Sedaka Keeps It Together

For 50 years, Neil Sedaka has been writing, playing, and singing his music though it's not always been easy. Sedaka was a megastar in the '50s, a veritable has-been in the '60s, and a remarkable comeback kid by the mid-'70s.

Now his achievements are being honored by his fellow musicians with a tribute concert in New York, "Neil Sedaka: 50 Years of Hits." The show, featuring Clay Aiken, Connie Francis, Natalie Cole and more, benefits the Elton John AIDS Foundation.

He also has a new CD called "The Signature Collection" which features his old songs, demos, and new releases.

Sedaka has had a rollercoaster career, which seems appropriate for a kid growing up just down the boardwalk from Coney island.

"My father was a taxi driver for 30 years," he told The Early Show co-anchor Russ Mitchell. "Maxi the Taxi. We were modest; lived modestly in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. And I never expected to be doing this for a living."

Even at a young age he seemed to know that he was destined for something great.

"I used to buy the little 45 records," he said. "And with a pen, I would scratch out the name of the artist and the songwriter and write down 'Neil Sedaka' to see how it looked."

It must have looked pretty good. For 50 years, Sedaka has been writing, playing and singing his music.

"I started at 8," Sedaka said. "A teacher in public school recognized that I had talent and persuaded my parents to buy a second-hand piano."

And Sedaka had another problem: he says as a kid he had to learn to be masculine.

"Well, I idolized my sister," he said. "I loved my sister, Ronnie, God rest her soul. And I emulated her. I carried my books like her. I walked like her. She was an A student. I stood in front of a mirror, and I actually had to learn how to be more macho. I did it for survival, because otherwise, they'd beat you up."

He also had difficulty convincing his parents that rock 'n' roll was the way to go. His mother was set on him studying classical music.

"She was horrified. She said, 'There are thousands of people who can sing and write songs. Be a school teacher, a concert pianist. This is what you were meant to be,'" Sedaka said. "But, you know, she got used to it after a while. I had my first hit, and I bought her a mink stole. She was over the moon, so happy."

But before there was pop there was classical music and the piano. At 9, Sedaka received a scholarship to the Juilliard School of Music where he studied through two years of college.

Chopin, Beethoven and Mozart would ultimately take a back seat. It was rock 'n' roll that won Sedaka's heart, much to his mother's horror.

Before he became famous, Sedaka, who was an awkward kid, used music to gain social acceptance. At a talent show at Lincoln High School, he watched his popularity soar when he played rock 'n' roll for the first time for an audience. He remembers the first rock song he ever wrote: "Mr. Moon."

"Mr. Moon" may not have been chart-topping stuff, but that would come soon.
"Oh, Carol," "The Diary," and "Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen" were all top ten hits. In 1962 he hit No. 1 with "Breaking up Is Hard to Do."

Sedaka wrote the songs that everybody knows and between 1958 and 1963, he sold 40 million records around the world.

"It was mind-blowing," he said. "To turn on the radio, I was riding my Chevy Impala, 1959, white convertible with the fins, and I pushed three buttons on my car radio and I heard "Oh Carol" on three stations at the same time. It was like a dream."

Sedaka teamed with a neighborhood kid who fancied himself a poet - Howie Greenfield - and the two would form one of the most successful songwriting duos of all time.

"You know, I had a love/hate relationship with writing," Sedaka said. "Howie Greenfield used to lock me in a room and say, 'You can't leave until you finish two songs.'"

Sedaka and Greenfield wrote for Aldon Publishing in New York's famous Brill Building. Some of the greatest pop music writers of the time - Carole King, Burt Bacharach, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller - created the Brill Building sound. It was a competitive atmosphere, but the competition was good, Sedaka said.

"It made us write better," he said.

Sedaka's first hit was made famous by Connie Francis. "Stupid Cupid" reached No. 14 on the charts in 1958. Sedaka's ability to write for others would be an important part of his career, but first he had to make a name for himself.

He married his girlfriend, Leba Strassberg, and life was a hit. His career was on fire, he toured the world as "musical ambassador," but things would quickly change.

It was the British invasion, and the king of the tra-la-la's was in trouble. There was a new sound and a new look to rock 'n' roll.

"And then in 1963 a new group came out," he said. "They were called the Beatles. So, us guys who smiled a lot, clean-cut American were pushed out the door. And I stopped singing for 10, 11 years."

He stopped singing, but he never stopped writing for artists like Tom Jones, Johnny Mathis and The Fifth Dimension.

With his performing career on the rocks, Sedaka packed up his family and moved to England where he hoped to find success again. It turned out to be a brilliant move when he met Elton John.

"And we sat down, and I played some of my new songs," Sedaka said. "And he played 'Candle in the Wind,' and I wept. He said, 'You know, I could make you a star again.'"

John signed Sedaka to his new label, rocket records, and in late 1974, he released the album, "Sedaka's Back," and was he ever. For a generation of fans, the single "Laughter in the Rain" became a signature song.

"My wife and I, I'll never forget, I was at The Troubadour that night, and on the radio Casey Kasem came on and said, 'Now, the new No. 1 song in the country, "Laughter in the Rain" by Neil Sedaka,' and we danced and we cried. We cried," he said.

Gone were the shooby-doo's. The British invasion had retreated, but left standing, 13 years after his last No. 1 hit, was Sedaka.

"I went from making $50,000 in 1974 to $6 million in 1975," he said.

There were more riches coming. A new group, The Captain and Tennille, scored a major hit with a bouncy pop song called "Love Will Keep Us Together." Sedaka said that song has been played on the radio about 7 million times.

Royalties from a thousand songs will sustain Sedaka forever. Today, he and wife Leba, his manager for the last 30 years, split their time between New York and Los Angeles. He has a new album out, "The Definitive Collection," which has old favorites, demos and some lesser-known tracks as well.

"Having a record debut on the Billboard Chart at No. 22, my new 'Definitive Collection' after 30-some-odd years," Sedaka said. "Oh God, I never thought that would happen. I mean along with Christina Aguilera and John Mayer. You know, I'm 68 years old. This is a great thrill."