Singer-songwriter Neil Sedaka

Guest interviews are usually available online within 24 hours of broadcast.

Legendary singer-songwriter discusses the triumphs of his career, the lean years and what he learned along the way.

During a career that's in its sixth decade, Neil Sedaka has sold over 60 million records, won a Record of the Year Grammy and been inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. With a doo wop background and classical training at Julliard, he's written over 1,000 songs, for himself and countless other artists. He rose to fame with hits like "Calendar Girl" and "Breaking Up is Hard to Do"—a title spin used for his new children's book and companion CD, Waking Up is Hard to Do. Sedaka was a guest judge on American Idol and continues to write, record and perform.


Tavis: Not just pleased, but honored, to welcome Neil Sedaka to this program. “The legendary singer-songwriter and music producer has been a fixture in the music business for more than 50 years now.
Earlier this year, he released his first studio album in over ten years called The Music of my Life” and now he’s out with a new book for children called Waking Up is Hard to Do. Neil Sedaka, honored to have you on this program, sir.
Neil Sedaka: Tavis, thank you for inviting me.
Tavis: Can I start by saying thank you? I just want to say thank you.
Sedaka: Well, it’s a gift. This is a surprise for me, this book. I actually started as a concert pianist. I had a scholarship to the Julliard School of Music. My father was a taxi driver and couldn’t afford the Julliard, so I started out at nine years old in the prep school and then I went on to the college and I had every intention of becoming a concert pianist and tried out for the Tchaikovsky competition in Russia, but they found out I was a rock and roller, so I was disqualified (laughter).
Then at 13 – I had the gift of songwriting – I started to write songs and the first people I went to were Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler, Atlantic Records. So as a teenager, I was writing for LaVern Baker, Clyde McPhatter, The Cookies and The Clovers before anybody else. That was my first records as a songwriter. That’s an oldie. There are The Cookies.
Tavis: Because I’m a little bit younger, I came to know you around the time of the big hit, “Laughter in the Rain.” When I heard that song, I said, “Who is this Neil Sedaka?” I got that record and I played it over and over and over. I loved –
Sedaka: – I wondered who that person was who bought it. Now I know it’s you (laughter).
Tavis: Oh, please. That was a big hit. It was a huge hit.
Sedaka: Well, I’ll tell you. It was a comeback. It was a comeback for me because I was out of work for 12 years. The Beatles and The Rolling Stones came in –
Tavis: – that happened to a lot of people, didn’t it?
Sedaka: A lot of people.
Tavis: It rocked Frank Sinatra.
Sedaka: Yeah. Then I met a guy by the name of Elton John. Did you ever hear of him?
Tavis: Yeah, I’ve heard of the guy. Yeah, I’ve heard of him (laughter).
Sedaka: I went to England because I couldn’t get work in America and they had respect for the Brill Building and American rock and rollers, so it was the early rock and roll days. So I went to England, met Elton, who was starting a record company called Rocket Records, and he signed me and I wrote a song called “Laughter in the Rain” and “Sedaka’s Back”was the name of the LP. That dates me. LP (laughter).
But you know, it’s been a long, wonderful career, 51 years. I have written for, very fortunately, some great singers from Frank Sinatra to Elvis Presley.
Tavis: Captain & Tennille.
Sedaka: Captain & Tennille.
Tavis: “Love Will Keep Us Together.”
Sedaka: Yes.
Tavis: That’s Neil Sedaka right now.
Sedaka: I got a Grammy for Love Will Keep Us Together.”I must tell you that I’m going back to my roots. I started as a pianist and I just wrote my first piano concerto and my first symphony. Next month, I am going to London to record with the London Philharmonic both pieces. So I’m very, very excited.
Tavis: And you have achieved what age now?
Sedaka: 71.
Tavis: So what do you make of starting in this venue, in this genre, rather, at nine, and at 71, you find yourself back to where you were at the age of nine?
Sedaka: Well, I always have been a disciplined, serious musician. I think the reason I’m around so long is that I like to reinvent myself, try new things, write differently, raise the level, raise the bar for Neil Sedaka, and there are very few – I think only McCartney and Billy Joel have written classical music in my kind of genre.
I am also very excited about a show in England called Laughter in the Rain, speaking of Laughter in the Rain. It’s a musical based on my life from my birth to age 35. Someone is playing me, my wife, my mother, my father. In England, I was sitting in the audience and I couldn’t breathe. I had to go again the second night to see it.
Tavis: Kind of surreal, huh?
Sedaka: It was surreal. There were 40 of my songs. I’ve written over 1,000, but they picked 40 of the big ones. It’s coming to the West End, which is their Broadway. So, cross your fingers. Jersey boys, move over (laughter). You never know in this crazy business.
Tavis: How have you survived, by your own admission, the lean years? How do you survive the lean years when you’re not on stage and people aren’t screaming your name and you’re not in front of 40,000 people? How do you survive that period of the career?
Sedaka: It’s a very difficult thing. When you’re a creative person, you really feel deep down that you have more inside you, so you keep it quiet until the right timing. It’s all, as you know, timing. I waited for the singer-songwriter. Cat Stevens, Joni Mitchell, early ‘70s, Gordon Lightfoot, Carole King, who I dated for two minutes, and –
Tavis: – lucky you (laughter).
Sedaka: I brought her up to the Brill Building, as a matter of fact.
Tavis: Lucky her.
Sedaka: Howie Greenfield and I were the first writers to go to the New York City Sound Brill Building and I brought Carole King. All the people in there were Neil Diamond, Leiber and Stoller – it was a great bunch of writers. We were teenage New Yorkers writing for the teenagers. So I was lucky.
Between 1958 and 1963, I sold about 40 million records to the shock of my mother and father because I was always playing Beethoven. But I bought my mother a mink stole. She was very happy and she said, “I think this is better than Beethoven.”
