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They're Playing My Song is a column by Bruce Pollock, where he focuses on the one song that had the greatest impact on a particular artist or songwriter's career. This is part of an interview he did with Neil Sedaka in 1979 for the book When Rock Was Young. Sedaka had made a startling comeback, but was once again off the charts, which clearly troubled him.

"Love Will Keep Us Together"

Artist: Captain And Tennille
Writers: Howard Greenfield And Neil Sedaka
Album: Love Will Keep Us Together
Label: A&M
Year: 1975
Chart Positions: US: #1, UK: #32

Neil Sedaka had been writing songs with his Brooklyn, New York, neighbor Howie Greenfield for several years before rock 'n' roll struck his ears. It happened at Andrea's Pizza Parlor on Coney Island Avenue, when he heard "Earth Angel" by the Penguins coming out of the jukebox, as he was having a slice and a Coke with another neighbor, Carol Klein, who would go on to become Carole King.

"I said, oh this is marvelous," Sedaka recalled, "and that's who I started writing for, groups like the Nutmegs, the Harptones, and the Penguins." According to Sedaka, Carole became one of his biggest fans. "She had a group, too, called the Cosines. Her mother told me I was a bad influence on her, because she would neglect her schoolwork to write songs and to chase me from bar mitzvahs to weddings."

Carole and her boyfriend Gerry Goffin wound up following Neil and Howie to the offices of the music publishing magnate Don Kirshner to become part of the legendary staff of Aldon Music that included Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, Jack Keller, and Tony Orlando.

Sedaka's Top 10 hit of 1959, "Oh! Carol," was based on King and reportedly saved his career. Carole's answer song, "Oh Neil," did nothing for her career, but the Goffin & King combo and brand managed to survive anyway.
Sedaka in the late '50s

At Aldon Music, Sedaka learned to become a craftsman. "I always worked the same way," he said. "I wrote the melody, or a good part of it, and Howie would stand at the piano and write the lyrics at the same time. I would sing them out, and if they didn't fit, he'd revise them. I learned to write a song in every beat, in every feel. I would study the records on the radio so I could play the Top 10 hits fluidly. There were assignments. Connie Francis wanted a song called 'Frankie'; we gave her a song called 'Frankie.' There was a movie she was up for, Where the Boys Are. We wrote 'Where the Boys Are' for her. I was in the office writing every day. We used to wait until we all came back with our demos and everybody used to sit in the office and listen. I remember Carole's demo of 'Will You Love Me Tomorrow.' It was marvelous. I came in with 'Breaking Up Is Hard to Do,' and Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil said it was mediocre."

"Oh! Carol" started a string of Top 10 singles for the Brooklyn crooner, including "Stairway to Heaven" (not the Led Zeppelin song), "Calendar Girl," "Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen," "Breaking Up Is Hard to Do" and "Next Door to an Angel," taking him from '59 through '62 before the hits stopped coming. "It was gradual," Sedaka remarked of the decline. "After 'Next Door to an Angel' was 'Alice in Wonderland,' which made Top 20. Then 'The Dreamer,' which only got into the 40s. And my brother-in-law at the time - married to my sister - said, 'You know it's going to end.' I said, 'I know it,' but it was not easy to accept. At that time Neil Diamond became popular, and his parents were right across the street. They owned a clothing shop on Brighton Beach Avenue called Diamonds. And everybody said, 'Well, whatever happened to you? Neil Diamond is doing so great.' But little by little the records stopped and I got over it," he said softly. "I got over it."

Dutifully, maybe desperately, he clung to the songwriter's trade. Ironically, this post-chart period turned out to be one of his most prolific in terms of writing. "I wrote with three lyricists, five days a week," he said. "I was writing with Carole Sager, Howie Greenfield, and Roger Atkins. I said I could write like Paul McCartney, and I did write like Paul McCartney, but it was very hard to get records when I wasn't singing the songs. I made one record for Colgems called 'Rainy Jane,' produced by myself and Howie Greenfield, and it was terrific. I heard it once, I think, on WNBC. The only time I'd hear myself on the radio was when an oldie would come on. So, I felt, well this is it. I'd better get resigned to the fact that I had my shot and it'll never happen again."

Through the rest of the '60s Sedaka-penned songs showed up on albums by Johnny Mathis, Peggy Lee, the Partridge Family, and the Monkees. He also had "Working on a Groovy Thing" and "Puppet Man," which were Top 20 items for the Fifth Dimension in 1970. But the album that would change his life was released in 1971 by his old friend Carole King, her landmark multi-million seller, Tapestry.

Neil Sedaka:
When I heard that album it blew me away. I said, "Oh my God, that's my style, the piano, the voice, the whole approach to melody - we grew up together." And I begged Donnie Kirshner to let me do an album for RCA. I wrote probably the best collection of songs I ever wrote in my life. I was going to do it like Carole, with a small group. But Donnie called me in and he said, "You're a classical artist. You have to have a big symphonic thing." And he called in Lee Holbridge, who's a brilliant arranger, and the songs came out sounding like magnificent things that should have been on the Broadway stage.

