Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Happy Birthday, Neil Sedaka

Our first glimpse at Neil Sedaka was the unfortunate cover image that graced the 8-track edition of Sings His Greatest Hits, an early 1970's reissue of Sedaka's late 1950's/early 1960's chart-toppers. Frankly, he looked like a remarkably young and hairless Ron Jeremy recreating the Mona Lisa.


We were, however, rather taken with the music contained on that 8-track. Our musical tastes are far-reaching, sometimes inexplicable, often with very specific sub genres. For instance, count us among the proud, few fans of what can only be described as adenoidal white bread pop, ideally recorded in New York between 1960 and 1963. (According to "real" music historians, this period between Elvis and The Beatles actually doesn't exist. Ahem.) 


Sneer if you will, but dig those double-tracked vocals! that big RCA Victor production sound! more irresistibly goofy (and catchy) hooks than a bait and tackle shop! This stuff must have sounded fantastic blaring out of a pizza parlor jukebox in 1961, or on an AM transistor radio -- or, in our case, on an 8-track in our mother's Laredo Tan 1973 Cadillac Coupe de Ville. The point is, pure, unadulterated pop has its own merits, and can't be judged by the same yardstick as jazz, blues, soul or rock, any more than disco can be debated in the same breath as opera. And of the many fresh-faced young men and women purveying this assembly line of Brill Building confectionary in those historically-neglected early 60's, Neil Sedaka was arguably doing it better than just about anyone else -- with the possible exception of his contemporary and rival, Gene Pitney.

 Contemporaries: Gene Pitney (left) and Neil Sedaka

What set Sedaka and Pitney apart from the rest of the pack was the fact that they could write their own material -- and they were damn good at it. When the hits dried up for the original crop of Philadelphia-based teen idols, Frankie Avalon, Fabian and Bobby Rydell, they had neither a relationship with New York's legendary stable of writers and producers at the Brill Building, nor their own songwriting skills to fall back on. (Luckily for Frankie, an ex-Mouseketeer and a little something called Beach Party was looming in the B-movie future.) Sedaka and Pitney not only could theoretically save the best of their compositions for themselves, but they weren't exactly Scrooges in doling hits out to others. You may not consider yourself fans of either gentlemen, but if you've ever hummed along to "He's a Rebel" by the Crystals or "Hello, Mary Lou" by Ricky Nelson, you may thank Mr. Pitney. And for those of you who have sung along to "Stupid Cupid" or "Where the Boys Are" by Miss Connie Francis -- well, Neil Sedaka, songwriter, thanks you for the royalties.

We assume that Sedaka ignored the typo on his credit and laughed all the way to the bank.

The hits, of course, did eventually end, although once Beatlemania gripped the States, the end wasn't as swift as many would imagine for Sedaka and his ilk. If he was no longer reaching #1, Sedaka could still point to three mid-sized hits in 1964. He also remained in demand as a concert draw and, most interestingly, on television. Sedaka was enthusiastically received on teen dance programs from American Bandstand to more localized shows well into the second half of the 1960's. Sometimes he had a new single to promote, but more often than not, he would sing (or lip-sync) one of his greatest hits from several years back, while scores of mod-looking teens in mop tops and mini skirts frugged around him -- presumably the same ones who had sworn off anything remotely non-Liverpudlian. 
Neil Sedaka performing his 1962 #1 hit on local Miami, Florida television, 1966

There's a second act revival in the Sedaka saga, of course; a big rebound in the 1970's, helped along by an endorsement and encouragement from Elton John; writing and recording material that practically is a 1970's easy listening greatest hits rundown: "Solitaire," "Laughter in the Rain," "The Hungry Years," "Love Will Keep Us Together." But because here at Stirred, Straight Up, it is permanently 1962, we end our very small tribute to just one facet of Mr. Sedaka's accomplishments thus. We leave you with perhaps our favorite Neil Sedaka clip; it dates from late 1964, as he performs the "bubbling under" #104 hit, "I Hope He Breaks Your Heart." It's a relentlessly cheerful kiss-off ditty which manages to combine somewhat-dated Brill Building pop with vaguely Motown-ish flourishes, while our birthday boy seems to be practicing his Judy Garland gestures. Enjoy, darlings!


NEIL SEDAKA
March 13, 1939

9 comments:

  1. There is something about his appearance in the second video clip that reminds me of Jim Nabors. Now there's a random connection.

    Btw, good to see you back in the blog-o-sphere!

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  2. Yvonne - He seems very nice [I've seen him, from afar, at a few events ] -- and always full of joie de vivre.

    Scooter - Glad to be back!!!

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  3. Hello! I'm new for this blogspot...

    Congratulations! I see it's very interesting

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  4. I knew him and Leba in the 80's through my then boyfriend Dan Hartman, and they were lovely and so much fun.

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  5. I've had the pleasure of seeing him live.

    He sings in Italian too!

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  6. It should also be mentioned about Howie Greenfield, Neil's songwriting partner at Brill Building. Howie went on to write many other songs, you find his name on several tunes including theme for TV series Bewitched. Connie Francis was able to convince Joe Pasternak to have Howie and Neil do the song for Where The Boys Are. Joe at first was not convinced, why should he have two unknowns do a job he already had Sammy Cahn, Jimmy Van Heusen, Paul Francis Webster, and others to write music for the movie. Connie said she is not interested in doing the movie otherwise. Pasternak agreed but he needs the song in two days for the film production. Howie and Neil delivered two versions, one they loved and another they hated. MGM management chose the one they hated. Few years ago I asked Connie of the other version, she doesn't remember. I'd like to find out if Sedaka remembers. Howie died in 1980s, I heard he wrote a total of 400, he is in the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Great record you have with the typo of Neil's last name, a collector's item.

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    Replies
    1. Hi Michael,

      Thanks for your input! The main reason I didn't delve too much into Howie Greenfield's career is because this was a birthday post about Neil, and I'm such a fan of Greenfield's work, I would have gone off on a complete tangent and taken focus away. Love that story of how WTBA came to be; and about 10 years back, I saw Liza Minnelli in concert when Neil was in the audience. She sang an impromptu version of "Where the Boys Are" to him, and it was absolutely surreal. LOL. Thanks again for your comment!

      TJB

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    2. I want to add I first heard this from a tape of radio interview show with Charlie Mills on WPEN in 1997. Connie also described when she called her songwriting friends (who also got their big break writing another hit song for Connie couple years before), Howie and Neil's first reaction was "how can anyone write a song 'where the boys are'?" Connie insisted they could do it and which they did. Howie did the lyrics, Neil did the melody. Also couple years ago Neil and Connie were going to sing together on stage but Connie became ill and had to cancel, many in the audience cried because this would have been a monumental event. The two did appear together at later events though didn't sing.

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