Neil Sedaka was born in 1939 in Brooklyn, the son of Jews who traced their lineage back to Lebanon, Turkey, Poland, Russia and Istanbul. Somehow, Neil is the first cousin of Eydie Gormé! Who knew? In 1947 – at the age of eight – Sedaka joined the Julliard School of Music where he studied piano, his mother hoping he would become a classical musician – but Neil soon discovered pop music.
After high school, Neil formed a band that would become the Tokens (“The Lion Sleeps Tonight”) after Neil left them to record as a solo artist. At the same time, Sedaka was writing songs with lyricist Howard Greenfield; the two had been friends since their teens. One of their clients was Connie Francis, for whom the two played all of their compositions one day just to have Francis say they were “too intellectual” for the teens of the day. Neil suggested to Howard they play for her a goofy number they had written – Howard was against it, thinking Connie would be insulted. But when she heard “Stupid Cupid”, she predicted it would be her next hit. Connie – no fool, she – was right. “Stupid Cupid” hit #14 in 1958. Sedaka and Greenfield also were contracted to write a song for Connie’s first movie, Where the Boys Are. Connie tells the story that Neil and Howard wrote two different title tracks for the film from which the studio would choose the one to use in the film. The studio chose the one Connie disliked but “Where the Boys Are” became Connie’s signature song and hit #4 in 1961.
Also during that meeting with Francis, Connie was writing in her diary. Neil asked if he could read what she had written. Francis, of course, said no. This inspired Neil to write “The Diary” for himself and it served as his first single for RCA Records. Interestingly, it also hit #14 in 1958 – just like “Stupid Cupid”. Neil would go on to have an impressive chart run. Between “The Diary” in 1958 and “Let’s Go Steady Again” in 1963, Neil scored 12 Top 40 singles including the Top Ten “Oh! Carol”, a song who’s title referenced Carole King, whom Neil had dated in high school. Other Top Tens were “Calendar Girl” (#4, 1961) and “Breaking Up is Hard to Do”, a legendary recording and one of the pillars of this era. The song spent two weeks at #1 in the summer of ’62.
Also at this time, Neil scored many hits in far-flung countries and recorded many albums in foreign languages including Italian, Yiddish, Spanish, German, Hebrew, Japanese and Canadian French!
Neil’s hits during this segment of his career are highlights of the era and his pure pop songs were augmented by canny production. Neil himself was a pioneer of sorts as he was one of the first pop artists to regularly double-track his own vocals. The prime example being his perfect pop record “Breaking Up is Hard to Do”; just listen to Neil sing the lead, sing harmony with himself and also provide the “down-dooby-doo down down” back-ups.
Neil and Howard Greenfield had an office in the legendary Brill Building, an office building at 1619 Broadway in Manhattan that was home to many song publishing companies and songwriting partnerships starting in the days before World War 2 and extending into the late 1960’s. The list of composers and artists who worked out of the Brill Building reads like a who’s-who of ’60’s music: Burt Bacharach/Hal David, Barry Mann/Cynthia Weil, Jerry Leiber/Mike Stoller, Gerry Goffin/Carole King, Ellie Greenwich/Jeff Barry, Neil Diamond, Canadian Andy Kim, Bobby Darin, Paul Simon and Sedaka among others. That’s basically everybody (not English) who made hit records in the 1960’s.
Like many performers of his ilk, Sedaka’s popularity took a hit with the arrival of the Beatles and the British Invasion starting in 1964. RCA did not renew Sedaka’s contract when it expired in 1966 and Neil began to tour abroad where he was still a draw as a concert attraction. By the early 1970’s, he began to reemerge, having released albums abroad to some acclaim. He also made the significant decision to make music with collaborators other than Howard Greenfield.
Continuing to work overseas, he released the album Solitaire in 1972. The album was made with a tight group of young English musicians who would soon go on to form the band 10cc. The title track from the album became something of a contemporary standard and was a hit single for Andy Williams and the Carpenters and would go on to be recorded by countless artists including Elvis Presley, Roger Whittaker, Johnny Mathis, Vic Damone, Shirley Bassey and Sheryl Crow.
The success of Neil’s next album, 1973’s The Tra-La Days Are Over (also made with the lads from 10cc), confirmed Sedaka’s revival. The record featured Neil’s last collaborations with Howard Greenfield including the hit single “Our Last Song Together” and a song that would go on to be a monster hit, “Love Will Keep Us Together”. The latter was recorded by Captain and Tennille in 1975 and was a Top Ten hit worldwide.
Collecting Neil Sedaka’s albums from this era is tricky as many were only released in the UK. Your best bet is to get the domestically released comeback album Sedaka’s Back (1974), a compilation album that collected the best songs from the three records Neil had recently released in England. The album contained the song “Laughter in the Rain” which became a mammoth hit for Neil, reaching the #1 spot in the US in early 1975. Sedaka’s Back was the first of Neil’s albums to be released on Elton John’s Rocket Records label. John – who you could call ‘the Neil Sedaka of the ’70’s’ – had been a huge Sedaka fan and was thrilled to be working with one of his heroes.
Neil Sedaka would have two more significant hits before the music industry again went through severe changes in the late 1970’s and into the 1980’s. 1975’s “Bad Blood” was an excellent song that enjoyed a 3-week stay atop the charts. Another Rocket Records release, “Bad Blood” featured uncredited background vocals by Elton John and is the “most successful individual commercial release in Sedaka’s career”. Incidentally, it was knocked out of the #1 spot by Elton’s “Island Girl”.
Later that year, Neil re-recorded “Breaking Up is Hard to Do” as a slow ballad and this version was a major success gaining Neil the notable accomplishment of being (still today) the only artist ever to place two different versions of the same song in Billboard’s Top Ten; in fact, the two different versions were both #1 songs – 1962’s on the pop charts and 1975’s on the adult contemporary listings.
Neil Sedaka turned 80 years old in 2019. Throughout his 60’s and 70’s, Neil has remained vibrant, even youthful, and has continued to take care of his voice. Often when artists of Neil’s age perform live or re-record their original hits the songs sound different as the age of the artists makes it impossible for them to sound like they did when they were young. Sedaka though has re-recorded his original hits note-for-note and even sang them in the same key, rendering them almost indistinguishable to the unenlightened ear.
Neil has had not one but two biographical musicals created highlighting his career achievements and Neil has made frequent appearances on American Idol, serving as judge in 2003 (gaining Clay Aiken as a protegé of sorts in the process). Maintaining his health and energy has enabled Sedaka to be a regular guest on other performer’s records and concerts. He has maintained a rigorous concert schedule himself. My wife and I saw him about five years ago and he blew us away – not only with his vibrancy and humour but with his stunning abilities on the keyboard. Neil reserves part of his show for the performance of classical music and his playing is breathtaking. A nice addition to his story is the fact that Neil has been married to the former Leba Strassberg since 1962. They have two children.
Neil Sedaka is easily one of the most successful artists of the golden era of 1954-1963. Neil is also on a short list of artists from this time who wrote their own material as well as songs for others and you can add to this his prowess in the studio; his records have a unique sound as he made use of the technique of double-tracking. Like many artists, he fell out of favour with the onslaught of British rock but unlike many he reemerged and enjoyed a successful second act to his career. Not being content with this, he has continued to be active in the industry and is seemingly as vibrant today as he was in the early 1960’s.