Richard McComb meets songwriter and performer Neil Sedaka, an all-American original who says it's the need to be loved which still fires his passions in the twilight of his career.
“Oooh, I hear laughter in the rain...”
If you are in your 30s, or younger, you may be struggling with the popular music reference.
If, however, you are of a superior vintage, you will recognise the lyrical refrain from the heyday of golden, sugar-sweet 70s pop.
The guy who wrote and sang Laughter in the Rain is now 73 years old and he is standing 15 yards from me at the entrance to the Palm Court, inside The Langham in central London. It’s a very showbiz setting with sparkly, studded walls, Art Deco mirrors, plush reds and cool blues. But then Neil Sedaka is very showbiz. It’s what he does. To quote Lady Gaga, whose voice Sedaka admires, he was born this way.
I’ll tell you a secret. I have pictured this moment, just me and Neil, for many years, decades even. Sedaka would be dressed in a snow-white tuxedo with a matching dickie bow. His arms would be outstretched, in triumph, his face flashing a blinding smile. That’s how he looks on that album, the one from my childhood: Neil Sedaka Live At The Royal Festival Hall 1974.
The album was one of a handful of cassettes my parents had in our car in the mid 70s. (Yes, cassettes. Remember them?) There was Glen Campbell’s Greatest Hits, Charlie Rich’s Behind Closed Doors and Neil Sedaka Live... The tapes played on a loop. Ok, it wasn’t The Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin, but when you are eight that doesn’t really matter. And now it matters even less. It is the memories and the associations that count. And the melodies. Me and Mr Sedaka have a shared history. It’s just that he doesn’t know it.
I wouldn’t exactly say he was an idol, but he represents something very special. Looking at him now, in the flesh, in this glamorous hotel lounge, it is like a kindly, benevolent ghost from the past has stepped into October 2012. It is a surreal experience.
Unfortunately, he is not wearing the white suit I always envisaged. Sedaka is decked out in a purple, houndstooth pull-over, loose black tracksuit bottoms and trainers. He has a baseball cap in his hand. He could be any American septuagenarian tourist. Except there is an aura about him, a celebrity aura, and that’s just how he likes it.
Sedaka is the comeback kid who keeps coming back. Following chart success in the early 1960s, recording with a string of hits including Breaking Up Is Hard To Do, Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen and Calendar Girl, the former concert pianist’s popularity waned as The Beatles headed the British Invasion of America. A clean-cut Sedaka, who had already sold a reputed 40 million records, wasn’t edgy enough.
His career received a second boost in the 1970s, when Sedaka was re-launched by Elton John. Captain and Tennille had the biggest hit of 1975 with Sedaka’s Love Will Keep Us Together. Almost 30 years later, his classic ballad Solitaire was one of the biggest selling US singles of 2004 thanks to Sedaka’s involvement with American Idol.
And who holds the UK record for the top selling single of the 21st century? Sedaka again, thanks to Peter Kaye and Tony Christie giving a new lease of the life to 1971’s (Is This the Way to) Amarillo?
Sedaka is back in the UK to promote his latest album, The Real Neil, which contains new compositions, some old favourites and the writer’s first piano concerto. Manhattan Intermezzo apart, The Real Neil is the star’s first acoustic album. It fulfils his desire to perform the pure form of song, just his voice and the piano, because that is how he has always created his music.
“The trick is to raise the level of Neil Sedaka, reinvent Neil Sedaka,” says the star in his distinctive voice – soft, lilting, but unmistakably Brooklyn.
He will be performing tracks from the album and his back catalogue at Symphony Hall, Birmingham, on Monday.
The Real Neil’s stripped back production is a brave move for any singer, but for one in his 70s it is borderline insane. There is no hiding place for below-par vocals. Fortunately, Sedaka has taken precious care of his larynx. He avoids noisy rooms so he doesn’t have to shout to be heard. He stays away from the chilly blast of air conditioning units. He orders room temperature water: “I don’t have ice in drinks. No ice.”
The performer also reveals his secret to a great live show – a single vodka before he takes to the stage. He admits other performers will disagree about the effects of alcohol on the vocal chords, but it loosens him up.
“It relaxes not only the voice but the mind,” says Sedaka. “You have to be relaxed. The audience can pick up that you’re tense. It takes courage to go out and do two-and-a-half hours of 40 songs, to remember the words, to remember the piano parts.”
What if he forgets the lyrics? “I wrote them, so if I miss a word I’ll change them. But I can remember hundreds and hundreds of songs.”
He looks in good shape, with a neat bulging belly. He says he is tired after a string of media interviews and a television appearance on Later... With Jools Holland, which he loved but missed his vodka. He couldn’t be a more obliging interviewee though. I ask him why he still does it, all the recording, the travelling, touring, staying in hotels, although five-star The Langham isn’t exactly a hardship. Couldn’t he be putting his feet up at one of his homes in New York and Los Angeles? Sedaka says the “creative drive” won’t allow him. He says he needs to “raise the level of Neil Sedaka” but he also talks of a facet of his character that I suspect is hugely significant. Could it be that he still feels the need to be liked? The answer is emphatic.
“Yes. I think the greatest performers have that vulnerability. They want to be loved. ‘Here I am. Please say that you like me.’ Even now,” says Sedaka. “When I go into a room full of people at a cocktail party, if they don’t recognise me – most of the time they do – it feels very ordinary. If they come up and say, ‘We love this song or that song’ then I’m special.