New York Times
May 24, 2004
Vintage Pop Star With the Soul of a Bar Mitzvah Boy
By JOSEPH BERGER
During Neil Sedaka’s run of rock hits in the 1950’s and 60’s, when he recorded songs like “Calendar Girl,” “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do” and “Happy Birthday, Sweet Sixteen,” he almost never played the ethnic card, and more than a few fans thought he was another heartthrob of Italian heritage.
But this singer and songwriter is Jewish, and quite flavorfully so. Sedaka is Hebrew for charity, and Mr. Sedaka is a product of a Jewish variety of mixed marriage, Ashkenazic and Sephardic. As a boy in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, he loved hearing the Barry Sisters sing schmaltz-dripping Yiddish songs. In his razzle-dazzle singing years he lived with his parents. He married his Catskills sweetheart at 23 and has stayed married to her for 43 years.
On June 3 Mr. Sedaka will bare his Yiddish soul at Carnegie Hall by singing the kind of songs he may have heard at his bar mitzvah party at Rosoff’s in Times Square. No Jewish rock star has exposed his roots so explicitly with warhorses like “My Yiddishe Mamme,” “Shein Vi Di L’Vone” (“Pretty As the Moon”) and “Mein Shtetele Belz” (“My Village of Belz”).
Among contemporaries perhaps only Mandy Patinkin — a Broadway baby, not a rocker — can match such a sentimental journey in Yiddish with his 1998 album “Mamloshen.”
“I felt such a love for these songs,” Mr. Sedaka said in a recent conversation at the Friars Club. “They reminded me of my childhood. I wanted to preserve these songs and give back to the Yiddish people, my people. I wept during some of them.”
A modest CD last year of these Yiddish standards called “Brighton Beach Memories: Neil Sedaka Sings Yiddish,” which he produced for $7,500 and was available through Judaica stores or through his Web site, yielded an invitation from the producer Moishe Rosenfeld, who was putting together a concert to raise money for the Folksbiene Theater, the last of the Lower East Side Yiddish theater troupes.
Three quarters of the tickets for the Carnegie concert have already been sold, said Beck Lee, publicist for the Folksbiene. (The show, which includes the Klezmatics, will travel to Philadelphia on Aug. 9 and Chicago on Aug. 11.)
At 65, Mr. Sedaka looks the weathered part of a Jewish uncle, the benevolent not the cranky variety. But unlike some contemporaries he has never stopped performing or writing, notching roughly 100 concert and nightclub dates in 40 cities just last year.
He has had a Billboard hit, either one he has performed or written, in every decade since the 1950’s. In all he has written more than 1,000 songs for singers like Andy Williams, Johnny Mathis and Karen Carpenter, and his latest success is a version of his “Solitaire” by Clay Aiken of the television show “American Idol.” He has done well enough so that he and his wife, Leba, have homes in Manhattan, Los Angeles and Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Mr. Sedaka grew up in a Brooklyn neighborhood and attended a high school, Lincoln, that spawned other rock royalty like Neil Diamond and Carole King.
“Maybe it was the egg creams or the lime rickeys,” he said.
His father was a son of immigrants from Turkey who worked as a taxi driver; his mother had Eastern European roots. There were 10 Sedakas crowded into his parents’ two-bedroom apartment on Coney Island Avenue, including his father’s five sisters. Ladino, the Sephardic language, not Yiddish, was spoken in the household. As the sisters married, Yiddish became ascendant . His mother played Barry Sisters 78’s on her Victrola, and the family sang Yiddish songs on picnics.
Like other women of her generation, his mother made sure her son had piano lessons, and by the age of 8 he was practicing five hours a day.
“I was a momma’s boy,” he said. “I was one of those goodie two shoes that the other boys liked to beat up.”
He was accepted into Juilliard’s college-level division as a promising classical pianist but never finished. Classical music was not to be his livelihood.
Several years before enrolling in Juilliard, he had been introduced to a neighbor with a touch of the poet, Howard Greenfield, and they became a songwriting team for the next 20 years. Around the Brill Building they were known more for their persistence than for their melodies, but soon they were writing songs for early rock stars like Clyde McPhatter and Dinah Washington. Connie Francis turned down their ballads but liked a novelty number, “Stupid Cupid” that became their first hit.
“Then I was a big macher,” meaning a big shot, Mr. Sedaka said.
He was just 19, but his royalties for the song were $42,000. He bought his mother what he called a “Hadassah tallis” — a mink stole — and for his sister, a home in the Mill Basin section of Brooklyn.
One producer heard him sing a new work, “The Diary,” and thought his high-pitched voice interesting enough to record it himself. Soon, he said, his mother was shouting to neighbors across the alley, “Neil is on radio!” Then came “Oh, Carol,” which wound up No. 9 on the charts in 1959. That began a string of 10 hits that lasted until 1963.
His one attempt at that time to expose his Jewish roots, an appearance on the “Ed Sullivan Show” in which he sang “My Yiddishe Mamme,” left him with heartburn. Sullivan had misgivings about having Sedaka perform so Jewish a song, but Mr. Sedaka’s manager prevailed. While the song got a warm reception, Mr. Sedaka never tried Yiddish again.
“I’m comfortable now,” he said. “I’m not after the commercialism. I’m after the joy and the love of it.”