Neil Sedaka, the charming and talented singer who has been married to the love of his life for nearly 61 years, has very little personal experience with the difficulty of breaking up, as he affectionately expresses in his iconic song “Breaking Up is Hard to Do.”
Celebrating his 84th birthday recently, Sedaka, renowned for his captivating vocals and the heartwarming lyrics of his songs, is overflowing with love for his grandchildren. He fondly states that he feels like he was “born married” to his wife. It’s impossible not to adore Neil Sedaka, considering the immense joy he has brought to us over the years through his exceptional singing and magnetic presence.
A natural talent, Sedaka, who has written and recorded some of the most unforgettable melodies in pop history, shares that as a child, he was initially embarrassed to sing in front of others because his voice was remarkably high. However, during his bar mitzvah, when he finally showcased his vocal abilities, the rabbi was moved to tears.
At the young age of 13, Sedaka, a classically trained pianist attending Julliard’s Preparatory for Children through a Saturday scholarship program, formed a musical partnership with Howard Greenfield, who was 16 at the time. Together, they composed songs for Sedaka’s school band, the Linc-Tones, which later transformed into the Tokens. Their collaboration took place in New York’s historic Brill Building, where they worked tirelessly to create chart-topping hits like Sedaka’s “Breaking Up is Hard to Do,” Captain & Tenille’s “Love Will Keep Us Together,” and Connie Francis’ “Stupid Cupid.”
Sedaka recalls their humble working conditions, confined to a cubicle with a piano and a bench but no window. Only after they achieved a hit song did they earn a room with a window. They dedicated their days from 9 am to 5 pm to writing music, followed by playing their compositions for representatives from record labels. It was challenging, yet a truly rewarding experience that honed their skills.
Neil Sedaka was the first artist in the Brill Building to record his own songs and the first to enter the Top 10 with his hit song “Oh! Carol” (1959), inspired by his high school girlfriend, Carole King.
The collaboration between Greenfield and Sedaka continued until the mid-70s when Greenfield, who openly identified as gay, tragically passed away from complications related to AIDS in 1986.
Meanwhile, Sedaka, at the age of 19, departed from the Tokens just before the band achieved immense fame in 1961 with hits like “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and “Tonight I Fell in Love.” Embarking on a solo career, Sedaka initially struggled to find chart success, with his first three releases failing to make an impact. However, one song allowed him to appear on American Bandstand with Dick Clark, ultimately leading to a recording contract.
In 1958, Sedaka’s breakthrough came with his hit single “The Diary,” inspired by Connie Francis’ diary, as he was curious to delve into its contents. The song peaked at number 14 on the Billboard Top 100. Two years later, in 1960, Sedaka released “Calendar Girl,” his sixth hit in just two years, solidifying his popularity and soaring to great heights.
In 1962, Sedaka married Leba Strassberg, whom he met while performing at the now-defunct Esther Manor resort in the Catskills Mountains, NY. Leba’s mother, Esther, co-owned the resort and initially disapproved of her daughter’s relationship with a mere musician. Despite the disapproval, Sedaka and Leba remained together, navigating the challenges posed by both Esther and Sedaka’s mother, Eleanor Sedaka.
Eleanor, who once revealed that she rode rollercoasters during her pregnancy with Neil, hoping for a miscarriage, was determined to steer her son toward a career as a classical pianist rather than a pop star. However, her opinion changed drastically when Sedaka received a royalty check of $62,000 for “Stupid Cupid.” Eleanor’s lover eventually gained control over Sedaka’s rights as an artist, including his royalties and finances, which led to the misuse of his hard-earned money. They squandered hundreds of thousands of dollars, leaving Sedaka and his wife in a dire financial situation, unable to pay taxes and starting anew from scratch.
Sedaka made the difficult decision to sever ties with his mother’s boyfriend. Eleanor, unable to bear the conflict between her son and her lover, almost overdosed on sleeping pills. She later expressed her ignorance regarding the source of the money they were spending, leading to a year-long estrangement between mother and son. During that period, Sedaka’s devoted wife stepped in as his new manager.
Just as Sedaka was on the verge of financial stability, The Beatles emerged and disrupted his popularity in the United States. Despite this setback, Sedaka continued to write music for others and eventually relocated with Leba and their children, Dara and Marc, to London, the epicenter of the music industry at the time.
Reflecting on his dwindling fame, Sedaka humorously recounts how people would approach him on the street and ask, “Didn’t you used to be Neil Sedaka?” Undeterred, he confidently assured them that he was still Neil Sedaka and that they hadn’t heard the last of him. To adapt to the changing musical landscape of the early ’70s, he met an up-and-coming musician named Elton John at a London party. This encounter led to Sedaka signing with Elton John’s former label, the Rocket Record Company.
True to its name, Sedaka’s fame skyrocketed with the release of his 1974 album “Sedaka’s Back,” the first of three albums produced with Elton John. His chart success in the United States was once again restored. In 1983, he was rightfully inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and later, he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
In 2003, Sedaka made a guest appearance as a judge on American Idol, and the show’s season two runner-up, Clay Aiken, recorded and released Sedaka’s 1972 song “Solitaire,” which became the top-selling single of 2004.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Sedaka turned to social media to entertain his fans by releasing mini concerts. In September, on his 60th anniversary with Leba, he shared a special concert featuring three songs he had composed for her. This heartwarming tribute was dedicated to his beloved wife, Leba. Sedaka also joined the Cameo platform, where he eagerly takes requests to deliver personalized messages for birthdays, anniversaries, and other special occasions. His enduring popularity is evident in the praise and admiration he receives from fans, who express their lifelong connection to his music.
While continuing to bring joy to listeners worldwide, Sedaka remains primarily focused on his wife and family. He asserts that he was “born married” and considers having a devoted companion as a great gift. As a doting grandfather to his three grandchildren, including a set of twins, Sedaka cherishes the love and support he receives from his loved ones.
Regarding his successful career, Sedaka humbly admits that he could have achieved even greater fame if he had been more controversial. However, he takes pride in his talent, his hunger for fame, and the undeniable success he has attained throughout his musical journey.