Neil Sedaka is very proud of his “55 years.” In our short conversation, the 74-year-old vocalist, multi-instrumentalist (most importantly pianist) and songwriter-for-hire brings up that figure at least twice as he discusses how long he has been part of the American music industry. Sedaka has both witnessed and played a key hand in developing a staggeringly broad swath of American pop music, particularly during the 1960s and '70s. The New York native and now NYC/LA resident started playing piano at age 9 and was attending the Julliard School as a kid. As a teen, he began writing songs at the iconic Brill Building. He would eventually end up with a sprawling discography as a solo performer (his debut album was 1959's Rock with Neil Sedaka and he's still making more), have tunes covered by Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra, and working with Elton John, the Monkees and Abba. Sedaka guesses that he has played a role in 500 or 600 records over the years. His name has become a cornerstone for a certain era of doe-eyed, clean and lovelorn pop. Really, he's a cat whose biography is long and historic enough to swallow several paragraphs, so if you look one thing up on Wikipedia today, make it him. I spoke to Sedaka last March before his original show at Ridgefield Playhouse was postponed.
You had those early experiences writing for Atlantic Records producers Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler where you were doing songs for the Cookies, the Clovers and other acts. You were an early teenager then. What was that experience like?
I started writing at 13. At 16, I peddled my songs. I got on the subway and went to various record companies and publishers. I went into Atlantic Records, as you say. I had two R&B hits in the top 10: LaVern Baker, “I Waited Too Long,” and Clyde McPhatter sang “Since You've Been Gone.” The Cookies was the first record. I used to listen to a lot of the black music on New York radio. That was a good start, but, of course, I wanted to record my own songs because I have an extraordinary voice. I say that very proudly. My voice has never changed. When I was 19, I auditioned for RCA Records, and they signed me right after Elvis.
What's your most vivid memory of working with songwriter Howard Greenfield in the Brill Building?
I would say the last song we wrote together — ”Love Will Keep Us Together” — recorded by Captain & Tennille. I wrote hundreds of songs with Howie. Unfortunately, he's not with us anymore, but his lyrics live on. There were so many beautiful songs with Howie: “[The] Hungry Years,” “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do,” “Calendar Girl.” In those days, we did albums of 12 songs, so it was writing every day in the Brill Building. It was like a job, from 10 in the morning 'til 5 in the afternoon five days a week, and I have wonderful memories of all of it.
How would you describe the act of writing for teenagers back then? Do you think that the act of writing for teenagers is fundamentally different now from how it was back then?
Well, in those days, it was very innocent. Times were very easy. We wrote about Sweet 16 parties and calendar girls and stairways to heaven. It was very naive. I was a teenager writing for a teenage market, so you grow up and you mature and you write more mature songs and you have to reinvent Neil Sedaka. You can't do the same things anymore than you used to do. You have to raise the level and try something different. I think that's the reason I've been around for 55 years.
I think [songwriting for teens is] so much more open today. They talk about relationships. In my day, if you kissed somebody, it was a big deal. Today, it goes further than that. Young kids are doing much more than kissing, and the songs do talk about it.
Aesthetically, you've always espoused a clean style: clean melodies, a clean voice, clean production. What do you enjoy about keeping that cleanliness instead of adding distortion and rough textures?
Well, I can't be what I'm not. I'm a melodic singer/writer. My heroes were Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Frank Loesser, Richard Rodgers. They were melodic, clean. I can't sing and write what I'm not. I have to be true to what I do best. To me, a good melody and an intelligible lyric is still the ultimate goal.
You've also talked about how it's good to be able to write in the privacy of your living room, but if you take that song and it doesn't reach the masses, you've failed at your task as a songwriter. Why do you think that reaching the masses is so important?
That's a good question. You can write for yourself and be very satisfied and play it for friends and family in your living room, but to me, if it doesn't reach the masses, it doesn't really prove that you're in the culture of the time. I pride myself in the fact that [in] the early years, I tried to match the culture of the time. Today, I don't write for the commercial reason. I write something that pleases me spiritually, emotionally. It's not important [now], but [in] the beginning, I did try to reach the masses because I was writing for a top 40 market, and if you weren't in the top 10, I thought it was a failure.
Early in your career, what was the worst piece of advice someone in the music industry gave you?
It came from accountants and managers: mismanagement, mis-accounting, not being paid properly. Some of the managers booked me overseas because I was writing for these publishers and I wasn't a seasoned performer. That doesn't come overnight — it takes many years to become a seasoned performer — so they booked me in the Philippine Islands, in Argentina — far away in case I flopped, in case I bombed out, it wouldn't affect my record sales. As a result, I wasn't as big in America as I should have been. Then, slowly but surely in the second career, when Elton took my songs to his record label, I was on television, and I was seen by America [through] Carol Burnett and Sonny and Cher's show and Johnny Carson. People saw Neil Sedaka rather than just a voice on the radio.
When it comes to your early career and how if you had better management, you might have been in a different place, is that something you ever think about in the day-to-day or does it just come up in things like interviews?
I'm very, very lucky that I am a working artist for 55 years. I still sell out. People grew up with my songs. I'm part of their life. I get e-mails from all over the world that I reach people emotionally, that I've helped them physically or emotionally through sickness and through dramas. I think it's marvelous that you can do that with a song.
When it comes to the business of making pop music, what would you say is the most fundamental element that someone who is young and wants to go into it should know about?
They have to write their own songs. They have to love it with a passion. I think this should be a sideline. They should continue in school. They should get a profession. This should be something that they enjoy. If it happens, it happens, but I really think that the only way it's going to happen is if they really want it with a great passion and they have great drive and ambition.
w/ Karen Jacobsen. Oct. 19, 7:30 p.m., $125-$175, Ridgefield Playhouse, Ridgefield, (203) 438-5795, ridgefieldplayhouse.org.