Neil Sedaka

Ivor Novello Special International Award winner, Neil Sedaka speaks to Paul Sexton about anglophilia, Elton John and growing up a mother’s boy

Anita Awbi
  • By Anita Awbi
  • 16 Jul 2010
  • min read
Ivor Novello Special International Award winner, Neil Sedaka speaks to Paul Sexton about anglophilia, Elton John and growing up a mother’s boy

When BASCA and PRS for Music presented Neil Sedaka with his Special International Award at The 55th Ivors, the majority of the audience probably had at least half a dozen hits from his bulging catalogue on a subconscious loop.

Some knew his story, about the classically-trained pianist who became an improbable pop star, and even about the strange career curves, from allowing his mother’s lover to be his manager, or enduring concerts during his lean years at English working men’s clubs. But there’s always more to any artist’s story than first meets the eye and ear, especially a master of his art form who’s been writing songs for 58 years and singing them for 51.

Which brings me to the Dorchester Hotel and a rich and varied conversation that embraces the master songwriter’s many and varied British connections.

It was in Great Britain that Neil’s career was reborn in the early 1970s, when he recorded with the future members of 10cc, one of whose number, Graham Gouldman, was on hand to present the hallowed Ivor Novello award on the Grosvenor House stage. But now there’s another big reason for Neil to feel at home among his transatlantic pals. Laughter In The Rain is no longer just one of his most famous songs, but also the title of the musical by British writer and Sedaka’s longtime friend Philip Norman, which tells the story of his life.

As the show continues its regional run through UK cities, Neil hopes for a West End placing. ‘History might repeat itself, the way my records went from Britain to America in the 70s,’ he says. ‘I think this might go to Broadway.’
The idea for the musical goes back quite some time. ‘Andrew Lloyd Webber came to me first with it,’ Sedaka reveals. ‘He wanted me to move here and end the show every night, singing a medley at the end.’ That wasn’t quite right, but when Jersey Boys, the superbly-mounted story of the Four Seasons, began to collect Tony Awards, the public mood shifted in the right direction.

‘That turned it around,’ says the 71-year-old songwriter. ‘People saw that rock music can have a serious story to it. I wanted to show that life is not perfect, that we all have skeletons in the closet.’

Laughter In The Rain incorporates nearly 40 Sedaka songs, the crown jewels of his collection, which soundtrack his personal journey from classical training to the Brill Building with lyricist Howie Greenfield, and on through all his musical lives. ‘It’s chronologically done perfectly throughout the whole career, from The Diary to Oh! Carol to the present. It’s not a jukebox musical, like the Abba one. Although of course I’d love to have a Mamma Mia, who wouldn’t?’
Much like Jersey Boys, the show is a novel way for fans and newcomers to see as well as hear the highlights – and the lowlights – of an epic career. ‘This goes into some of the family secrets and dramas,’ says Sedaka. ‘My mother had a lover for 30 years and my father accepted it. We were shocked, of course, but I was a mama’s boy and whatever made my mother happy...

‘Then he became my manager, because my mother said he would make a great manager. He was an air-conditioning salesman, so the career went down the tube. Then I fired him, and my mother took an overdose of sleeping pills. People don’t realise how much is behind the scenes.’

Happily now managed, for more than three decades, by his wife of 48 years, Leba, Sedaka will be back in the UK for concert dates in the autumn, just shy of the 50th anniversary of his first visit. ‘I started here in 1961 on Sunday Night At The London Palladium with Adam Faith and Helen Shapiro and Emile Ford [he playfully sings a bit of What Do You Want To Make Those Eyes At Me For]. We did a small tour, and then over the years I’ve been coming back every couple of years.

‘During my hungry years [the title of the 1975 album that reflected on his career turnaround], you always welcomed me here. Then of course the 10ccs, I had so much fun with them and the Stockport recordings, and meeting Elton John and him starting Rocket Records and signing me...’

But what adventures along the way. ‘I lived right around the corner from here, on Park Street, 1971 to 73,’ he says. ‘I met Elton at a Bee Gees concert here, I was a very good friend of Maurice Gibb. I’ll never forget when Elton sat down at the piano and played Candle In The Wind I cried.’ (Not for the last time in this story). He recounts how Elton asked to hear “the 10cc recordings”, and resolved to release them on Rocket.
As we know, Elton remains a devoted spokesman for all of his favourite music, just as he was then. ‘He listens to everything,’ agrees Sedaka. ‘I saw him in Vegas, he said that with Solitaire, when Clay Aiken did it in American Idol, “You sold 102,000 records the first week.” He knows every sale.

‘I remember one time, he was finishing an album, we were at the Caribou ranch and we went to the airport. I said “Elton, you have to dress down,” and he said “I will.” He showed up wearing rhinestone glasses and high boots with sequins, walked up to the desk and said “I have a prepaid ticket, my name is Elton John.” And the girl said “Do you have any identification?’”

By that time, the career upswing that saw Laughter In The Rain race to No.1 in the US early in 1975 was well under way. When Elton himself guested on Bad Blood, the result, just 10 months later, was another chart-topper. ‘It was the Bo Diddley beat,’ remembers Neil. ‘James Brown called me and said “Now you’re in my territory.”’

Other Sedaka classics have had surprising inspirations. ‘Beats are very important to me. I used to listen to [early Motown star] Marv Johnson and Smokey’s beats. Lloyd Price had a song Personality and I said “Hmm, that shuffle” and it became I love-I love-I love, the tempo of Calendar Girl.

‘I was always inspired by other artists. Amarillo was...’ he taps the table. ‘I used to love Hitching a Ride by [late 60s British pop outfit] Vanity Fare, that was that beat.’ Of course, after being a hit for Tony Christie in 1971, that song was born again in Britain in the 21st century. ‘I remember getting a call from Tony saying it had gone to No.1. Then someone said they went to a football game and 50,000 were singing it,’ he adds. ‘It was such a happy anthem.’

Even without formal introductions or prior knowledge, Sedaka’s music literally carries him around the world. Looking at a previous edition of M (M34) on the desk of his hotel room, he says spontaneously: ‘I rode on a plane with these guys about two years ago. I sat next to him [he points out Gary Lightbody], I didn’t know who they were, he didn’t know who I was, and we got into a conversation.

‘I said I thought he was perhaps a musician, I said “who are you, do you have a record, is it on the iPod?” I listened to Chasing Cars, and I cried. I’m a crier.

‘I said “How many did it sell?” He said “Oh about a million.” I said “What?” Then he invited us to their show at Madison Square Garden and we went a couple of weeks later.’

If ever an artist was 71 years young, it’s Sedaka, and his appetite for the next new thing remains voracious. When he returns later in the year, he will record Joie de Vivre, his debut symphony, first performed at the Sydney Opera House two years ago. He’s just finished a piano concerto, Manhattan Intermezzo, and completed a dozen or so new pop songs to record after that.

‘I’m never satsified, that’s the creative drive,’ he says. ‘I haven’t written the greatest one yet. Last week, in New York, I might have written one of the greatest. It’s nice to play new songs in the living room for friends, but you want the world to know them.

‘I have a scary relationship with writing. You become more picky as you go on, after so many years. You want to top it, and I can’t get away from the piano, the last few months it’s like a magnet, something is drawing me to it. I listen to all these people, Maroon 5 and Coldplay, and I like being inspired by contemporary artists.

‘The terrible thing is at night it won’t turn off. It’s a compulsion, “How am I going to finish this, can I improve this line, this word,” and you’re running out of bed to write it down. But then I have to test it on the piano and sing it. It’s obsessive.’ 58 years in, long may it remain so.