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A hitmaker as both a singer and a songwriter, Neil Sedaka enjoyed a string of Top 10 hits as a vocalist in the early 1960s, including "Calendar Girl" and "Breaking Up is Hard to Do" while penning memorable songs for the likes of Connie Francis, Bobby Darin and many others. But with the arrival of The Beatles and other rock acts, Sedaka's boyish voice and wistful paeans to teen love were considered passé in the mid-1960s, though he continued to generate hits for others, including The Monkees and Frankie Valli. He rebounded in the early 1970s with more mature material like "Laughter in the Rain" and "Bad Blood" while simultaneously scoring hits with covers like "Love Will Keep Us Together" by the Captain & Tennille, among many others. Sedaka's career as a pop artist ran its course again in the early 1980s, though his vast catalog continued to provide gold for newer artists, including Clay Aiken. His collection of hit songs, spread across the latter half of the 20th century, made Neil Sedaka one of its most accomplished singing and composing talents.
Born March 13, 1939 in Brooklyn, NY, Neil Sedaka was the son of Mac Sedaka, a taxi driver of Turkish-Jewish descent, and his Polish-Russian wife, Eleanor. Raised in the Brighton Beach neighborhood, he began showing his musical aptitude in the second grade when a teacher sent him home with a note suggesting that he take piano lessons. His mother took a part-time job at a department store to pay for the instrument, which he immediately mastered. In 1947, he auditioned successfully for a scholarship to the Julliard School of Music's Preparatory Division for Children. By chance, a neighbor heard Sedaka playing and introduced him to her son, Howard Greenfield, who was a budding lyricist. The two soon began writing songs together. While in high school, Sedaka formed a vocal group with several classmates called the Tokens. The group released a single with two Sedaka/Greenfield compositions, "I Love My Baby" and "While I Dream" in 1956, which received modest airplay in New York. Sedaka soon left the group, which later scored its biggest hit with "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" in 1961.
Sedaka was soon accepted to the college division at Julliard, while continuing to write songs with Greenfield. The duo eventually landed a songwriting contract with Al Nevins and Don Kirshner at Aldon Music, one of the biggest music publishing companies associated with the Brill Building sound, which also signed Sedaka to a management contract as a pop artist. However, his initial releases as a singer, which included the singles "Laura Lee" and "Oh, Delilah!" failed to generate much airplay, due in part to the fact that they were culled from demo recordings without his knowledge. But as a songwriter, Sedaka began scoring a string of hits, beginning in 1958 with "Stupid Cupid," an up-tempo number for newly minted pop star Connie Francis. It reached No. 14 on the Billboard singles chart, and was quickly followed by another Top 40 hit, "Fallin'." Both songs were even more successful in the U.K., where "Stupid Cupid" reached the top of the singles charts. Its exceptional performance there marked the beginning of Sedaka's long and fruitful relationship with English pop audiences.
A third Sedaka demo turned single, 1958's "Ring-a-Rockin'," generated some interest after being aired on "American Bandstand" (WFIL/ABC/syndicated/USA Network, 1952-1989), which in turn led to a recording contract with RCA Victor. He took a leave of absence from Julliard to record his first authorized single, "The Diary," which reached No. 14 in 1959. But its follow-up, the novelty song " I Go Ape," failed to break the Top 40, and a third song, "Crying My Heart Out Over You," missed the Top 100 altogether. Realizing that his singing career was in jeopardy, Sedaka studied some of the highest charting pop songs of the day and based his next single on the elements that each appeared to share. The result was 1959's "Oh! Carol," which was inspired by his then-girlfriend and fellow Brill Building songwriter Carole King. The song reached No. 9 on the Billboard charts and launched Sedaka's career as a pop singer in earnest.
The next three years were an incredibly prolific and successful period for Sedaka. His eponymous debut album, released in 1959, earned a Grammy nomination, and he scored five Top 10 singles between 1959 and 1962, including "Stairway to Heaven" (no relation to the Led Zeppelin song of the same name), "Calendar Girl" and the Grammy-nominated "Breaking Up is Hard to Do," which shot him to the top of the charts in 1962. He also continued to mine gold from his songwriting efforts with Greenfield, most notably for LaVern Baker with the single "I Waited Too Long;" Clyde McPhatter of the Drifters with "Since You've Been Gone;" Jimmy Clanton with "Another Sleepless Night," "Venus in Blue Jeans" and "What Am I Gonna Do;" Bobby Darin with "Keep a Walkin';" and Francis, who earned another Top 5 hit with the "Theme from 'Where the Boys Are'" in 1960. Sedaka's fan base also extended to Japan and Italy, where "Oh! Carol" reached No. 1. To satisfy his international audience, he eventual recorded songs in Spanish, German, Japanese, Italian and Hebrew.
By 1963, Sedaka had sold over 25 million records worldwide. But the arrival of The Beatles signaled a shift in music listeners' tastes from pop to harder rock-n-roll, and artists like Sedaka soon saw a marked decline in their chart performances. Only three of the nine singles he released between 1964 and 1966 broke into the Top 100, and his career suffered a further blow when RCA refused to release "It Hurts to Be in Love" because he had recorded it outside of their studios. The track was sold to Gene Pitney, who replaced Sedaka's vocals with his own and scored a No. 7 hit in 1964. RCA eventually dropped Sedaka from their roster in 1966. Though his singing career had faltered, Sedaka continued to earn hits through his songwriting efforts with Greenfield. Screen Gems had purchased their publishing company, Aldon Music, which resulted in two hit singles, "Love Comes Knockin' (At Your Door)" and "The Girl I Left Behind Me," for their priority project, The Monkees. He would later pen hits for such music acts as The Cyrkle with "We Had a Good Thing Going," the 5th Dimension with "Workin' on a Groovy Thing," Tom Jones with "Puppet Man," Peggy Lee with "One More Ride on the Merry-Go-Round," and Frankie Valli with "Make the Music Play."
