At 78, Neil Sedaka is still a prolific composer of new pop songs as well as classical works. But when the singer/songwriter who gave us “Laughter in the Rain” takes the stage at Heinz Hall May 12-14, audiences will be treated to a bit of nostalgia.
Accompanied by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Sedaka — whose voice is virtually unchanged from the time he recorded such hits as “Breaking up is Hard to Do” and “Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen” — wants to sing what his fans want to hear.
“I’ll be singing mostly old songs,” said Sedaka, speaking by phone from his home in New York. “People really want to hear those. I do two or three new ones, but I wouldn’t be here if not for the oldies. From 1958-1963, I had quite a string of records, and then again from 1975 to ’80 I had a string of big records.”
Sedaka, the son of a Sephardi taxi driver father and an Ashkenazi mother, grew up in Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach neighborhood, where he lived with 10 other relatives in a modest apartment.
“I grew up in a two-bedroom apartment in Brighton with 11 people — my grandmother and grandfather, mother and father, my sister and five aunts, and I was the only baby boy, so I was really pampered,” Sedaka recalled.
The singer has fond memories of those days, despite the cramped conditions.
“It was a wonderful time, right after World War II; times were very peaceful,” he said. “We didn’t even lock our doors. You went to drop in on neighbors for coffee and cake. And I would go to the Sephardic temple with my father. My grandparents on my father’s side came from Istanbul, so they spoke Spanish at home when I was a child. In turn, I could speak enough to get by. But Brighton Beach was a wonderful time.”
It was that time of his life that inspired Sedaka to record “Brighton Beach Memories,” an album of the Yiddish songs of his youth.
The album was a hit with “the older set,” he said. “You know, the people who remembered those beautiful songs. I got emails from all over the world, cause some of those songs are over 100 years old and, you know, we sang them at bar mitzvahs and weddings and family picnics. I felt very, very close to them. My friend Neil Diamond and I went out not long ago and he said, ‘I was shocked that you remembered the songs that we grew up with in Brighton Beach.’ But I did have total recall of them. And I still sometimes sing ‘My Yiddishe Momme.’”
Although he was raised in a fairly secular household, he was encouraged to become a cantor after reciting his bar mitzvah haftaroh.
“There wasn’t a dry eye, everyone was crying,” Sedaka recalled. “The rabbi and the cantor went to my mom and said, ‘He will definitely be a cantor.’”
But the musician and his mother had other plans.
“My mother told the people at the synagogue that she wanted me to be a concert pianist and teacher of music,” he said. “I had every intention of doing that. But, you know, classical music is wonderful, but you can’t really make a living from it.”
Sedaka started studying classical music in 1952 at the age of 13, on a scholarship at Juilliard, when a poet named Howard Greenfield who lived in his building in Brooklyn convinced him to start writing pop songs.
The rest, as they say, is history. Greenfield and Sedaka’s partnership was long and fruitful, as the two collaborated out of the famous Brill Building in New York City in the 1960s and produced a string of hits together until the mid-1970s.
But Sedaka never fully abandoned classical music.
“The teachers at Juilliard were a bit shocked,” when he switched to pop music, he said. “I studied with some great teachers, and they gave me very good advice. They said, ‘Always keep a Beethoven sonata under your fingers.’ And I can still play seven or eight pieces of classical music at the piano. So, I never abandoned the classical, but I’m happy I was able to travel the world as a singer/songwriter, an American ambassador of good will.”
Sedaka has come full circle, back to his classical roots and in recent years has composed a few symphonies, including “Joie De Vivre,” which will be performed by the PSO at Sedaka’s shows next month, and a piano concerto, “Manhattan Intermezzo.”
But it is still his pop music for which Sedaka is best known. He has composed more than 600 songs, many of which have been covered by some of the greatest artists in the world.
“I’ve been very fortunate,” he said. “Some great singers, from Elvis to Frank Sinatra to Johnny Mathis, Andy Williams, so many great artists have covered my songs. I guess the biggest covers were ‘Where the Boys Are,’ by Connie Francis, and Frank Sinatra did ‘The Hungry Years.’ ‘Solitaire’ was done by The Carpenters and many others — I just counted about 60 cover records on ‘Solitaire.’”
He has orchestral, symphonic arrangements to all his songs and is looking forward to performing them with the PSO.
“The ballads are particularly beautiful with the violins, the strings,” he said. “‘Solitaire,’ ‘The Hungry Years.’ I close with a song that I wrote in 1976 called ‘The Immigrant.’ I brought it out of the trunk, and I sing it now in concerts because it’s so relevant about immigrants being welcomed into the United States.”
Sedaka wrote ‘The Immigrant’ for his friend, John Lennon, when the late Beatle was having immigration issues.
“John Lennon was a friend of mine, and he was having trouble getting a green card, and I dedicated the song to him,” Sedaka said. “I wrote it with Phil Cody, and it was very well received. It was the follow-up to ‘Laughter in the Rain,’ and I still get many, many requests for it.”
While so many pop stars of his generation were mired in drama — drugs, tumultuous relationships — Sedaka seemed to keep a wholesome profile. He has been married to the same woman, Leba (née Strassberg) since 1962.
“I wasn’t a saint, by no means,” he said. “But I was a very disciplined musician. I wasn’t an overnight success. Mine took a long time. I was very disciplined, and I took the career and the music very seriously. No funny clothes, no gimmicks. They came to hear me and to hear the songwriting. And I’m proud of that.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.