Having spent almost 61 years married to the love of his life, Neil Sedaka can certainly attest that “Breaking Up is Hard to Do.” Celebrating his 84th birthday recently, the charming crooner who once serenaded us with his melodious tunes now finds his heart overflowing with affection for his grandchildren, proudly declaring that he was practically “born married to his wife.”
It’s nearly impossible not to adore Neil Sedaka. Over the years, this exceptionally talented singer has graced us with his soulful voice and charismatic presence. Yet, it might surprise you to learn that, as a child, Neil was somewhat hesitant to perform in front of an audience. He once admitted, “I knew I had a remarkable voice, but I was embarrassed because it was so high.” However, his early doubts didn’t hold him back, as he moved the rabbi to tears with his performance at his bar mitzvah.
At the tender age of 13, Neil Sedaka, a classically trained pianist who had attended the Saturday scholarship program at Julliard’s Preparatory for Children, formed a musical partnership with 16-year-old Howard Greenfield. Together, they composed songs for Sedaka’s school band, the Linc-Tones, a group that would eventually transform into the Tokens.
From their humble workspace in New York’s historic Brill Building, the duo went on to craft chart-topping hits such as Sedaka’s iconic “Breaking Up is Hard to Do,” Captain & Tenille’s “Love Will Keep Us Together,” and Connie Francis’ “Stupid Cupid.” Neil fondly reminisced about those days, saying, “We had a cubicle with a piano and a bench but no window. You only got a room with a window after you’d had a hit song.” The pair earned a modest $50 a week, and their daily routine involved dedicated hours of songwriting and presenting their creations to record label representatives. It was challenging, yet Sedaka considered it excellent training.
Neil Sedaka holds the distinction of being the first artist at the Brill Building to record his own songs, and he was also the first to achieve Top 10 success with his hit “Oh! Carol” in 1959, inspired by his high school sweetheart, Carole King. The fruitful collaboration between Greenfield and Sedaka persisted until the mid-70s when Howard Greenfield, who was openly gay, tragically succumbed to complications from AIDS in 1986.
As for Sedaka, at the age of 19, he parted ways with The Tokens before the band reached the pinnacle of fame in 1961 with hits like “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and “Tonight I Fell in Love.” However, Neil’s solo career was about to take off. His first three releases didn’t chart, but he did earn a spot on “American Bandstand” with Dick Clark and soon secured a recording contract.
“The Diary” marked Neil’s first hit single, reaching number 14 on the Billboard Top 100 in 1958. The song was inspired by Connie Francis’ diary, as Sedaka was curious to peek into that little book. In 1960, he released “Calendar Girl,” his sixth hit in just two years, propelling his popularity to new heights. In 1962, Neil married Leba Strassberg, a woman he had met while performing at the now-defunct Esther Manor resort in the Catskills Mountains, NY. Despite Leba’s mother, Esther, co-owning the resort, she disapproved of her daughter’s involvement with a mere musician.
Esther’s resistance did little to deter the couple, who had to contend with the interference of another strong-willed mother, Eleanor Sedaka. In earlier years, Eleanor had admitted to riding roller coasters while pregnant, hoping for a miscarriage, in an attempt to steer her son toward a career as a classical pianist rather than a pop star. “She soon changed her mind when I got a royalty cheque for $62,000 for ‘Stupid Cupid,'” Sedaka revealed. Unfortunately, Neil made the error of entrusting the money to his mother, who, along with her lover, later assumed control over most of his rights as an artist, including royalties and finances.
Neil recounted, “My father knew about him and accepted him, so after the initial shock, so did I. I even understood it, in a way. My parents lived in two rooms with nine other relatives, and my dad was very thrifty, whereas the other man bought her jewels and furs and took her to nice places.” However, they were living the high life with Neil’s earnings, going through hundreds of thousands of dollars. This left Neil and his wife in a precarious financial situation, struggling even to pay their taxes. They had to rebuild their lives from the ground up. Eventually, Neil had to part ways with his mother’s boyfriend, and Eleanor nearly overdosed on sleeping pills because she couldn’t bear to see her son and her lover in conflict. She admitted that she hadn’t realized it was Neil’s money they were spending, and it took a year before Neil would speak to her again.
During this trying time, Neil’s devoted wife, Leba, stepped into the role of his manager. Just as Neil was on the cusp of making a significant income, the emergence of The Beatles disrupted his popularity in the U.S. Nevertheless, he continued to compose music for others. His fading chart success in the United States compelled him to relocate to London, the epicenter of the music industry, with Leba and their children, Dara and Marc.
Reflecting on his declining fame, Sedaka said, “Well, I used to walk down the street and people asked, ‘Didn’t you used to be Neil Sedaka?’ I said, ‘well, I’m still Neil Sedaka, you haven’t heard the last of me.’ I had to change my style. It was the early ‘70s, and I met a guy by the name of Elton John. Did you ever hear of him?” Neil encountered the singer of “I’m Still Standing” at a party in London, and he was soon invited to join John’s former label, the Rocket Record Company.
True to its name, the label propelled Neil Sedaka back to stardom with his 1974 album “Sedaka’s Back,” the first of three albums he recorded with Elton John. His songs once again graced the U.S. charts.
In 1983, Neil Sedaka earned a well-deserved induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and later, he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In 2003, he made a guest appearance as a judge on “American Idol,” where season two runner-up Clay Aiken recorded and released Neil’s 1972 song “Solitaire,” which became the top-selling single of 2004.
During the COVID pandemic, Neil started sharing mini-concerts through his social media platforms to keep his fans entertained. In September, for his 60th anniversary with Leba, he dedicated a special concert featuring three songs he had composed especially for her.
In early May, Neil Sedaka announced on his Facebook that he had joined the Cameo family, where he looks forward to fulfilling requests for birthdays, anniversaries, and other special occasions by delivering heartfelt messages. He concluded the announcement with a few bars of “Breaking Up is Hard to Do,” eliciting praise from his fans. One fan fondly reminisced