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Neil Sedaka

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Biography

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. In both phases, Sedaka, a classically trained pianist, composed the music for his hits, which he sang in a boyish tenor. And throughout, even when his performing career was at a low ebb, he served as a songwriter for other artists, resulting in a string of hits year in and year out, whether recorded by him or someone else. For himself, he wrote eight U.S. Top Ten pop hits, including the chart-toppers "Breaking Up Is Hard to Do," "Laughter in the Rain," and "Bad Blood." The most successful cover of one of his compositions was Captain & Tennille's recording of "Love Will Keep Us Together," another number one. And over the years his songs were recorded by a wide range of pop, rock, country, R&B, and jazz performers including ABBA, Frankie Avalon, LaVern Baker, Shirley Bassey, Teresa Brewer, Carol Burnett, Glen Campbell, the Carpenters, Nick Carter, David Cassidy, Cher, Petula Clark, Richard Clayderman, Patsy Cline, Rosemary Clooney, Sheryl Crow, Vic Damone, Bobby Darin, John Davidson, Neil Diamond, Gloria Estefan, the 5th Dimension, the Four Seasons, Connie Francis, Crystal Gayle, Lesley Gore, the Happenings, Engelbert Humperdinck, Wanda Jackson, Jan & Dean, Tom Jones, Carole King, Earl Klugh, Peggy Lee, Little Anthony & the Imperials, Tony Martin, Johnny Mathis, Susannah McCorkle, Clyde McPhatter, Mandy Moore, Nana Mouskouri, Maria Muldaur, the Monkees, Jim Nabors, Wayne Newton, Jane Olivor, Donny Osmond, Patti Page, the Partridge Family, Bernadette Peters, Wilson Pickett, Elvis Presley, Cliff Richard, the Searchers, Sha Na Na, Kay Starr, John Travolta, Dinah Washington, Andy Williams, and Glenn Yarbrough, among many others. 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 Greenfiel