The emergence of the adult contemporary sound, as personified by such singer-songwriters as Carole King and James Taylor in the early 1970s, brought renewed interest to Sedaka's career as a singer. Regular visits to England and the U.K. had built a strong core audience for him in those countries, and by 1971, he had signed with Kirshner Records, an RCA imprint owned by his old publishing boss, Don Kirshner. The resulting album, Emergence (1971), failed to win chart glory, but it did bring Sedaka back to the public consciousness. A string of hits for artists on both sides of the Atlantic, including Carol Burnett with "If I Could Write a Song," Cher with "Don't Hide Your Love," and Tony Christie with "Is This the Way to Amarillo" further increased his exposure to new audiences.
Sedaka moved to the U.K. in 1972, where he began work on a new album, Solitaire, with a team of English musicians who would later gain fame as the band 10cc, best known for their hit "I'm Not in Love." The album's title track became one of the most popular songs in Sedaka's expansive catalog, generating Top 20 hits for Andy Williams and the Carpenters and covers by Elvis Presley and Johnny Mathis. Glen Campbell also scored a hit with the track "That's When the Music Takes Me," while Donny Gerard and Yvonne Elliman found success with "(Baby) Don't Let it Mess With Your Mind." The success of these recordings led to Sedaka signing with the European label Polydor, where he recorded 1973's The Tra-La Days Are Over for its MGM subsidiary. The record went unreleased in America, but two singles, "Standing on the Inside" and "Our Last Song Together," broke the Top 40 in the U.K. The latter track also represented his final collaboration with Greenfield, whom he had left in order to work with a new co-writer, Phil Cody. A second album, Laughter in the Rain (1974), produced another pair of Top 40 hits with the extremely popular title track and "A Little Lovin'."
That same year, Sedaka met Elton John, who signed him to his new label, Rocket Records, for distribution in the United States. Their first release, Sedaka's Back (1974), compiled songs from his three European releases, including "Laughter in the Rain," which surprised many by topping the charts in 1975. Two more tracks from the record, "The Immigrant" and "That's When the Music Takes Me," broke the Top 40 and cemented Sedaka's return to prominence in his native country. His career as a songwriter also received its strongest returns since the 1960s, with such acts as the Captain & Tennille landing a No. 1 hit with "Love Will Keep Us Together" and later "Sad Eyes," which also gave Andy Williams and Maria Muldaur hits in 1975 and 1977, respectively. He was soon generating strong reviews for his opening spot on a national tour with the Carpenters and landing a second No. 1 hit with 1975's "Bad Blood," which featured uncredited backing vocals by his label chief, Elton John. The following year, Sedaka scored a Top 10 hit with a slower take on his 1962 hit, "Breaking Up is Hard to Do." Its success, which included a Grammy nomination, made him the first artist to hit the Top 10 twice with different versions of the same tune.
The 1976 album Steppin' Out ended Sedaka's tenure at Rocket Records. Though it produced three chart hits, including the title track and "You Gotta Make Your Own Sunshine," it did not repeat the blockbuster success of its predecessor, which marked the beginning of Sedaka's second slide down the charts. Albums for Elektra delivered modest hits, though a 1977 cover of "You Never Done It Like That" was a smash again for Captain & Tennille. A 1980 duet with his teenaged daughter, Dara, on "Should've Never Let You Go" marked his last visit to the Top 20. By the following year, he had left Elektra for MCA/Curb, where he moved firmly into the Adult Contemporary market. In 1985, he was dropped by Curb, leaving him again without a label. For much of the next decade, Sedaka worked as a headliner on the casino circuit while issuing self-produced new records, as well as re-recordings of older material, throughout the 1990s. In 1995, he released Classically Sedaka, an album of classical themes to which he added new lyrics. A jazz record, Tales of Love and Other Passions, followed in 1997, while Brighton Beach Memories: Neil Sedaka Sings Yiddish hit stores in 2003.
In 2004, Sedaka's catalog received a boost when "American Idol" (Fox, 2002- ) runner-up Clay Aiken recorded a cover of "Solitaire" which reached the top of the Billboard singles charts. In 2006, Sedaka was inducted into the Guinness Book of World Records after British comedian Peter Kay recorded a version of the song with a variety of celebrity friends for the Comic Relief charity. The single became a massive hit, prompting a reissue of Tony Christie's cover from 1971, which also went to No. 1 for seven weeks. The song became the biggest hit in England for the year, and landed Sedaka in the Guinness Book for composing the most successful U.K. single (to date) of the 21st century. Sedaka returned to the American charts in 2007 after signing with the independent music label Razor and Tie. Their first joint effort, The Definitive Collection (2007), presented an overview of his entire career as a singer and songwriter, along with unreleased tracks and outtakes. The record rose to No. 25 on the Billboard albums chart, which marked his highest placement in the States since 1980. Two more CDs, including an album of children's songs, soon followed. Sedaka's exceptional history was also feted in 2007 with a celebration at Lincoln Center in New York, which featured performances by Aiken, Natalie Cole and Connie Francis.
By Paul Gaita
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