Tavis: This might work out (laughter).
Sedaka: They had just signed Elvis Presley, RCA Victor Records, and it was a new teenage market and RCA was distributed all over the world. So I got to be heard in every country in the world. I didn’t want to be a rock and roller. I wanted to be a Bobby Darin because he was the epitome of the performer, the sophisticated.
So I played the Copa Cabana and I played all of these adult places and I got to sing in five different languages all over the world. That’s what kept me alive during those hungry years. I went all over and sang in Italian, Spanish, German, French, all of them.
Tavis: Wow.
Sedaka: Yeah.
Tavis: And now here you are these years later with a children’s book called Waking Up is Hard to Do. That title rings a bell (laughter).
Sedaka: You think so (laughter)?
Tavis: It rings a bell.
Sedaka: You’re right. This is the third version. The first one I wrote as a rock and roll song, “Down, do be do, down, down –
Tavis: – “do be do, do be do, down, do be do,” right.
Sedaka: That’s right, before your time.
Tavis: Yeah, but I know it.
Sedaka: And then, 13 years later, I redid it as a slow ballad, “Don’t Take Your Love away from Me” and it was at number one again. Now the third time, I changed the words to Waking Up is Hard to Do because –
Tavis: – instead of Breaking Up is Hard to Do.
Sedaka: Yes, because my grandchildren are big fans of Papa Neil’s old rock and roll songs. I’m Papa Neil. There they are. That’s Charlotte and Amanda.
Tavis: The twins.
Sedaka: Yes, and they’re singing the background vocals. So a publisher approached me a while back and said, “We think this would make a very nice illustrated children’s book.” It’s a new career for me.
Tavis: Wow. How does it feel after all these years to still be doing what it is that you love, to have survived all this time, to have thrived during this time, and now to have your twin grandchildren singing background on your stuff?
Sedaka: Tavis, I never expected to be singing with my grandchildren. I have three. I have Michael, who’s five. It’s a marvelous thing to sit around the piano at their home. Music brings family, I think, together. Music is such a marvelous thing. I think every kid should learn an instrument in school and play in front of friends and family. It’s a marvelous thing to be able to let your emotions out with music. It’s very therapeutic. I’m very thrilled.
Sometimes I get them up on the stage and they dress up and they sing the months of the year for “Calendar Girl.” That might be the next book. We call it, “I love, I love, I love my dinosaur pets” instead of “calendar girl,” and they all get to sing the months of the year. My Charlotte said to me, “Look at all these people watching you, Papa. I’m jealous. You’re my Papa. I don’t like them making such a fuss over you.”
Tavis: She doesn’t know, does she, that we’ve made a fuss over you for decades now?
Sedaka: They weren’t sure what was going on. As you said, I had just the first album in many, many years of new material because I have so many – I think, 60 or 70 CDs and LPs. But last year, I wrote a new collection called “The Music of My Life” and I wanted to get out of my comfortable sphere, write something that’s a little bit more mature.
I think people want you to grow and develop. They want to hear something new all the time, and I have to keep entertaining myself. If I’m happy, then I think the audience will be happy.
Tavis: Well, you have made many of us happy for decades now. I got to find a good excuse to go to the West End so I can see this play about your life. I’d love to see it.
Sedaka: Thank you. You’re invited. It opens next year and it is, hopefully, going to Broadway the following year. My wife and I sat there and we were shocked because my mother, her mother, Elton John, John Kirshner from the Brill Building, and you watch your life unfold in front of you.
You know, it’s not a juke box musical either. It’s got some drama. You know, all of us in our family have drama. I’ll tell you a little secret before you see it. My mother was very happily married, but she had a lover for 30 years to the full knowledge of my dad, who accepted it. They were before their time.
Tavis: I’m going to the West End (laughter). I have got to see this now.
Sedaka: And my mother’s lover was an air conditioning salesman, but he bought the most beautiful jewelry and clothes for mom. I slowly realized that I was buying it because he became my manager. I was a mama’s boy and my mom said, “I want Ben to be your manager.” I said, “Sure, mom.” After a couple of years, it went down the tube.
The career went down the tube and my mother was wearing bigger and nicer jewelry and I found out that I was buying the jewelry. So I said, “Ben, I think we’ve come to the end of the road. I think maybe I should get another manager.” He said, “Well, I’m coming to beat you up.” I said, “What? I’m gonna lock the door.” He was one of these. “Well, I’ll call the police.”
My mother took it very badly that her son and her lover were at odds and she took an overdose of sleeping pills, unfortunately. But, thank goodness, she survived. My father stayed with her for 47 years and Ben finally passed away. But my mother and I made up and we were fine until we lost her seven years ago.
Tavis: Wow. I’m thinking “Laughter in the Rain.” I didn’t know –
Sedaka: – smiley, happy.
Tavis: Yeah, exactly. I didn’t know all of this. It’s been quite a life, quite a wonderful life, and I hope and pray that it does well enough in the West End to in fact come to Broadway so we can all see the back story to the wonderful life and the wonderful legacy of a great artist named Neil Sedaka.
His new children’s book, his first ever, is called Waking Up is Hard to Do with performances, a CD of Neil Sedaka’s music with his twin grandbabies doing the backup. Neil Sedaka, an honor to have you on the program.
Sedaka: Tavis, thank you so much for having me.
Tavis: I enjoyed the conversation. Thank you so much.
[Walmart – Save money. Live better.]

Announcer: Nationwide Insurance proudly supports Tavis Smiley. Tavis and Nationwide Insurance – working to improve financial literacy and the economic empowerment that comes with it. Nationwide is on your side.
And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm