NEW YORK – In early August, Neil Sedaka took his wife to Madison Square Garden for a Lady Gaga performance, which sold out months before. "I admire Gaga. She's very talented and wise, that girl," he says.
"My wife and I were looking forward to that performance. We were hoping for a nice ballad, but everyone around us was screaming and it was all too loud for us, and we even brought earplugs. An hour later we got up and left. Her success is not random, but how long will it last? Fifty-two years? I'm not sure."
When Sedaka says this last sentence, the number 52 comes out of his throat stronger and longer. At the age of 71, after selling 50 or 60 million records, cassettes, CDs and other distinct formats, he still won't stop.
A musical based on his life story and songs opened in London several months ago. "It will probably get to Broadway later on, it always takes them some time over there," he says.
In two months time, he plans to record a classical piece he wrote with the London Symphony Orchestra. "This has been done before by only Paul McCartney and Billy Joel!"
And most important, on October 16 he will land at Tel Aviv's Nokia Arena for his first concert in Israel
after 46 years. "I will perform my songs in Hebrew as well. It's nice that Paul Anka did well in Israel, but with me it will be even bigger. It's a victory tour. After all, I'm one of yours."
Neil Sedaka belongs to the old world. Old money, old manners, old clichés, black-and-white TV, a world which sees in black and white. He was born into a Photoshop-free industry without pyrotechnic tricks, which was led by singers who had a great caressing voice and sang sweet songs about love and more love in two-minute hits.
He lives in a beautiful and well-kept apartment in Manhattan, a small palace just a three-minute walk from Central Park. The dozens of gold and platinum albums he received over the years decorate its walls, alongside a fine stereo system and an Andy Warhol portrait of him. "I've been told it's worth quite a lot of money," he boasts.
He also owns a house in Los Angeles, where he lives half of the year, and used to own a private plane. "I owned it together with Morris Gibb of the Bee Gees, when I had more than 150 concerts a year across the US. It cost us $3.5 million, and it was real fun. Immediately after our performances we would get on the plane and land wherever we wanted without all the airport mess."
The house is quite different from the atmosphere in the neighborhood he grew up in, on the other side of the river, on the eve of World War II. Sedaka was born in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, an area which had more Jews than sand grains.
"I used to think the whole world was Jewish. We were 11 people living in a two-room apartment, the door was open and friends would come in all the time. My father was a cab driver, Sephardic. My mother was Ashkenazi. I studied in a yeshiva, but I can't remember anything from the Hebrew lessons apart from 'shalom' (hello) and 'toda' (thank you) and the worlds of 'Oh! Carol' in Hebrew, which I don't exactly understand. They wrote them on a piece of paper for me, and in the studio I sang them according to what they wrote in English."
Your neighborhood in Brooklyn had hopes that you would be the local cantor.
"Yes, I could have ended my career as the cantor of the Brighton Beach synagogue. At my bar mitzvah they liked the way I read the 'haftara', so representatives of the local synagogue came to my mother and suggested that I become the next cantor. But my mother insisted that I would be a classical pianist."
Your mother didn't even want you.
"My mother gave birth to my sister a year and a half earlier. It was a very difficult pregnancy and she almost lost my sister and her life while giving birth. The doctors advised her not to give birth again. They said it would put her life in risk. So my mother tried to miscarry by getting on the roller coaster at the famous Coney Island amusement park again and again."
How did you find out about it?
"What do you mean? She told me about it. I was 12."
Isn't it a little problematic to tell a 12-year-old such a thing?
"No, not at all. We were very good friend. We could talk about everything."
Perhaps that's what made her want you. Being the good son, trying to be the man everyone loves at any cost?
"No, no. Not at all. She had a very bad pregnancy and she almost couldn't give birth again. That's all, that's the whole story."
Over the years she became your manager, while at the same time, at the height of your success, you and your wife lived off a monthly salary of $1,000. You didn't even have a credit card before the age of 32.
"My mother had a lover for 30 years, and my father accepted it. He was very poor and told my mother, 'Honey, if there's someone taking care of you and of all your needs – it's fine with me. As long as you go out to nice restaurants and it doesn't cost me one cent, it's okay. The important thing is that you're happy.'
"She told my sister and me about it when I was 20. She managed me, and not so good it seems, but I was okay with everything until she suggested that her partner manage me. He was an air conditioning systems salesman, and he managed me for four or five years, and it was pretty bad. He had no idea. My career was down. In the end, when I informed them that they were no longer my managers, my mother tried to commit suicide by taking sleeping pills."
And how did you react to that?
"I thought she had lost her senses. She was depressed. And yet, a few months later we all got over it. I never spoke to her lover since then, but they stayed together until he died. My mother was premature. I don't think it would be odd today for a man or woman to have a mistress or lover."
Weren't you angry at her? She left your father alone.
"No, not at all. My father and mother went on living together all those years. Moreover, we all went on vacations together: My wife, me, my mother, my father and the lover. It was a lot of fun."
Really, really. We were one big happy family. We all traveled together, had fun and enjoyed ourselves."
And where did your mother sleep at night?
"She would move from one to the other."
She must have been pretty fit.
"She must have, ha? They had a very open relationship. It's an entirely different approach. It's not my approach, but as long as it worked for them, everything's fine."
You've been with your wife for nearly 50 years.
"Yes, and she has also been my manager for the past 30 years."
I hope she's doing a better job than your mother.
"Much better! And she doesn't take one cent. Her profit is being able to buy herself clothes. She does have a very prestigious taste, but it's worth it."
The woman who has been with him since he was 19 is Leba, who comes from a wealthy Jewish family from Catskill, New York, which used to be known as "the Jewish Alps."
"My mother had a hotel there, and I had a band which played there. We exchanged glances, and what happened happened." And yet Leba had to wait four years for her man to propose.
"When we began dating I was an unknown singer, but I had just become successful and realized that I wanted to go on concert tours all over the world. Those days it wasn't good for people to know that you have a wife at home."
It wouldn’t have been efficient with the girl fans.
"And I had a lot of groupies! I was good looking, I was thin, I had beautiful hair. There were masses of groupies waiting for me everywhere. Leba and I had been dating on and off until I decided it was time to get married, and I didn't care what anyone had to say."
Sedaka's career died in 1963. Its grave was dug by the Beatles. The Beatlemania arrived from England, and artists like Sedaka immediately became ancient and unnecessary.
"Suddenly I realized there were no sales, no performances and no songs on the radio. People would stop me on the street just to tell me, 'Weren't you Neil Sedaka? What happened to Neil Sedaka?' I was in shock, but I knew I still had something to offer and that I would be back."
You went through very difficult years. You performed in empty halls, you wrote songs to other people, the record companies didn't want you.
"It wasn't easy, but that's the way it is – the wheel keeps turning. In the early 1970s the singer-songwriter wave began, like Cat Stevens and Carole King, and it was the right time for me to come back. People were shocked by the possibility of having back on the charts. After all, my entire generation was completely extinct.
"People in the industry said, 'He's from the 50s, how can he come back?' But I had already done other things. I realized much earlier that I must continue doing new things and that I can't keep on singing 'Oh! Carol.'"
'I used to think everyone was Jewish' (Photo: Getty Images Bank)
International hit "Oh! Carol" was composed by Sedaka in 1959, after he cracked the musical code for songs which made their way up the charts and assembled his own hit from their elements. It took him two and a half hours to compose it, and within 20 minutes he added the lyrics written by Howard Greenfield, his song-writing partner for nearly 20 years.
The song was recorded by Sedaka in seven languages and sent him on concerts in major stadiums across the world. Greenfield hated it and opposed the song's recording, thinking it was foolish and unnecessary. Sedaka convinced him by saying, "I believe there are some girls who would really like to listen to such a song."
Carol from the song is Carole King, his high school friend. She recorded her own song in response in the early 1960s: "Oh! Neil/ I've loved you for so long/ I never dreamed you'd put me in a song/ I'm Carol!/ And I live in Tennessee/ I never hoped that you'd remember me."
Sedaka's career came back to life in 1974, courtesy of Elton John. "I moved with my family, my wife and two children, to London. There, unlike in the States, I somehow worked and performed. I met Elton John at a party. He told me, 'Neil, I'm a fan of yours.' I heard that he had just opened a record company and suggested that he sign me. I couldn't believe it, but he agreed. My songs were successful in the charts again and I was invited to major concert tours again."
And after three albums with Elton John, you stopped working together.
"True, but we stayed friends. I will never forget that he was my mentor through my comeback and the one who pushed me to do it again. He's a genius. He and his team wanted me to sign again after three albums, but the offer they gave me wasn't good enough, while the Elektra company offered me a lot of money. You know, business aside. I met him in Vegas not so long ago, and he's still in full control of everything happening in the industry and remembers how many copies each song and each album sold. A genius, I'm telling you."
On the other hand, you dared to say no to David Bowie.
"Yes, what a missed opportunity. It was before 'Ziggy Stardust' and I didn't know him. Suddenly this weird thing walking into to studio. He was dressed strangely, very pretty. I didn't even know if it was a man or a woman. He said to me, 'You're Sedaka, right? I love your music. I heard you play with 10cc and I was wondering if I could play the guitar with you.' I was very shy and wary in terms of my recordings, so I said, 'Thanks a lot but it's just not right for me.' What a stupid thing to do, what a stupid thing. He's such a talented man."
Later on you had a concert tour with the Carpenters, and they kicked you out.
"What happened was that they asked me to open for them, so I went up for 30 or 40 minutes, made the audience wild, and every time they wouldn't stop applauding and asking for me. In addition, the critics were very restrained about them and enthusiastic about me. They wrote, 'Sedaka is the surprise of the year.' In the end Richard Carpenter flew into a rage and wanted to fire me."
It was one of their last tours. Several years later, Karen Carpenter died from heart failure after suffering from anorexia for years.
"She was simply wonderful. She would never sweat on stage, even when we performed outside and it was very, very hot. She had an unusual clear voice. Really amazing."
Did you ever get to talk to her about her slimness?
"No, never. It's personal."
Did you feel she was going through something strange?
"I liked her, but I never brought it up. It was too personal."
You know, "it's personal" is the typical American answer. In Israel people would try to find out what was wrong with her after one second.
"Yeah, I know what it's like with you. Someone sees you wearing a shirt they don't like and immediately starts saying, 'What's with the ugly shirt" or "what happened to you, you've gotten so fat."
Now that you've raised the issue, at the peak of your success you gained 30 kilos.
"I really liked fried food, pasta with cream, whatever was most unhealthy. And I always ate so much! I ate on the private plane before a performance, after a performance, always. Until my doctor came up to me and said, 'Oy Vey, you must lose weight or you'll have a big problem.' So I had no choice."
And those days, when you were looking for an apartment in Manhattan, there were buildings which wouldn't take you in because you were famous and a Jew.
"They didn’t like the paparazzi, said it would bother the other tenants. It was New York of the past – a place which wasn't completely open to Jews. To this day, in fact, there are golf clubs, tennis clubs and other organizations which won't gladly accept Jews. They don't want black people and Jews."
So in spite of all the changes and all the Obama, the United States is still racist?
"Maybe not in the big cities, but if you go south or west you see it. They still have people living there who think Jews are a thing with horns and wear hats. I am a Jew, and I'm convinced that Israel is the homeland. When my grandson celebrates his bar mitzvah, I hope we'll do it in Jerusalem. I've hosted a number of fundraisers for the State, but I have no idea what's going on in your politics or in general. As far as I'm concerned, all politicians are fake people."
What was the greatest moment of your career?
"It's difficult, but I'll try: Getting a star on the Los Angeles Walk of Fame, the fact that a street in Brooklyn has been named after me, that my songs from 50 years ago are still being played on the radio, that I still make people happy."
And the worst moment?
"In the early 1960s I was known in Italy as 'Neil Sedaka – the voice that will make you dream.' I arrived there for a performance, I had a sore throat, and after 45 horrible minutes on stage I couldn't go on. I said to the audience, 'scusi, sorry,' and got off the stage. Suddenly I hear the audience roar, 'Bring the pomodoro, pomodoro, pomodoro,' and then they started throwing tons of tomatoes at the stage. The next day they wrote in the paper, 'This isn't the man who will make you dream, it's the voice which will give you nightmares.'"
Have you visited Italy since then?
"You know what? Come to think of it, I returned there, but only for private visits."