It was classical music that shaped the musicianship of the young Neil Sedaka. At the age of 8, he had already begun his intensive classical piano training at the prestigious Juilliard School of Music, practicing up to five hours a day. After Sedaka was introduced to a neighbor, Howard Greenfield, the two young men began a successful songwriting partnership.
In the four years between 1959 and 1963, the songwriting team sold more than 25 million records, and their collaboration was to last for decades, one of the longest partnerships in music history. But then the “British Invasion” of the United States by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones changed rock and roll forever. Performers like Sedaka fell off the charts. It would be more than a decade before Sedaka had a number-one hit in America again. But his biggest thrill performing before an audience came on January 29, 2003, when he found out he had just become a first-time grandfather.
I was performing in Las Vegas when my wife, Leba, called with the news. The thrill of announcing to the audience that I was a grandfather was something I had been waiting many years to do. My son, Marc, and his wife, Samantha, tried for years to have a baby.
They went through 10 invitros, and they were ready to adopt when they found this agency that sets up surrogate mothers with couples, and it was an absolute sensation. They both had to give their résumés and synopses, and this wonderful woman carried my son’s sperm and my daughter-in-law’s eggs; the twins, Charlotte Dawn and Amanda Esther, were born four years ago.
I saw them two days later in intensive care. They were a little premature. They were two and a half pounds. It was double the pleasure, but it was very rough for Marc and Samantha. The feedings were different. They were premature, but now they’re wonderful. And lo and behold, I must tell you that a year ago my daughter-in-law conceived normally and gave birth to my grandson, Michael Ethan. It was an amazing thing. He is a miracle baby.
The twins are wonderful, active little girls. Charlotte is Papa’s little girl. She had seen me in Hawaii for the first time performing, and after the show she said, “I don’t like it, Papa. You’re my Papa, and you only sing for me.” She was jealous that I was singing for 2,000 people in a theater. It is so cute. It’s because all the time I visit them, I put her on my lap at the piano bench and I sing with her. Charlotte sings in tune. At 3 years old she was singing in tune with intonation and pitch, and I’m delighted.
The other little girl, Amanda, is gorgeous. Even when she was 7 months she seemed to perk up when she heard me singing. “Laughter in the Rain” was her favorite song.
Michael is only 1. When he takes a few steps, we all applaud. And then he hangs on and falls down. He’s very even-tempered. The girls were tough when they were little. This one is very mellow-a typical boy, though. And of course, he’ll carry the Sedaka name.
Charlotte Dawn was named after the surrogate mother. Amanda Esther was named after my mother-in-law, who passed away a few weeks before they were born. I lost my mother, unfortunately, this past March. She was 89, but she got to see the girls and had a wonderful life. She had the ultimate kvell-she was the most proud she could be of her family. Michael looks like me when I was little. In Charlotte I see my sister, Ronnie. I lost her when she was 56, very young. But I do see her face in Charlotte’s face. And of course with all the grandchildren, I think about my sister and my mother and father, and all their personalities are carried through.
I’m a child at heart, so I love going to the park, going to the shows and going to the circuses. I remember we went with the twins to see the Wiggles, and they were more excited about seeing Neil Sedaka than I was about seeing the Wiggles.
I think the girls took so long to come that we are all spoiling them. I want to make sure they know their Papa loves them very much. They are Jewish-American princesses. But they are very respectful children, and it’s marvelous to watch their development as we go along in the years. They’re doing so much more at 4 than they were at 2 1/2.
I love being with them; I love having them over. They’ve stayed over with us at our apartment in L.A. several times. I love that. But they’re rough. They run around a lot. You have to watch them every minute.
I have had people love me in my family, but never have I had love from a child like I have had from my granddaughter Charlotte. It’s an unconditional love. She will call me every couple of days crying, “I miss you, Papa.” I had a very close family, my children, my parents, but never ever anything like this child’s love for me. It’s a blessing.
