Singer, songwriter, and pianist Neil Sedaka enjoyed two distinct periods of commercial success in two slightly different styles of pop music: first, as a teen pop star in the late '50s and early '60s, then as a singer of more mature pop/rock in the '70s.
Sedaka was born in Brooklyn on March 13, 1939. His father, Mac Sedaka, a taxi driver, was the son of Turkish immigrants; his mother, Eleanor (Appel) Sedaka, was of Polish-Russian descent. He first demonstrated musical aptitude in his second-grade choral class, and when his teacher sent a note home suggesting he take piano lessons, his mother got a part-time job in a department store for six months to pay for a second-hand upright. He took to the instrument immediately. In 1947, he auditioned successfully for a piano scholarship to the prestigious Juilliard School of Music's Preparatory Division for Children, which he began to attend on Saturdays. He also maintained an interest in popular music, and when he was 13, a neighbor heard him playing and introduced him to her 16-year-old son, Howard Greenfield, an aspiring poet and lyricist; the two began writing songs together.
In high school, Sedaka formed a vocal group, the Tokens. After singing at local functions, they got an audition with a music publisher in Manhattan at 1619 Broadway -- the famed Brill Building. This, in turn, led to an audition with the head of a small label, Melba Records, which released a single containing two Sedaka/Greenfield compositions, "I Love My Baby" and "While I Dream," in 1956. It achieved some airplay locally, but did not become a national hit, and Sedaka left the group, which later reorganized and went on to professional success in the '60s. Around the same time, another song written by Sedaka earned a more prominent recording. He had collaborated with his brother-in-law, Eddie Grossman, on "Never Again," which Grossman arranged to have published and which was recorded by Dinah Washington for Mercury Records.
Meanwhile, the budding composer continued to attend Lincoln High School in Brooklyn and to pursue his classical studies. In 1956, he was one of a small group of New York City high school students chosen in a competition judged by Artur Rubinstein to play on the local classical radio station, WQXR. Upon his graduation from high school, Sedaka was accepted by the college division of Juilliard. At the same time, however, he and Greenfield continued writing songs and taking them to publishing companies at the Brill Building and another Manhattan office building just up the street at 1650 Broadway. There they encountered a new firm, Aldon Music, run by Al Nevins and Don Kirshner, who signed them to a songwriting contract and also signed Sedaka to a management contract as a performing artist. In 1957, without his prior knowledge, two demonstration recordings he had made of his songs "Laura Lee" and "Snowtime" were released as a single by Decca Records, giving him his first solo disc. Again, the record was not a hit. But the team of Sedaka and Greenfield finally did reach the charts when they placed "Stupid Cupid" with the new singing star Connie Francis in 1958. Francis had broken through with a revival of the '20s ballad "Who's Sorry Now," while "Stupid Cupid" was up-tempo rock & roll. It peaked at number 14 on Billboard's Hot 100 in September, and Francis followed it with another Sedaka/Greenfield composition, "Fallin'," which peaked at number 30 in November. (As a harbinger of things to come, the songs were even more successful in the U.K., where "Stupid Cupid" hit number one and "Fallin'" made the Top 20.)
Another of Sedaka's demos, "Ring-a-Rockin'," turned up on disc in 1958 and even earned an airing on the American Bandstand television series, but did not become a hit. Nevertheless, interest in Sedaka as both a songwriter and a performer was clearly growing. In the fall of 1958, he took a leave of absence from Juilliard, and he auditioned at RCA Victor Records. He was signed, and RCA quickly issued his first formal solo single, the Sedaka/Greenfield song "The Diary," which peaked at number 14 in February 1959. But its follow-up, the uptempo "I Go Ape," missed the Top 40 (despite reaching the Top Ten in Great Britain), and his third RCA single, "Crying My Heart Out for You," was a flop.
In his 1982 autobiography, Laughter in the Rain: My Own Story, Sedaka writes that, after the disappointing performance of his second RCA single and the failure of his third, "I knew I had to have a hit. I would get no more chances." To come up with that hit, he consulted the international charts in Billboard, then went out and bought the three most successful records he saw listed and listened to them repeatedly, "analyzing what they had in common. I discovered," he writes, "they had many similar elements: harmonic rhythm, placement of the chord changes, choice of harmonic progressions, similar instrumentation, vocals phrases, drum fills, content, even the timbre of the lead solo voice. I decided to write a song that incorporated all these elements in one record." The result of this deliberate effort was his fourth RCA single, "Oh! Carol" (dedicated to songwriter Carole King, an early girlfriend of his), which turned his performing career around, becoming his first American Top Ten hit as an artist in December. (In 1962, the Four Seasons covered it on their chart album Sherry & 11 Others.)
