Mark Silver chats to legendary performer Neil Sedaka, who returns to the UK this month for a seven-day tour.
I don’t think you’ll be hearing this one on the radio… but it was a lovely touch just the same.
Here I was, interviewing Neil Sedaka and, without any prompting from me, the brilliant entertainer suddenly burst into song…
“Tra la-la-la-la la-la-la-la… Happy birthday sweet Rosie…”
…No, Sedaka hasn’t lost his marbles!
We had got around to talking birthdays – Sedaka was 75 this year but still as enthusiastic as ever about his forthcoming UK tour, including an appearance at the Royal Albert Hall this month alongside the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.
I had just mentioned in passing that my favourite auntie was celebrating her 70th birthday and the singer-songwriter suddenly made a few impromptu alterations to his 1961 hit in tribute, he said, to “dear Rosie”.
I can’t think of many big names that would have done that. Auntie hasn’t stopped telling the neighbours.
But as Sedaka explained: “I want to be known as a human being, for being a nice guy. I came from a poor family, my father drove a cab for a living, but I know where I come from and I am very proud of my Jewish heritage.
“It is important to remember your roots and don’t take things for granted. I work very hard and I am proud of what I have achieved.”
His steely determination no doubt comes from his Jewish parents. While his father drove around New York in his taxi, his mother proved a resilient character, working all hours in a department store to earn the cash to pay for his first piano as her son excelled as a classical pianist.
However, it was Sedaka’s love of rock ‘n’ roll – which ultimately made him millions – that cost him big-time before he had even earned a dime.
He explained: “I had every intention of becoming a classical pianist and had won several competitions. Then I entered the Tchaikovsky piano competition [in Moscow] and sent off a tape to Russia. I was accepted but, a couple of weeks before I was due to go to Russia, I was disqualified because they found out I was affiliated to capitalist American rock ‘n’ roll, in that I had started to write popular music.”
That setback was small fry compared with the news he soon learned about his mother, Eleanor, who had a lover.
If that wasn’t bad enough, the man involved was his manager and the two lovebirds were financing a lavish lifestyle with Sedaka’s earnings.
“I know it sounds odd, but my sister and I came to terms with Mum having a lover as long as she was happy and my Dad accepted it. Don’t get me wrong, it was a big shock, but I wanted her to be happy.”
However, Eleanor eventually broke off the affair and ended up being married to Sedaka’s father for 47 years.
His own marriage is rather less dramatic. He has enjoyed 51 years with Leba and they have two children, Dara and Marc.
Dara almost followed her father into show business and, in 1980, they enjoyed a top-20 single together, Should’ve Never Let You Go. “We had one big hit and I thought she would follow me into the business, but she decided not to in the end. Not everyone is cut out for it,” he admitted.
Marc, meanwhile, was not so keen on his father’s work at one point. The screenwriter from Los Angeles was driving home after having had a row with his girlfriend and put the radio on to cheer himself up.
As Sedaka picks up the story: “There was his father singing Breaking Up Is Hard To Do and he telephoned me and said: ‘My own father has to haunt me after such an emotional experience’.”
But the story had a happy ending as the couple got back together and have now been married for 14 years, giving Sedaka three grandchildren. “I have three gorgeous bubbelehs, twin girls of 11 and a boy of eight,” he smiled.
The singer is a family man, but admitted: “I’m not a religious person, I’m a spiritual person. I was barmitzvah’d but now I only go to synagogue on the High Holy days.”
Yet the American star is particularly proud of his work on Brighton Beach Memories – a selection of tracks sung in Yiddish. “It was my little way to preserve the Yiddish language and the songs, some of which are 100 years old and more.”
Sedaka has made records in six languages, including Hebrew, Italian and even Japanese. “I have a musical ear and the words are written out phonetically for me, so it’s not too difficult,” he assured me. And he is relishing the chance to share his great music – in English, this time – on his latest UK tour, which takes in London followed by six other venues and runs between 23 October to 4 November.
“I’ll be singing my old songs and also some new,” he said. “I like to tell a lot of stories as well – and try to make my concerts very intimate… up close and personal.”
• For tickets and venue details, call 0844 888 9991 or visit www.ticketline.co.uk