When my son and daughter-in-law told me that when she was very little that she would ask for me, I thought that they were just stroking me. But she really adores me. Everything that I eat, she will eat. I have my vodka with a piece of cheese, a cracker and a slice of tomato, and Charlotte will have to sit down with me during cocktail time. I’ll say, “Charlotte, what about vodka?” and she’ll say, “Oh no, Papa, no vodka, no like.” But she’ll have the cheese, a cracker and the tomato.
Being part of a close-knit, loving family comes naturally for Neil. His childhood reads like something out of a Neil Simon play.
I was brought up in Brighton Beach. We were 11 people in a two-bedroom apartment: my grandparents, five aunts, my parents, my sister and I sharing one bathroom. But I was very spoiled by all these ladies. It was a wonderful, wonderful childhood.
I grew up after World War II, when you didn’t have to lock your doors. You went for coffee and Danish at a neighbor’s house. And it was a wonderful time.
My father was very quiet, very sweet, very good-natured. He took me to ball games and prizefights. He was a great tennis player and shuffleboard player. He was born in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. His parents came here in 1910 from Istanbul, Turkey. They were Spanish Jews. My father drove a cab for 30 years and was a great guy. He worked very hard to put me through the Juilliard School of Music.
At Juilliard, I didn’t start as a singer or composer; I started as a concert pianist. I was leading a double life: I had one foot in Lincoln High School and one in Juilliard, but both feet were comfortable. I was a hit in high school because I could play the piano, and I learned how to play pop music so I could be invited to all the teenage parties.
And then in 1956, when I was 16, a music teacher in high school enrolled me in the New York City High School Music Competition, judged by Artur Rubinstein. I was one of the five winners. It continued to be double life for me until I had to make a decision.
I studied for many, many years with great teachers. The piano was and is my best friend. I was 8 years old when I first sat down at a piano at a neighbor’s. I could pick out by ear a melody I heard, and I first started listening to “Martin Block’s Make Believe Ballroom” with Rosemary Clooney, Patti Page, and Les Paul and Mary Ford.
I started writing in that style because I admired Irving Berlin and George Gershwin and Rodgers and Hart. Then when rock and roll started, I had to convince my writing partner, Howie Greenfield. He didn’t like the medium; he didn’t like the style. But I convinced him-I was one of the original rock and rollers.
I started writing for black artists at Atlantic Records when I was a teenager, and then I walked into the Brill Building in 1958 to see Don Kirshner at Aldon Music. He was a friend of Connie Francis, who had had the number-one record “Who’s Sorry Now.” I went to her home and played my best ballads for her. She was not impressed. Then I went into “Stupid Cupid,” and she said, “That’s my next record.” It brought in so much money that I said, “I love my classical music, but it’s better to go around the world singing your own songs. It’s wonderful to play a Beethoven sonata, but you know, it’s more rewarding being an ambassador of music, an American ambassador.”
I remember the first check from “Stupid Cupid.” I went to the mailbox-I was living with my parents-and I read “$5,400” and my mother looked at the check and said, “Neil, you misread it. It’s $54,000!” My father made $10,000 a year at that time. And that’s when I said, “You know, perhaps this is for me.”
The first thing I did with the money was give it to my parents. I promised my parents I would live with them until I got married, and I kept the promise. My only indulgence was a car each year. I would buy a car and trade it in the following year for a new car. I had the Chevy Impalas, I had the Cadillac convertibles, I had the T-Birds. I was hot stuff driving down Brighton Beach.
Neil “retired” his dad and had him join him on the road when his career took off.
He traveled the first few years of my career as a road manager. He went with me to South America and Japan. There were thousands of kids on the airstrip, and I said there must be someone very famous on this plane. It was in Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires, and I didn’t know that my records were playing already.
The crowd was there for me. They were holding signs with my name on it. You see, I was the first American rock and roll singer to go to many of these countries. Of course it didn’t hurt that I could record in Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and Japanese. I sang in five languages.
My managers didn’t believe in me in the beginning as a performer. They were also my music publishers; they thought perhaps if I bombed in America, the record sales would stop and their royalties would stop. At the beginning I was frightened. I had never taken a singing lesson-I still have never taken a singing lesson. I was unsure of myself.
