NEW YORK (Reuters) - As Neil Sedaka puts it, he’s the king of tra-la-las and doo-be-doos.
And why not? When Tin Pan Alley ruled the world of pop music, Sedaka was one of the songwriters churning out hits in New York’s legendary Brill Building that helped pre-Beatles teenagers go to the hop, fall in love and break up.
The singer also topped the charts as a teen idol in his own right with “Happy Birthday, Sweet Sixteen,” “Oh! Carol,” “Calendar Girl,” and “Breaking Up is Hard to Do,” selling 35 million records in the early days of rock ‘n’ roll.
Now, 50 years later, with over 1,000 songs to his credit, he has recorded “The Music of My Life,” an album of original songs he performs that hit stores on Tuesday.
“I’ve raised the level of Neil Sedaka; after 57 years of writing, these are some of the best songs I’ve ever written,” he told Reuters in an interview at his Manhattan apartment.
No “Moon in June” simplicity now though, these are ballads and love songs that are introspective or funny, with lush arrangements or Sedaka’s trademark piano sound.
“Last year I had a great flow of creativity and in four months I wrote the 12 songs.”
That number is slow by Sedaka’s early standards, considering he used to turn out two or three songs a day at the famous Brill Building on Broadway, working with lyricist Howie Greenfield.
That’s where tunesmith teams such as Leiber and Stoller, Goffin and King, Mann and Weill and Bacharach and David toiled in cubicles rented by music publishers, writing the soundtrack of the fledgling rock ‘n roll generation.
“We wrote from 10 in the morning to five in the afternoon, five days a week. It was a great way to learn your craft,” Sedaka recalled. “And if you had a mental block one day, if you had a piece of a song, you’d save it for the next day.
“I brought Carole King there, she was my girlfriend for two minutes,” he laughed. “We were paid $50 a week.”
KING OF DOO-BE-DOS
“We mastered the art of the 2-1/2 minute song. In those days, 45 rpm’s had to be 2-1/2 minutes, and you had to tell the whole story from beginning to end.”
Sedaka’s signature song, “Breaking Up is Hard to Do,” with its intro: “Doo-doo, doo-doo down doo-be do-down, down/come on come on/Down doo-be do-down, down,” hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1962. He re-recorded it as a ballad in 1975 and it landed atop the Adult Contemporary record chart.
Reminded of the lyrics, Sedaka laughed. “Tra-la-las and doo-be-do’s became a Neil Sedaka trademark. I was the king of the tra-la-las and doo-be-do’s in the ‘50s and ‘60s. But then when I re-recorded ‘Breaking Up,’ I started with a verse, instead of the doo-be-do’s!”
Pop charts in the ‘50s were dominated by singers performing songs written for them — before singer-songwriters and the Beatles changed the business by performing their own material.
“We were very ethereal, we had songs about angels and stairways. It had to have a very catchy tune, with a catchy beat that you can dance to,” said Sedaka.
“(Now) You have to try and top yourself and write something new and fresh, and that’s the reason I’ve lasted more than 50 years. My songs lie somewhere in between the evergreen standards, rock ‘n’ roll and pop.”
Brooklyn-born Sedaka, now 70, said that as a teenager he studied classical piano at the Juilliard School by day and wrote pop songs by night, selling them to Atlantic Records.
His big break came in 1958, at age 19, when he auditioned at RCA Victor, which recorded Presley. The song he sang, “The Diary.” became a hit and suddenly he was a pop star.
“I was a teenage idol but not the one that the girls would put up on their walls, like Fabian and Frankie Avalon. I was more cerebral, like a Roy Orbison or a Buddy Holly. I was one of the few who could write songs.”
His parents, he said, were “horrified.” His father, a Spanish Jew, worked as a New York City cab driver for 30 years. His mother took a job in a department store to help pay for his first piano and to put him through Juilliard.
“It’s wonderful to play a Beethoven sonata, but it’s much nicer to be able to sing your own compositions.”
But after the Beatles, the Brill songwriting factory became obsolete. “I had to change, I had to write songs that were more mature. Songs that painted pictures, that were introspective.
“I had to appeal to the people who liked Cat Stevens and Joni Mitchell and Gordon Lightfoot,” Sedaka said.
Now, after 47 years of marriage, he’s a grandfather three times over, but still writing music, including some classical pieces. “I have inner peace, I have accomplished a great deal.
“(But) I would love to write for (Barbra) Streisand. I visited her home once and played for three hours and she said ‘wonderful,’ but she never took any of them!
“I like that runner-up on ‘American Idol’ — Adam Lambert. I’d love to have him do one of mine,” said Sedaka.
Editing by Bob Tourtellotte