Before veteran entertainer Neil Sedaka conquered the world as a pop singer, he initially aspired to find acclaim as a classical pianist. A child prodigy awarded a scholarship to the Juilliard School of Music, Sedaka was selected at the age of 16 as one of New York City's finest young classical pianists by legendary musician Arthur Rubinstein. He even played Prokofiev's "Third Sonata" live on New York's classical station, WQXR-FM.
A subsequent invitation to perform in the Soviet Union at the International Tchaikovsky Competition was suddenly withdrawn when the Russian authorities discovered Sedaka was also a rock 'n' roller.
"I auditioned and sent a tape and they accepted me, but a few weeks before I was to fly to Moscow they heard I was affiliated with capitalistic American rock 'n' roll and I was disqualified," Sedaka reports.
Classically trained, rock ’n’ roll innovator, NEIL SEDAKA has been an American original for 50 years
Cover art from a Willie K classic
The composer of a string of pop hits from "Breaking Up is Hard to Do" and "Happy Birthday Sweet 16" to "Love Will Keep Us Together" and "Solitaire," Sedaka has enjoyed a successful career spanning six decades. Selling millions of records and scoring many platinum and gold albums, he's earned a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and even had a street named after him in his native Brighton Beach, Brooklyn.
Still delighting audiences today Sedaka tours half the year. "Neil Sedaka might be 64, but his voice hasn't aged since he was teenage pop star in the '50s and '60s," praised a Las Vegas Sun review. "The voice is as smooth, clear and strong as ever. Sedaka doesn't merely sing well for his age, he sings well for any age."
Destined for stardom, as a young boy Sedaka would buy 45-rpm records and rub out the artist's name, emblazoning the label with his own name.
* The Willie Kahaiali'i Ohana Christmas show will be presented at 7:30 p.m. Saturday in Castle Theater at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center. Tickets are $12, $28, and $37, and half-price for kids 12 and younger. Pre-show food by the Ka'anapali Beach Hotel and beverages will be available starting at 5:30 p.m. in the Yokouchi Founders Courtyard. Tickets available as above.
"I would scratch out the name of the artist and writer and put Neil Sedaka to see how it looked," he reveals. "I was so driven and so ambitious that I started writing songs at 13. I wanted it with a vengeance. Everyone at that time wanted to be a rock 'n' roll star."
As a teenager, Sedaka earned his first hit, "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," in 1958, singing with the group the Tokens. The same year Connie Francis recorded his song "Stupid Cupid," with Sedaka playing piano. The song became an international hit. Teaming with lyricist Howard Greenfield between 1959 and 1963, Sedaka sold more than 25 million records. But with the advent of the "British Invasion" his star dimmed.
During the late '60s and early '70s, Sedaka focused on songwriting for the likes of Johnny Mathis, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and The Carpenters. A move to England led to a meeting with one of his fans, rock star Elton John, who encouraged Sedaka to sign with his newly formed Rocket Records label. Backed by the 10 cc musicians Sedaka recorded the single "Laughter in the Rain," which ended up selling sold more than a million copies in 1975. A few months later, he earned another hit, accompanied by John on backing vocals, with the uptempo "Bad Blood."
"I met him in the U.K. at a Bee Gees concert," Sedaka recalls. "He was starting a record company and was a fan of my old records. He heard I was recording with 10cc and came over to my flat and was so moved he said, 'These songs are wonderful. I'm going to make you a star in America again.' "
In 2007, Sedaka celebrated 50 years in show business, with a special concert featuring some of the artists who have recorded his material including Natalie Cole, Clay Aiken, the Captain & Tenille and David Foster. "It was a great tribute," he says. "It's been a great career, I'm part of the history of American rock 'n' roll."
Sedaka is now reaching out to kids. In January, he will release a children's album, "Waking Up is Hard to Do," a collection of his classic songs reinvented. "I rewrote the words to my old hits," he explains. "So one is 'Waking Up is Hard to Do' instead of 'Breaking Up,' and there's 'Lunch Will Keep Us Together' instead of 'Love,' and 'Where The Toys Are' instead of 'Boys.' I had a lot of fun doing it. My 5-year-old granddaughters are singing the doo-wop background."
And he's now joined the ranks of stars like Queen, KISS, the Black Eyed Peas and Miley Cyrus, with his own Tooth Tunes Musical Toothbrush, which plays of course, "Waking Up is Hard to Do."
In November, he rereleased "The Miracle of Christmas," an album of classic holiday songs and original compositions first heard in 2005. Interpreting standards like "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas," "Winter Wonderland" and "Silent Night," a second disc of new holiday songs includes "A Christmas Miracle," "Happy New Year Baby" and "Razzle Dazzle Christmas."
"I love the old classics but I wanted to try my hand at writing new Christmas songs," he notes. "It's a big undertaking. The reaction has been wonderful."
Next up, he plans a new recording with help from legendary producer David Foster, who has worked with the likes of Whitney Houston, Cher, Madonna and Michael Jackson.
"I'm very hopeful that Sedaka will be back again, record-wise," he says. "I wrote a new collection of 12 songs, and David Foster produced the first track, a salsa which I sing half in English and half in Spanish. I will sing it on Maui as I have the backing track. It's probably the most exciting record I've had in many years."
Returning to Maui for a solo concert on Friday Sedaka concludes: "I start with a video of some of the important singers who have covered my songs from Elvis Presley and Bobby Darin to Frank Sinatra and Sheryl Crow. It's a show from A to Z. I do the old songs and some new and some classical piano."
* Neil Sedaka performs at 7:30 p.m. Friday in Castle Theater at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center. Tickets are $25, $30, $37.50 and $45, plus applicable fees. A limited number of VIP tickets are available. Purchase tickets at the MACC box office, 242-7469 or www.mauiarts.org.
The last time we checked in with Willie K, this prolific artist was contemplating releasing a handful of recordings reflecting the many facets of his prodigious talent including a blues album, a reggae album, a Hawaiian CD, a collection of pop classics, and the Pacific-Mediterranean fusion project Lima Wela with Joe Cano and Avi Ronen. After his debut on Oahu last moth with the Hawaii Youth Symphony, maybe we'll see an opera collection.
"It was incredible," Willie says about his operatic performance. "It was a recital. I was doing opera standards, like pure Italian music. I wasn't making up words. For the first time in a long time, I was actually nervous on stage. I really had to pull it off."
Opera Willie will rejoin the Hawaii Youth Symphony for a Castle Theater concert in February. "People are really going to freak out," he continues.
On Saturday he will celebrate Christmas with a special concert at the MACC.
"This time we're going to feature the whole family. It's going to be an ohana Kahaiali'i Christmas, not your normal Willie K Christmas show," he explains. "All my brothers and sisters will be there; even my brother from Washington state is coming over with his halau. It's really different. All the ideas are family orientated."
Back in 1999, he produced his immensely popular "Willie Kalikimaka" album, which included beautiful versions of "Silent Night" and "O Holy Night," and an inspired duet with Willie Nelson on "Away In a Manger." Topping the local charts when it was released, it ranks as a timeless island classic.
No doubt we'll hear some selections from this seasonal favorite.
"The second half we'll have some special guests," he says. "I've got to give the audience the Willie K thing, too."