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Jewish Journal

Singing Klezmer Isn’t Hard to Do

by David Finnigan

December 2, 2004 | 7:00 pm

Neil Sedaka is a punctual, polite musical legend, and at 65, he still likes being a mama's boy.

"I do. I like being protected," Sedaka said. He grew up in a loving Sephardic/Ashkenazic home in Brooklyn, where he practiced piano for hours. It was a sheltered Coney Island Avenue universe in which, "my sister fought my battles in school," Sedaka said. "To me, the raising of a voice was very jarring. My mother told me that everything I did was perfect."

When it comes to catchy tunes with perfect melodies, the world often has agreed with Mama Sedaka (now 88 and living in Ft. Lauderdale). And while having Andy Warhol paint your portrait and seeing one's songwriting skills praised in Bob Dylan's recent autobiography are great, it is the Yiddish songs he grew up listening to that now claim Sedaka's melodic soul.

His CD, "Brighton Beach Memories: Neil Sedaka Sings Yiddish," cost less than $10,000 to produce, prompted a Carnegie Hall concert last summer and is now coming to the Wilshire Theatre this weekend -- complete with a klezmer band. The show's second half will be from Sedaka's own large repertoire, with the show's first half dedicated to Yiddish tunes such as "My Yiddishe Mamme" and "Shein vi di L'Vone" ("Pretty as the Moon").

"I grew up on these songs. I wanted to do something that was close to my heart," Sedaka told The Journal in telephone interview from his Park Avenue apartment. "But I have to tell you that this CD has taken a life of its own."

Since dropping out of Juilliard in 1958, Sedaka's 1,000 songs have included nearly 50 hummable and singable hits, including "Love Will Keep Us Together," "Calendar Girl," "Stupid Cupid" and "Breaking Up Is Hard to Do." A product of Manhattan's 1960s Brill Building songwriting factory, his music has been sung by Frank Sinatra, Cher, Sheryl Crow, ABBA, David Cassidy, Mandy Moore and The Monkees. A hit single this year came out of "American Idol" -- Clay Aiken's rendition of "Solitaire."

"It's a big body of work," Sedaka said. His high baritone voice prompted a compliment decades ago from fellow Las Vegas Hilton staple Elvis Presley. "He said to me that when he was in the Army, he would go to the jukebox and sing the 'Sedaka songs,'" he said.

Sedaka has had a noteworthy place in American music for four decades; he became a comfortable perennial who did not let himself turn into a tortured titan like Sinatra or a forgettable one-hit wonder like The Imperials, Haircut 100 or Luscious Jackson.

One does not cringe when VH1 asks "Where Are They Now?" of Sedaka, because he usually has a hit somewhere, including at least one Billboard chart-topper each decade since 1958. Even while touring the Great Wall of China, the songwriter marveled at his Chinese guide singing one of his songs on the tour bus, the tour guide then refusing to believe Sedaka when he identified himself.

His hit-making consistency and songwriting discipline also have made him a man entirely lacking in public scandal. His work is remembered more than anything else, overshadowing even his enviable 42-year marriage to fellow New Yorker Leba Strassberg. The couple, who met in the Catskills, have two children -- daughter Dara, a recording artist, and son Marc, an L.A. screenwriter -- and twin granddaughters, Amanda and Charlotte.

He also finds Israeli audiences enjoying him when he sings Hebrew versions of his hits; his decidedly "charitable" last name (tzedaka means charity), he said, "has been very helpful."

Yet, Sedaka admits that for all the pop hits he has written and heard played, hummed or sung in elevators, supermarkets and cocktail lounges, writing pop music is not bubblegum and can require as much elaborate creation as a Bach symphony.

"The hardest thing is to write a simple melody," he said. "I do wish that I could write something a little more complicated, but it's not me; it's not my makeup. I'm very disciplined. It was kind of a long, long career. It never went to my head."

His evergreen tunes (before Aiken, Elvis recorded "Solitaire") means Sedaka has not had to work the '50s hits revival circuit.

"I love oldies, but I never had to do those shows," the songwriter said.

Sedaka's choice of rock 'n' roll and pop over classical notes initially irked his mother, who saw her baby as the next Arthur Rubinstein. When someone suggested that young Neil, with his unique high voice, become a chazan, his mother dismissed that, too, insisting he would be a concert pianist.

But success smiled on his mother's dashed dreams when at 19, his songwriting brought in royalties of $42,000.

"I bought her a mink stole," Sedaka said. "That made the difference. We call it her Hadassah tallit."

Neil Sedaka performs Saturday, Dec. 4 at 8 p.m, and Sunday, Dec. 5 at 2 p.m. at the Wilshire Theatre, 8440 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. Tickets are $35-$55 with an eight-ticket limit. For more information, call (323) 468-1770 or go to www.neilsedaka.com.

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