mrs Sedaka, whose friends were making their children become doctors and lawyers and dentists, determined that her son should become a concert pianist, an ambition strengthened by his being picked out by the classical musician, Artur Rubenstein, to play on a programme on New York’s classical radio station, WQRX.

Sedaka ultimately studied at Juilliard for 12 years. Rubenstein described him as “one of the finest classical pianists in New York,” but a chance introduction by his mother — typically, Sedaka remembers the date, October 11, 1952 — to Howard Greenfield, the 16-year-old son of a neighbour, changed his direction forever.

Greenfield, says Sedaka, “was a poet.” At any rate, he provided the lyrics to Sedaka’s music, and, between 1959 and 1963, records by Sedaka and Greenfield sold more than 25 million copies. (Greenfield stayed as his lyricist partner until 1972.) It was a heady time, not least because Sedaka’s friends and neighbours appear to have thrown themselves wholeheartedly into the same enterprise. “We were the New York City group,” he says now, reeling off a list of young Jewish friends and acquaintances who went into the music industry. “Neil Diamond lived across the street… I knew [songwriters] Barry and Cynthia Mann from Brooklyn… I went to school with Mort Shuman, who wrote for Elvis… there was Carole Klein, whom I dated in high school, there was Barbra Streisand, there was little Paul Simon…”

Why were so many of the successful singers and writers in the industry Jewish? “Maybe it was something in the water. But, at home, I was certainly inspired by Jewish music. We listened to the Barry Sisters [whose greatest hit was “Bi Mir Bist du Schein”] and, in fact, Claire Barry joined me on stage in Florida recently.”

By the time he was 19, in 1958, Sedaka had made so much money from his songs — $42,000 in royalties — that he was able to mollify his mother by buying her a mink stole. Eleanor, apparently, described this as her “Hadassah tallit.”

It was in that same year that he met Leba. Her parents, Esther and Irving Strassberg, owned a kosher hotel in the Catskills resort town of Monticello, the Esther Manor, and Sedaka was part of the lavish after-dinner entertainment.

Four years later, the pair were married — at the Manor — and have been together ever since, proud parents and grandparents. His daughter, Dara, duets with him from time to time and, although Sedaka says she won’t appear live because of stage fright, the father-and-daughter combo had a hit with “Should’ve Never Let You Go” in 1980. His son Marc, a successful Hollywood screenwriter, is also involved in the family business, producing all the technical video material for Sedaka’s stage shows.

Sedaka’s other “children” — as he refers to his greatest hits — provided a constant soundtrack of “sha-la-la” during the ’60s. From “Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen,” “Oh Carol,” “Calendar Girl,” “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do,” he had a stream of hits, while providing hits for many other artists. The first song that he sold, “Stupid Cupid,” was a hit for Connie Francis, and Sedaka songs have been recorded by everyone from Elvis to Tom Jones, with ’60s icons like Frankie Avalon and Clyde McPhatter in between. In those days, Sedaka clocked in at the legendary Brill Building song factory, locked himself in his office and wrote every day.

When the Beatles burst upon a startled world in 1963 , Sedaka’s career took something of a dip. But, with the help of Elton John, he relaunched himself and in the early ’70s he produced two monster hits, “Love Will Keep Us Together,” and “Laughter in the Rain.” He even wrote, for Tony Christie, last summer’s surprise revival hit, “(Is This The Way to) Amarillo,” which became the biggest selling single of 2005. Altogether he has written more than 1,000 songs.

Sedaka has been loaded with honours throughout his career — there’s even a Sedaka Street in Brooklyn, and, as one might expect, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. There’s a waxwork Sedaka at the Las Vegas branch of Madame Tussaud’s, and “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do” has been listed as one of the 50 most performed songs of the 20th century.

Sedaka — which, as he is quick to point out, is derived from the Hebrew, tsedaka, charity — is the most “out” Jewish performer of his generation. Although his father’s family were Sephardi, and spoke Ladino, it was Yiddish that he heard in the streets, and Yiddish music and rhythms, with its plaintive minor keys, which influenced him. Last year, to raise money for New York’s Yiddish Theatre, Sedaka took to the stage at Carnegie Hall with a remarkable all-Yiddish concert, together with the renowned group, the Klezmatics. It was a sell-out event (and made half-a-million dollars) and the resulting album, “Brighton Beach Memories, Neil Sedaka Sings Yiddish,” made even the singer himself cry. “I’m a very proud Jew,” Sedaka says. “When I went on family picnics, on the bus we would sing these songs with a kazoo and a ukulele. They bring back wonderful memories for me.

“I can’t exactly say I speak Yiddish today but I can sing it very well phonetically, and I’ve had lots of help from my wife.”

I’m moved to ask, given that uber-producer Rick Rubin is doing wonders to rescue the formerly cheesy Neil Diamond from the dairy farm of his career, whether Sedaka might be ready to be Rubin-ed. “Yes,” he replies, “I would be interested if someone approached me. In the end, it all depends on the record company and how they’re prepared to market you.”

Now, if you’ll excuse him, Neil Sedaka has a tour to prepare. And he offers me his lifetime tips for preserving his voice: “Never go into a loud room where you have to shout to be heard. Don’t drink iced drinks. Don’t sit in front of an air-conditioning unit. Get lots of sleep. And you must have a positive attitude. That’s the most important thing.”

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