Sedaka wows 1,200 at JFed donor event

BY ROBERT A. COHN, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF EMERITUS

Neil Sedaka, the accomplished singer-songwriter whose all-time hits include “Calendar Girl”, “Breaking Up is Hard to Do” and “Where the Boys Are”, proved to be an audience pleaser to the over 1,200 who attended last Sunday’s Jewish Federation’s Thank You Event for donors who contributed or made a pledge to its 2008 Annual Community Campaign. The event took place at the Touhill Performing Arts Center on the campus of the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

Steve Schankman, co-chair of the event with his wife Andi, welcomed the audience by expressing appreciation to “the generous support you have provided to our 2008 Annual Community Campaign. Winston Churchill once said, we making a living by what we get; we make a lifetime by what we give. Despite the tough times in the economy, our JFed Campaign is doing extremely well thanks to your very generous support.”

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Sanford Neuman, JFed vice president for Campaign, added, in a letter in the event program, “This year, during tough economic times, your support is critical. When people in our community are hungry, lose their homes and jobs, face serious financial problems or a wide variety of crises, they turn to Jewish Federation-supported agencies. It’s Federation’s Annual Community Campaign that raises the funds to support the agencies in St. Louis, Israel and around the world that offer our families hope and help.”

The event was billed as “Sedaka for Tzedaka” in the advance publicity. In his conversations with the audience, Neil Sedaka, who was born in Brooklyn in 1939, pointed out that his family name, which is similar to the Hebrew word “tzedakah,” which is translated as “social justice” or “charity,” is from his father. “I have the Sephardic Turkish background from my father, and on my mother’s side, the Ashkenazic Russian-Polish Jewish background.”

Sedaka added that his father, Max Sedaka, who was the son of Turkish-Jewish immigrants, was a taxi driver for 30 years in New York City, while his mother, Eleanor (Appel) Sedaka, was descended from East European Jews. In the course of his concert, which was enthusiastically received by the audience of 1,200 at the Touhill, Sedaka performed a rendition of the classic Yiddish-English song, “My Yiddishe Mama,” which he dedicated to his mother.

Many of the fans of Sedaka’s countless hit records were not aware of how far-ranging his musical talents are. He demonstrated musical prowess while in second-grade choral class. His teacher encouraged his mother to give him piano lessons, which he took to immediately, and by 1947, he auditioned successfully for a piano scholarship at the Juilliard School of Music’s Preparatory Division for Children. He also showed an early interest in popular music, collaborating at the age of 13 with a neighbor’s 16-year-old son, Howard Greenfield. By the time Sedaka was 16 he had sold his first song, which was recorded by the legendary Dinah Washington.

Among the early hits by Sedaka and Greenfield was “Stupid Cupid” inj 1958. Sedaka then began writing songs himself, including “Oh, Carol” in 1959, inspired by his high school friend Carol Klein, later famous in her own right as the singer-composer Carole King. That was followed by such other great successes as “Calendar Girl”, “Stairway to Heaven”. and “Breaking Up is Hard to Do.”

The concert opened with a video of a large selection of Sedaka’s greatest hits and the numerous top singers who recorded them, who ranged from Frank Sinatra through Elvis Presley, and such other greats as Peggy Lee, Dinah Washington, The Captain and Tenille, Connie Francis and Bobby Darin.

“My early songs of the 1950s and early 1960s were happy and maybe a little naive, but they were suited to those times,” Sedaka said. “Then in 1965 a group came along which changed things: The Beatles, which changed the fashion of popular music to a different sond than mine.” Sedaka withdrew from the pop music scene for a number of years after the British Invasion, but then in the 1970s he came back strong with writing the music for “Bad Blood” and the very popular hit “Love Will Keep Us Together” most successfully recorded by The Captain and Tenille. In 1974, he came out with an album “Sedaka’s Back” to showcase his return to active musical creation. He also has done successful albums in Yiddish and “Sedaka Does the Classics” in which he has written lyrics to accompany familiar classical selections, one of which, a Puccinni selection, he performed at the concert.

Sedaka, accompanied by a superb backup band and a female vocalist, held the audience in rapt attention as he performed a wide range of his most successful tunes, from his “Doo-Wop” days through his more recent work, including “Calendar Girl”, “Diary”, “Love Will Keep Us Together” and “Solitaire,” the latter of which had been recorded by Elvis Presley. Sedaka is also very proud of his daughter Dara, also an accomplished singer, with whom he recorded a 1980 Top 20 hit, “Should’ve Never Let You Go.” A video of his daughter was played, with Sedaka doing a duet of that song.

“Except for Frank and Nancy Sinatra and Nat King Cole and Natalie Cole, I am not aware that there have been any other father-daughter acts in major popular music,” Sedaka said. Sedaka has been married since 1962 to his wife, Leba. In addition to daughter Dara, they have a son, Marc, a screenwriter, who lives in Los Angeles.

Among the more recent and current artists who have successfully recorded Sedaka’s songs are Elton John, Sheryl Crow, Abba and Clay Aiken. During his high energy concert, in which Sedaka often stood at the piano swaying his hips, he gave no sign that he is in any way slowing down in his 70th year.

The audience of 1,200 responded to Sedaka’s high energy, often emotional concert and conversation with several standing ovations and demanded an encore number. Audience members leaving the concert told the Jewish Light that they really enjoyed the concert. Harvey and Terry Hieken said it was one of the most enjoyable such events that they have attended in recent years, and their sentiments were shared by many others in the after-concert buzz.