The album was too classy and it was against the market; RCA was not about to promote it. So Emergence was a flop and it shattered Howie Greenfield and me. We split up for two-and-a-half years. It was very sad. Howie moved to California. Just before he left we wrote two songs; one was called "Our Last Song Together," the other was "Love Will Keep Us Together," which I think was kind of like his plea. We both cried after we wrote it.

At the time the original record of "Oh! Carol" had been re-released by RCA and was a hit in England. So I picked up my wife, my two kids, and Mary the housekeeper, and we moved to London. I got a job at a real toilet in Manchester. I met a group called Hot Legs, who became better known as 10cc, who had a studio in Stockport. I spent $6,000 and recorded Solitaire. It had "Solitaire" on it, "That's Where the Music Takes Me," "Standing on the Inside." I brought it back to Donnie, and he said, "Well, I'm not sure." He got RCA to put it out - on a shoestring. Nothing happened. But I knew when I heard the record that I was on the right track.

I saw Carole King when I went to LA to record the album Laughter In The Rain for England. She said, "What are you doing here?" Like she owned LA. I said, "I'm recording at Clover studios," and she said, "Oh, that's nice," almost resentful. She didn't want to know of the past or have anybody infringing on her territory.

By that time Elton John and I were pretty close. We had met many times at Bee Gees concerts; we were both friendly with Maurice Gibb. One night at my apartment in London we had a big party and I took Elton and his manager aside. I said, "I'm frustrated. I have a hit in England. I'm now a concert artist in England. You've got to help me." It just so happened that they were in the process of opening Rocket Records. I said, "Don't pay me. I don't want any money. Just put out a compilation album, some of the things I did with 10cc, some of the things I did in LA. All I want is your endorsement." The album was Sedaka's Back and Elton wrote on the jacket, "Neil Sedaka's songs are great..." The first single was "Laughter in the Rain," which was a smash in England in the middle of 1974 and became a #1 song in the US eight months later. "Love Will Keep Us Together," which had been on my second UK album, led off Side 2.

The next time I went to Los Angeles, it was to headline at the Troubadour. I took over the town. Every producer in town was there. I wanted it with a vengeance. Donnie Kirshner said I would never make it again; that drove me. My old manager said I'd never make it again; that drove me. Carole King; that drove me. I knew I was good, and I spent hours at the piano. I wasn't afraid of it. My voice was a great help to me, too, because I knew that nobody could sing those songs like me. Nobody. The critics in LA couldn't believe that anybody could write and sing with such enthusiasm, with such spirit, and with this vengeance.

The crowning touch was winning the BMI award for Most Performed Song of the Year, on the Captain & Tennille's recording of "Love Will Keep Us Together." It was the dream of a lifetime. I mean, I'd been going to that BMI dinner since I was a kid. I got six awards in one year, including the Most Performed Song of 1975, beating out "Rhinestone Cowboy."

So why didn't I put it out myself as a single? After "Laughter in the Rain" came out, I had 10 other songs on Sedaka's Back, but "Love Will Keep Us Together" had already been released as a single in 1973, in France. So I picked "The Immigrant" because it was a beautiful song and a beautiful record, and it made #22 — after a #1. Then "Bad Blood," with Elton singing background, came out and was my biggest hit yet, followed by my remake of "Breaking Up Is Hard to Do."

But it seems like I just can't last more than three or four years on the chart. I just can't. The last three years my records have stopped selling, and I'm eating my kishkas out. Thank God I have a performing career. But, being a record person, I feel very frustrated at this point. I have two albums out on Elektra Records that have not sold, and I'm discouraged. Even though I have fame, I have money, I have a wonderful family, I feel very unhappy, because it's always the records that have driven me. It becomes a way of life — what am I on ABC, what am I on KHJ? Unless you see it go up on the charts, you've failed. I was lucky enough to have it all those years; perhaps it'll never come again. Perhaps I don't have that creative spark anymore. Perhaps I'm not hungry enough. I could be bigger. I could be richer. But I just started writing again last week, after not writing for almost a year, and it scares the hell out of me.

Neil Sedaka needn't have been worried. Although he would hit the Top 20 on the singles chart only one more time, in a 1980 duet with his daughter Dara, "Should've Never Let You Go," a 1971 song of his recorded by British singer Tony Christie, "Is This the Way to Amarillo," would become the biggest hit in the UK when it was re-released in 2005. A Sedaka retrospective, The Definitive Collection, hit the Top 20 on the Albums chart in 2007.

Further reading: Interview with Phillip Cody, Sedaka's co-writer on "Laughter In The Rain," "Bad Blood" and "The Immigrant"
Interview with Tony Wine, who worked with Sedaka at 1650 Broadway
April 19, 2018

    About the Author:

    Bruce PollockBruce Pollock ("The Next to Last of the Rock Journalists") is the Deems Taylor Award winning author of 15 books on music, including Bob Dylan FAQ, America's Songs, V.3 Working Musicians: Defining Moments from the Road and The Rock Song Index: The 7500 Most Important Songs of Rock and Roll History. Visit Bruce at brucepollockthewriter.comMore from Bruce Pollock
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