Singer/composer/producer Neil Sedaka is a man on a mission. He wants to gladden the hearts of his multitude of fans for many more years to come. “It’s been an incredible journey of 48 years of singing and over 50 years of songwriting,” says the father of two. I’ve written over 1,000 songs, and I’m proud to say that some of the greatest singers have recorded my work—from Frank Sinatra to Elvis Presley. I’m one of the major songwriters in Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI), which means that every time a song of mine is played on the radio, it’s logged and recorded and thank God it will keep my wife Leba in the style to which she has become accustomed.”
This legendary singer is a well-known “family man” and enjoys talking about his roots. “My paternal grandparents were born in Istanbul, Turkey, and came to New York around 1910. My father, born on the Lower East Side, drove a taxi for over 30 years in order to put me through The Juilliard School of Music.
“Although my upbringing was not Orthodox in nature, nonetheless the feeling within the home was that of a Jewish family with Jewish traditions. As a cohesive family unit, my wife and children attend the High Holidays in New York and it’s an event we look forward to each and every year. I have a great love for Jewish culture, as does my 88-year-old mother Eleanor, who lives and enjoys life in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. A few months ago they featured my biography on A&E and Mom was interviewed, which was a great thrill for all of us.
“I am probably one of the more well-known American singers in Israel. In the ’60s, I made several appearances in kibbutzim, as well as in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa and I made a few records in Hebrew. To this day, if I go into a cab and the driver is Israeli, they stare at me for a minute or so and say, ‘You look familiar,’ and when I tell them that my name is Neil Sedaka, they tell me, ‘Do you know you are the top singer in Israel?’ And that is always something wonderful to hear! The last time I visited Israel with my wife, my mother and aunt eight years ago, we made many stops in all the major cities.
“I am extremely proud to be Jewish. Wherever I go, people tell me that my name, Sedaka, means ‘charity’ in Hebrew and I affirm this to them and tell them of the wonderful feelings I have for my surname. As much as I love Israel and its people, I don’t usually get involved with the politics. However, I feel strongly that this is a time when one should be supportive of Israel. I’m strictly an artist, a creator, a musician. Financially I am a supporter of many Jewish charities and organizations, and I’ve planted many trees in honor of loved ones.”
“Recently, I produced an album of Yiddish songs which I loved doing and which I find so exciting. And because I always think in musical terms, I came up with these wonderful old Jewish songs that are disappearing from our wonderful culture. These songs are called Brighton Beach Memories–Sedaka sings Yiddish. There are 13 songs such as “Exodus,” “My Yiddishe Mama,” “Mein Shtetele Belz,” “Sunrise, Sunset,” “Ich Hob Dich Tzufil Lieb,” “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen,” as well as many others that invoke wonderful memories for me.
“When I was growing up in Brighton Beach, my mother used to play these Yiddish songs performed by the Barry Sisters. I did a record with a klezmer group which was a labor of love. I made a couple of hundred just to send to my friends and family and, all of a sudden, it has taken on a life of its own. I’m getting so many calls from record labels, from concert halls and theaters asking about this Yiddish album. There is a very big movement of people who love this music. As far as my albums go, we are selling many of them at my concerts and at my appearances.
“Once a year I visit Brighton Beach where I go swimming at Bay 3. I make it a point to visit my street sign (Neil Sedaka Way) on the boardwalk on Coney Island Avenue. Then I treat myself to a Nathan’s frankfurter and go on the Cyclone to see if I can still take those drops. I always remember how happy the entire family was when they attended my bar mitzvah at Temple Beth El in the Manhattan Beach area of Brooklyn.
“Recently, I was honored by the Friars Club in New York and Borough President Marty Markowitz came up and gave me a special Brooklyn award. I remember when I was crowned King of Brooklyn in 1994; my mother and my sister came in to see me accept the crown. It was a wonderful event that the borough president sponsored each year with all Brooklyn personalities coming home to visit their place of birth.”