Meanwhile, RCA had released his debut album, Neil Sedaka, and it earned a nomination for the 1959 Grammy Award for Best Performance by a "Top 40" Artist, losing to Nat King Cole's "Midnight Flyer." And as a songwriter, he had other hits during the year: LaVern Baker reached the Top Five of the R&B chart with "I Waited Too Long"; Connie Francis took "Frankie" into the pop Top Ten; Clyde McPhatter reached the R&B Top 20 with "Since You've Been Gone"; and Roy Hamilton had a pop chart entry with "Time Marches On."
After the success of his fifth RCA single, "Stairway to Heaven," which peaked in the Top Ten in May 1960, the 21-year-old Sedaka finally began making personal appearances to support his records. Soon, he was touring extensively, including shows in South America, the Far East, and Europe. (He also began recording in Italian, German, Japanese, and Spanish, increasing his international popularity.) Meanwhile, the hits kept coming. His next single was a double-sided success, with "You Mean Everything to Me" making the Top 20 and "Run Samson Run" the Top 30, and his third 45 of 1960, "Calendar Girl," gave him his third Top Ten hit with a number four peak in February 1961. He seemed to have less time to write songs for other artists, but Jimmy Clanton peaked in the Top 30 in June 1960 with "Another Sleepless Night." Clanton had another Sedaka/Greenfield song, "What Am I Gonna Do," out by the end of the year, and it charted in January 1961.
The busy pace seemed to take a toll on Sedaka by 1961. "Little Devil" gave him his sixth consecutive Top 40 hit in May, but his next single, "Sweet Little You," was his first with a song that he had not composed himself (it was written by Barry Mann and Larry Kolber), and it broke his string of hits. "Happy Birthday, Sweet Sixteen," another Sedaka/Greenfield composition, was out before the end of the year and returned him to the Top Ten with a peak at number six in January 1962, however. (Neil Diamond covered it on his 1993 chart album Up on the Roof: Songs from the Brill Building.) Also in 1961, Sedaka released his second album of new studio recordings, Circulate, on which he sang pop standards. And his pen was far from idle otherwise. He and Greenfield had written the song score for the film Where the Boys Are, Connie Francis' acting debut, which resulted in a Top Five, gold-selling hit in her recording of the title song in early 1961.
"King of Clowns," Sedaka's first single of 1962, missed the Top 40, but he scored his biggest hit yet with "Breaking Up Is Hard to Do," which went to number one in August. It was nominated for the 1962 Grammy Award for Best Rock & Roll Recording, but lost out to Bent Fabric's "Alley Cat." The song went on to become perhaps Sedaka's most valuable copyright, being revived for a pop singles chart entry by the Happenings in 1968, an R&B Top 30 and pop Top 40 hit by Lenny Welch in 1970, and a Top 30 pop hit (and U.K. Top Five) by the Partridge Family in 1972, while also appearing on chart LPs by the Four Seasons, Little Eva, and Sha Na Na, all before Sedaka himself revived it for a hit again in the mid-'70s.
Sedaka's third single of 1962, "Next Door to an Angel," reached the Top Five. RCA marked the completion of his fourth year as a hitmaker by releasing Neil Sedaka Sings His Greatest Hits, which became his first LP to reach the charts. Meanwhile, the Sedaka/Greenfield team placed "Venus in Blue Jeans" with Jimmy Clanton for a Top Ten hit (it also made the U.K. Top Ten in a rendition by Mark Wynter), and "Keep a Walkin'" on Bobby Darin's chart album Twist with Bobby Darin.