It takes a couple of years to develop as a performer. I remember I asked my mother for a six-month leave of absence from the Juilliard School to get out and sing. When I had cold feet, she pushed me out on the stage and said, “Listen, you chose this; get out and see what you can do.” My managers booked me in Brazil, in the Philippine Islands and Japan, and I did develop into a good performer.
While Neil conquered the world with his music, a young woman caught his eye and captured his heart.
I met my wife behind the desk at Esther’s resort in the Catskills, and it was love at first sight. My band and I were performing there, and Leba was the owner’s-Esther’s-daughter.
She was 16 and I was 19. I saw her and I felt something. I said to my trumpet player, “You see that girl? I have a strange feeling I’m going to marry her.” He said, “Neil, she’s a kid. She’s 16 years old.” Well, I’m a Pisces, so I’m a little psychic. I told her I wrote songs for a living, and she said, “I never heard of anyone who wrote songs for a living.” And then she heard “Stupid Cupid” on the radio, and she figured I wasn’t lying. How could anybody make up that name?
Except for her father, Leba’s family was a little doubtful. Her family wanted a doctor or a lawyer for Leba. A musician? A songwriter? They never heard of that. But her father thought I was a genius and convinced the rest of the family it was okay. We went out for three years, got engaged and got married in 1962.
Leba is amazing. It’s not only her business sense-she’s been managing me for over 30 years-but her way with people. It’s so refreshing the way promoters and agents work with her. She’s such a beautiful woman.
We could be in a restaurant and a stranger would come up, even today, and say, “Excuse me for coming up to you, but you are so beautiful.” She’s the movie star and I’m the Chicago lawyer. She and I have a wonderful relationship and are best of friends. And after 44 years you really have to be friends and like being with the other person.
Two children, Dara and Marc, completed Leba and Neil’s family, but when the Beatles invaded America, Neil became a stay-at-home dad and wondered if his performing career would ever catch fire again.
At the time I never really thought the career would take off again as big as it did. But it was a wonderful time to take stock and raise your family. I spent 10 or 11 years when the kids were in their formative years spending so much time with them.
After 10 years, one of my agents suggested that I go to England. While Americans were embracing the English, they seemed to be embracing the original rock and rollers.
I went there and played very small clubs. And then I met Elton John. He was forming a record company in America and was a big fan of my early records. I met him at a Bee Gees concert, and he said he’d like to come over to my flat. He listened to the records and said, “You know, you could be a hit again. I’m going to promote you on my record company.” And as a result, I had an album on his label called Sedaka’s Back. “Laughter in the Rain” on that album went to number one again in America.
My wife and I were at the Beverly Hills Hotel. It took 16 weeks for the record to hit number one. It crept up the charts.
I was performing at the Troubadour on Santa Monica Boulevard. We were listening to the radio before the performance, and the disk jockey said this song was going from number 10 to number one, and he said the number-one record in the country is “Laughter in the Rain” by Neil Sedaka. Leba and I danced to the record. We danced to the radio as they played it, and I’ll never forget it. We cried and we danced.
It was such a thrill. I waited-I never thought it would happen. And then I went on all those television shows. Most people had never seen what Neil Sedaka looked like in the early hits. You know, I was occasionally on Dick Clark, but now I was on Merv Griffin, Mike Douglas, Sonny and Cher, Tony Orlando and Johnny Carson. They saw a face finally, the man who’d made the music, and they liked it.
It’s true that “Laughter in the Rain” was responsible for this incredible comeback, but another song is very close to my heart as well. “I Should Have Never Let You Go”-that was a real kvell for me. I sang it with my daughter, Dara. There have only been three father-and-daughter hits: the Sinatras, the Coles and the Sedakas. I had a hit with my daughter in 1980. She was 16. That was a great thrill and a fond memory.
With so many demands on his time and talent, Neil realizes he has to prioritize if he wants to find time to do what matters most to him.
I’m picking and choosing the jobs that I want to do. And I’m spending more time in California with the grandchildren. It is wonderful. We’ve had a place in California, besides New York, for the past 30 years. But we’re spending more and more time there because of the kids. That’s very important to me.
Originally published in GRAND Magazine Issue 15 March April 2007
MARY ANN COOPER