Much of Sedaka’s life has centered around Brighton Beach and its environs. In the late 1950s, Sedaka could have been any teenager cruising around Kings Highway, driving his Chevy Impala convertible with the radio blaring. But, unlike most youngsters, Sedaka wasn’t just listening to music, he was writing it, and often it was one of his songs which was being played. “I would be listening to the radio and then a song like ‘Oh, Carol’ would come on. I wrote that for Carole Klein, who was a girlfriend of mine at the time and, as most people now know, she went on to become Carole King, a wonderful, wonderful singer.”
Neil Sedaka , who began composing in 1952 at age 13, recalls his childhood as a mixture of love, affection and some unhappiness in school. “But pop music became my means of acceptance and my way in with the ‘in crowd.’”
Almost all his early songs were collaborations between himself and his best friend, Howie Greenfield, who lived in the same apartment house at 3260 Coney Island Avenue. (Sadly Sedaka confides that Greenfield has since passed away.) “Our first song, “My Life’s Devotion,” was pretty good considering it was done by two kids aged 13 and 16.” Sedaka and Greenfield turned out many hits, among them “Where the Boys Are,” “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do” and “Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen.”
Back in the ’60s, Sedaka, who was earning more than $250,000 a year, quickly adjusted to his newfound fame and wealth. “I had to pinch myself to believe it,” he reminisces. And although he now had the wherewithal to live anywhere, still he chose to stay in Brooklyn.”
Born in Brooklyn’s Madison Hospital on March 13, 1939, he tells about his early life in Brooklyn.
“My family lived on Coney Island Avenue, right on the ocean. To this day, I’m partial to the ocean and whenever I visit relatives living in Brooklyn, I make it a point to take a swim in the cold ocean water. When my kids, Marc and Dara, were growing up, Leba and I wanted a home in the Brighton Beach area. We were lucky, we found a lovely place at The Seacoast Towers right on the waterfront. I think it is still called that. We took two apartments, broke down the walls and ended up with a wonderful 10-room residence. At that time the rent was $500 per month. Today, I don’t think you could touch it for less than thousands.”
And although Sedaka enjoys the accoutrements of fame—homes in Manhattan and California, the trips abroad and the adulation of a loyal and vast public—he still prefers the joys of family life to attending cocktail parties and making small talk “with people who hang around ‘winners.’ A quiet dinner with family and friends is my favorite way to spend an evening.”
By choice, Sedaka would give only five or six appearances a year while the children were still young. (Today, Dara is 40 and Marc is 37). “This way I got to spend precious time with the family, something I enjoyed very much. I am a very lucky man: I have my own music company and a wonderful, loving family.”
Always the proud father, Sedaka speaks of Dara, “who sings jingles for radio commercials” and Marc, “who is writing for movies and television and is currently working on two projects: one a Broadway show based on Neil Sedaka songs with a story, and the other for PBS which is still in development. He is working with Ken Levine trying to develop a show called Papa Neil’s Penthouse, which is a Mr. Rogers type of show.
“Marc is married to a wonderful girl from Sheepshead Bay, Samantha Parker, and they have given us two wonderful granddaughters, twins, Amanda and Charlotte. The twins are fraternal and they live in Studio City, California.
Sedaka is currently enjoying a renaissance — a rebirth at an age when most performers are looking to retire. Never one to rest on his laurels, Sedaka keeps a hectic schedule. He still tours constantly, performing concerts all over the world.
At this time, Sedaka who loves performing, has no intention of leaving the public arena. When asked what he would like to be remembered for when and if he does retire, he quickly answers: “I would like to be remembered foremost as a Jew, and also as a composer and singer, a person who contributed to the American scene as a worthwhile entertainer. I love this country and feel proud to have been part of its musical growth!”
On Thursday, June 3, 2004, Sedaka will be performing selections from Brighton Beach Memories at a gala fund-raiser for the Folksbiene Yiddish Theatre at Carnegie Hall. He will be joined by the world’s most renowned klezmer band, The Klezmatics, and the New Yiddish Chorale, conducted by Zalmen Mlotek. He looks forward to doing the show, as he feels a great need to preserve Jewish culture through its music and theater.