By 1963, Sedaka reportedly had sold 25 million records worldwide. But at this point his career began to go into decline. He released four singles in 1963, and all of them charted, with three in the Top 40 and one, "Alice in Wonderland," even making the Top 20, but that was a disappointing performance after his previous successes. 1964, the year the Beatles arrived in America and launched the British Invasion, was worse, with Sedaka's three single releases resulting in only one brief appearance in the Hot 100 for "Sunny," and 1965 wasn't much better, as another three Sedaka singles produced only two chart entries for "The World Through a Tear" and "The Answer to My Prayer" (both written by Chris Allen, Peter Allen, and Richard Everitt). In 1966, Sedaka released two last singles on RCA, but they failed to chart, and by early 1967 he was without a record label. He was not, however, without a publisher. Aldon had been sold to Screen Gems and offered him plenty of opportunities to place his compositions. Screen Gems' main priority at the time was the Monkees, the group created for a television series patterned on the Beatles movie A Hard Day's Night, and the Sedaka/Greenfield song "When Love Comes Knockin' (At Your Door)" appeared on their second album, More of the Monkees; it was a number one hit in early 1967. That spring the Cyrkle reached the charts with Sedaka/Greenfield's "We Had a Good Thing Goin'." "Workin' on a Groovy Thing," written by Sedaka with Roger Atkins, was a Top 40 R&B hit and pop chart entry for Patti Drew in the summer of 1968, and a year later earned Top 20 rankings in the pop and R&B charts in a cover by the 5th Dimension. Also in 1968, Sedaka had a cut on Frankie Valli's chart album Timeless called "Make the Music Play." In 1969, Sedaka/Greenfield's "The Girl I Left Behind Me" appeared on the Monkees LP Instant Replay. Also, for the first time in three years, Sedaka had his own release, on Screen Gems' SGC label, the single "Star-Crossed Lovers," which became a hit in Australia, but not in the U.S. Nevertheless, he had a second SGC release in 1970, "Rainy Jane," a song covered by former Monkees singer Davy Jones for a chart entry in 1971. Also in 1970, the 5th Dimension recorded Sedaka/Greenfield's "Puppet Man" for a Top 30 pop hit, and a year later Tom Jones also had a Top 30 hit with it. Peggy Lee cut Sedaka/Greenfield's "One More Ride on the Merry-Go-Round" for her 1970 chart album Make It with You, and the team also wrote songs for an animated children's TV series about the comic basketball troupe the Harlem Globetrotters called The Globetrotters.
Perhaps the most significant recording in Sedaka's career in 1971 was one he himself was not involved with, Carole King's breakthrough album Tapestry, which topped the charts. The LP demonstrated the new appeal of soft rock singer/songwriters and made veteran writers from the Brill Building era hip again. Don Kirshner negotiated a manufacturing and distribution deal with RCA for his new Kirshner Records label, and he signed Sedaka to a contract, resulting in the release of Sedaka's first album of new original material in 12 years, Emergence, in September 1971. He also began performing in showcase clubs like New York's Bitter End. The album didn't chart, but it was a new beginning. Meanwhile, Sedaka continued to place songs with other performers. Tony Christie scored a Top 20 hit in the U.K. with "Is This the Way to Amarillo" (aka "Amarillo") in the fall of 1971; TV star Carol Burnett gave great prominence to a Sedaka tune on her early 1972 chart album by calling it Carol Burnett Featuring "If I Could Write a Song"; and Cher had a chart entry in September 1972 with "Don't Hide Your Love."
At this point, Sedaka made two important changes in his attempt to resurrect his career. First, he decided, after 20 years, to sever his songwriting partnership with Howard Greenfield in favor of a new partner who could write in a style more consistent with what he called in his autobiography the "more elusive, more poetic" lyrics of the '70s singer/songwriters, rather than Greenfield's "very slick and polished" words. (He did continue to work with Greenfield occasionally thereafter.) At his publisher's, he met Phil Cody, and they began to write. Second, finding that he was getting a better reception in Great Britain than in the U.S., he moved to London to concentrate on mounting a comeback there. His increasing profile was confirmed by the Top 20 British success of a maxi-single containing three of his old songs, "Oh! Carol," "Breaking Up Is Hard to Do," and "Little Devil," in the fall of 1972. Also that fall, Kirshner Records released his next album, Solitaire, which he had recorded in England with a backup band that would emerge later as 10cc. The album did not chart, but it produced two chart singles in the U.K., "Beautiful You" and "That's When the Music Takes Me," the latter reaching the Top 20. Glen Campbell recorded "That's When the Music Takes Me" for his concert album Live at the Royal Festival Hall, which charted in 1977, and other singers found material on Solitaire. Donny Gerrard scored an R&B chart entry in 1975 with "(Baby) Don't Let It Mess Your Mind," and Yvonne Elliman put the same song on her 1978 chart album Night Flight. But it was the title song from Solitaire that became another of Sedaka's most successful copyrights. Andy Williams' cover became a Top Five hit in Britain in the winter of 1973-1974; the Carpenters' version was a Top 20 hit in the U.S. in 1975; and the song appeared on chart albums by Johnny Mathis, Elvis Presley, and Jane Olivor on its way to being a much-performed standard. Sheryl Crow sang it on the Carpenters tribute album If I Were a Carpenter in 1994, and in 2004 Clay Aiken, a runner-up from the American Idol TV talent show, took his recording to number four.
