Neil Sedaka interview: ‘My music makes people very happy’

Spanning the pop music years… Neil Sedaka
Spanning the pop music years… Neil Sedaka
Spanning the pop music years… Neil Sedaka

pete-wise-headshotPete Wise talks to a one man hit factory about music, going in and out of fashion and his love affair with Britain


Neil Sedaka is a living, breathing example of the simple fact that if you’re doing what you love, you’re good at what you do and you possess the tenacity to ride out the hard times, you’re in with a chance of coming out on top.

Sedaka’s career in the music industry has spanned over six decades, during which time he has penned over 700 original pop compositions, including Seventies classic and wildcard 21st Century hit Is This The Way To Amarillo?, as well as many trans-Atlantic solo chart-toppers performed by Sedaka himself.

He hit punishing lows as Beatlemania and later, disco swept the United States in the mid-Sixties and late Seventies, but these “hungry years” were sandwiched between remarkable runs of success as a performing artist and songwriter, which have helped Sedaka to retain his popularity and relevance to this day.

This living pop legend touches down on British soil once again this autumn, for a UK tour which visits the York Barbican on October 25.

We gave Neil a call to learn more about the concert, the secrets of pop songwriting and a great career in music.

Hi Neil! Will this be your first trip to York?

I’ve been coming since 1961! During UK tours I’ve mostly been to Manchester, York, Glasgow, Birmingham, London… I’ve been doing so for many, many years – it’s a love affair between Neil Sedaka and the UK.

Is Britain a home from home for you?

Y’know, it was responsible for my great comeback in 1975 in America. Elton John became my friend in England in the early Seventies – he was a fan and was starting a record company called Rocket Records, and he signed me to the label.

After 13 years of being off the charts, working very little, I had a remarkable comeback with several number one records.

Why was the UK the place for your comeback?

The people of the UK are very respectful of the original American rock ’n’ rollers. In the early years they could only hear the American records on Radio Luxembourg – a far-off pirate station – so there was a great love of the originals – Roy Orbison and Buddy Holly, Gene Pitney…

What will you be playing in York?

It’s a very long, intimate concert, and I’ve chosen songs from the Fifties, Sixties, Seventies, the greatest hits of Neil Sedaka and some new songs, so it’s a very varied programme.

How do you invest so much emotion in a song?

I studied at the Juilliard School Of Music in New York. I studied theory and harmony, literature and theories of music. I had a piano scholarship – I thought at that time I was going to be a concert pianist – so I have a very extensive musical background, more than the rock’n’rollers of the day had.

So your music is as much European classical as US rock?

It’s a bit of both – my first songs were recorded by r’n’b and blues singers on Atlantic Records, and then of course I have songs that were inspired by pieces that I played on piano by Chopin, Schubert and Schumann.

Also I’m inspired by George Gershwin and Irving Berlin, so my music is a mixture, it’s kind of in between evergreen standards from the Forties, to doo-wop music in the Fifties, rock’n’roll in the Sixties… it’s an interesting combination of many different styles.

What’s the secret of your success?

I started at the Brill Building in New York in the 1950s, so I was taught to write singable, hummable, catchy tunes with “surprise chords” – emotional chords – so the thing that I try to portray is something that stays with you, is catchy hummable and singable, but that still is not predictable. It goes in different directions.

Are you always striving to surprise?

Yes, I try very hard to differentiate in my writing. Bad Blood is completely different from Solitaire, which is completely different from Breaking Up Is Hard To Do, which is completely different from That’s When The Music Takes Me.

I made a conscious effort not to repeat myself, and I think that’s the reason I’ve been around for so many years, because I like to reinvent Neil Sedaka and raise the bar.

There’s more than one Neil Sedaka era…

That’s right, one develops and grows and matures. The early songs were very naive – very catchy, very cute, you can understand all the lyrics, but they were very naive, like Oh! Carol.

I’m still very proud of each period, and I think the proof is that people still come out and pay money to hear me sing my songs, without any gimmicks, without any funny clothes or fireworks, or explosions or things of that nature.

What can people expect at the Barbican show?

To be entertained; to experience memories, nostalgia; to hear new songs; to see someone who loves what he does…

I think music can be very therapeutic – I get many emails from all over the world from people who are emotionally or physically ill, and the music has brought them up and made them very happy.