Having reestablished himself in the U.K., Sedaka signed to the European label Polydor, which assigned him to its MGM subsidiary, and he recorded a new album, The Tra-La Days Are Over, which was released in the U.K. in the summer of 1973. In the U.S., MGM tested the waters with a couple of singles, but when they did not succeed, the LP was not released in America. In Britain, it was a different story. "Standing on the Inside" and "Our Last Song Together" (the latter, appropriately, the last song Sedaka had written with Greenfield before their split) both made the Top 40, and the LP made the Top 20. Sedaka followed in 1974 with Laughter in the Rain, released on the main Polydor label, which also made the Top 20 and threw off two Top 40 hits, "A Little Lovin'" and the title song. Again, the album was not released in the U.S. Around this time, Sedaka and Cody's expertise was called upon by Swedish songwriters Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus when they wrote English lyrics for "Ring Ring," one of ABBA's early songs.
While in England, Sedaka met Elton John, at the time the top pop recording star in the world, who was about to launch his own label, Rocket Records. John agreed to sign Sedaka for the U.S., and for his first release they assembled a compilation album drawn from Solitaire, The Tra-La Days Are Over, and Laughter in the Rain. The album was called Sedaka's Back, and it lived up to its name. It was preceded by the release of "Laughter in the Rain" as a single, and the song topped the charts in February 1975, Sedaka's first number one single in nearly 13 years. (To become a hit, the Sedaka version had to outdistance one by Lea Roberts that made the R&B charts; the song was also recorded on chart albums by Johnny Mathis and Earl Klugh.) The album made the Top 30 and went gold, and it spawned two more Top 40 hits, "The Immigrant" and "That's When the Music Takes Me." After "Our Last Song Together" appeared on the album, Bo Donaldson & the Heywoods covered it for a singles chart entry. In addition, Captain & Tennille covered "Love Will Keep Us Together" (another of Sedaka's final collaborations with Greenfield) from the album and released their version as a single that hit number one in June 1975. (Among the many other recordings of the song, Wilson Pickett revived it for a pop chart entry in 1976 and James Taylor Quartet featuring Alison Limerick had an R&B chart entry in 1995.) Captain & Tennille also tapped Sedaka's Back for "Sad Eyes," which they recorded for their 1977 Come in from the Rain LP (that album also contained the Sedaka song "Let Mama Know"). "Sad Eyes" earned another cover by Maria Muldaur on her 1976 chart album Sweet Harmony, after having been a number 11 hit on the Easy Listening chart for Andy Williams in the fall of 1975. "The Other Side of Me," another track from Sedaka's Back, gave Williams a British chart entry in 1976 and was featured on U.S. chart albums by Shirley Bassey and Crystal Gayle. But Donny Osmond had beaten them all by putting it on his chart album Alone Together back in 1973, just after its initial appearance on The Tra-La Days Are Over.
Sedaka toured the U.S. as an opening act for the Carpenters; by the end of the year, he was a Las Vegas headliner. Meanwhile, he had continued to record for the U.K. market, issuing a concert LP, Live at the Royal Festival Hall, in the fall of 1974 and, in the spring of 1975, a new studio album, Overnight Success, featuring the Top 40 hit "The Queen of 1964." Again, this LP was not issued in the U.S., but in the late summer, with Sedaka reestablished, American disc jockeys began playing a cut from it, "Bad Blood," which featured a prominent backup vocal by Elton John. This forced a quick U.S. release for the song, and Overnight Success, with a couple of track substitutions, appeared in America in September 1975 under the title The Hungry Years. "Bad Blood" soared to number one and went gold, and the album made the Top 20 and went gold, while also throwing off a new slow-tempo version of "Breaking Up Is Hard to Do" that peaked in the Top Ten in early 1976, leading to the odd occurrence that the 14-year-old tune earned a nomination for the 1976 Grammy Award for Song of the Year, which it lost to Bruce Johnston's "I Write the Songs." "Breaking Up Is Hard to Do" was given a new lease on life. Jimmy Bee and Ernie Fields & His Orchestra covered it for an R&B chart entry in 1976, and the same year the Carpenters put it on their chart LP A Kind of Hush. In 1983, the American Comedy Network had a pop chart entry with a parody, "Breaking Up Is Hard on You," and Gloria Estefan sang it on her double-platinum 1994 album Hold Me Thrill Me Kiss Me. Also, Captain & Tennille located another Sedaka-penned hit on The Hungry Years, recording "Lonely Night (Angel Face)" for a gold-selling Top Five hit in early 1976, and Wayne Newton scored a chart entry with the album's title song, which also earned covers in 1976 on chart albums by Johnny Mathis, Engelbert Humperdinck, Shirley Bassey, and Rita Coolidge.
Sedaka finally managed to put out the same album in the U.S. and overseas at the same time in the spring of 1976 with Steppin' Out, but it was not as big a hit as its predecessors, even though it reached the Top 30 and contained three chart hits, "Love in the Shadows," "You Gotta Make Your Own Sunshine," and the title song. None of the album's songs became hits for other performers, but John Travolta recorded a new Sedaka composition, "I Don't Know What I Like About You Baby," for his self-titled 1976 chart album. Steppin' Out concluded Sedaka's contract with Rocket Records, and he moved to Elektra for 1977's A Song, produced by George Martin of Beatles fame, another modest success that contained his chart revival of his song "Amarillo" as well as "You Never Done It Like That," which Captain & Tennille covered for a Top Ten hit. The duo also recorded "Love Is Spreading Over the World," a new Sedaka song, on their Dream album in 1978, while Jane Olivor put "The Big Parade," another song Sedaka himself had not recorded, on her 1977 Chasing Rainbows LP.
Sedaka's second Elektra album, All You Need Is the Music (1978), missed the charts, suggesting that his second commercial resurgence as a record seller had subsided. But he returned in the spring of 1980 with In the Pocket. It was preceded by the single "Should've Never Let You Go," which he sang as a duo with his daughter Dara Sedaka. The single made the Top 40 and earned a cover by Bernadette Peters on her self-titled chart album released at the same time. In the Pocket only made the lower reaches of the charts, however, and 1981's Neil Sedaka: Now, Sedaka's fourth and last Elektra album, did not chart at all. He switched to MCA/Curb, which had him record oldies in the company of other veteran stars, resulting in an Adult Contemporary chart hit with Dara Sedaka on the old Marvin Gaye/Tammi Terrell hit "Your Precious Love" in 1983-1984, an Adult Contemporary chart entry with a revival of the Cascades' 1963 hit "Rhythm of the Rain," and the LP Come See About Me.
Clearly, Sedaka's days as a major recording act were over by the mid-'80s, but he had amassed a sufficient backlog of hits that he could perform successfully for decades in theaters and hotel casinos in the U.S. and internationally. That's what he did, meanwhile issuing occasional new recordings and re-recordings of his old songs. The death of Howard Greenfield from AIDS in 1986 prompted the release of the double-album My Friend, containing the duo's best-known work. In 1991, Polydor's Timeless: The Very Best of Neil Sedaka became a Top Ten hit in the U.K. Varèse Sarabande's 1995 collection Tuneweaver found Sedaka revisiting many of his old hits, and the same year saw the release of Classically Sedaka on Vision, an album on which he adapted classical themes into songs with new lyrics that he wrote himself. Tales of Love and Other Passions, featuring a jazz trio, appeared in 1997. In 1999, a TV-advertised collection, The Very Best of Neil Sedaka, charted in the U.K. Brighton Beach Memories: Neil Sedaka Sings Yiddish was released on Sameach in 2003, and the same year Sedaka self-released an album of new songs to which he had written both music and lyrics, The Show Goes On. Early 2010 brought another set of new songs, The Music of My Life, which was packaged with a disc of his greatest hits. As the decade rolled on, Sedaka remained a fixture in the U.K., calling the country his home and, appropriately, most of his albums were released primarily in Britain. This included reissues -- Ace compiled his songwriting efforts with Howard Greenfield on a 2011 set called Where the Boys Are, a two-fer of his Rocket albums. The Tra-La Days Are Over and Overnight Success appeared the following year -- as well as the new album The Real Neil, which comprised new songs with re-recordings of old tunes. ~ William Ruhlmann, Rovi