“That’s When the Music Takes Me!” Neil Sedaka at BergenPAC

By Spotlight Central. Photos by Love Imagery

That’s when the music takes me
Takes me to a brighter day
That’s when the music takes me
Helpin’ me to find my way — Neil Sedaka

It’s Wednesday, August 17, 2016, and with the sun starting to set at nearly 8pm on a gorgeous summer’s eve, music lovers find their way to their seats inside the beautiful Bergen Performing Arts Center (BergenPAC) for tonight’s performance by legendary singer-songwriter Neil Sedaka.

Before long, the man everyone is here to see tonight walks out to warm applause with a simple announcement, “Thank you for coming tonight.”

Opening with a song which was recorded by vocalists as diverse as Shirley Bassey, Crystal Gayle, and Donny Osmond, with just his voice and a piano, Sedaka performs his original composition, “The Other Side of Me,” saying:

Why can’t you see what’s on the other side of me,
The side of me that reaches out to you?
Why must I hide these feelings that have been denied?
Only you can set me free… see what’s on the other side of me.

With these lyrics and music, Sedaka sets the tone for an evening which spotlights six decades of Sedaka hits.

“These are my songs that I have been writing for 62 years,” Sedaka happily reveals to a packed house filled mainly with those old enough to remember Sedaka’s music when it ruled the charts in the 50s, 60s, 70s, and beyond.

Sedaka, 77, was born in the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn. His interest in music was ignited at the age of four listening to the radio, and by the age of eight, he had begun to play the piano — five hours a day!

As a teen, Sedaka was selected by classical piano virtuoso Arthur Rubenstein to play on New York’s classical radio station, WQXR. By that time, however, he had become attracted to popular music and had already begun writing songs to lyrics written by his high school pal, Howie Greenfield.

While on a two-year scholarship to New York’s Juilliard School of Music, Sedaka sold his first song, “Stupid Cupid” — co-written with Greenfield — which went on to become a 1958 hit for Connie Francis. Three years later, Francis had a second smash with another Sedaka and Greenfield’s composition, “Where the Boys Are.”

Little did these young men know at the time that so many of their songs would go on to become hits by some of the world’s greatest performers. And, as if to prove it, with the help of his five-piece band, Sedaka performs a song he originally recorded with Sir Elton John, 1975’s “Bad Blood.”

Following this lively performance, Sedaka tells the crowd that he and Greenfield wrote his next song, “Oh! Carol,” for a girl, “Carol Kline,” whom Sedaka confesses he dated “for two minutes.”

“You may remember her,” he adds. “She changed her name to Carole King.”

As the audience nods and smiles, Sedaka presents a snappy rendition of the song and then goes on to explain, “The songs of the 50s and 60s were positive and happy — and a little naive — but you could understand all of the words,” after which he entertains his admirers with an upbeat version of his 1961 hit, “Happy Birthday Sweet 16.”

Sedaka tells the crowd that, back in the day, he and lyricist Greenfield were known as “the ‘kings’ of the ‘tra-la-las’ and the ‘doobie-doos,’” acknowledging, “When we ran out of lyrics in the studio, we’d just leave those words in.”

And, in fact, Sedaka relates that he was the first vocalist in history to sing harmony with himself on records! Getting the idea from guitarist Les Paul — the man who pioneered the use of multi-track recording techniques — Sedaka decided that on one of his 1962 recordings, listeners would not hear one Sedaka singing, but rather a trio of three Sedakas singing together.

Starting off with such self-described “doobie-doos” as “Down dooby-doo down down,” Sedaka thrills the enthusiastic crowd with an exhuberant live version of the recording originally featuring those “three Sedakas,” his 1962 #1 smash, “Breaking Up is Hard to Do.” He follows that up with a bouyant version of his very first solo hit, 1959’s “The Diary.”

Accompanied on a large screen with what he describes as “the first-ever music video,” Sedaka treats his fans at BergenPAC to a version of “Calendar Girl,” with beautiful costumed blondes in the film portraying each girl of the month. He provides an explanation for this early music video revealing that it was filmed in Rome, Italy in 1961 specifically for an invention known as a “Vimeo Box” where Italian cafe and club patrons could watch popular music performance videos on demand.

With such worldwide acclaim, between the years 1958 and 1963, Sedaka went on to sell “over 40 million records.” But, then, as he relates, a “new group from England stormed America — The Beatles.” As a result, Sedaka retired from singing for 13 years as other artists — including ABBA, The Carpenters, Cher, Petula Clark, Frankie Valli, Tom Jones, Engelbert Humperdinck, Neil Diamond, Frank Sinatra, and Elvis Presley — recorded his hits.

“I started writing songs at 13,” Sedaka announces, “but I still love to write new songs.” At this point, he performs a new composition, “You,” which he dedicates to “all the people who came out tonight.” With lyrics like, “No one can make me feel the way you do. There can be no one — no one but you,” fans in the audience at BergenPAC can be heard whispering their reactions to one another such as, “Wow, that’s a beautiful piece,” “How charming!,” and “This could even be a wedding song.”

Introducing his audience to Connecticut-based singer Jennifer Somo, Sedaka goes on to perform a vocal duet with her which he says is “one of only three father/daughter hits” — a tune he originally recorded with his own daughter, Dara — 1980’s “I Should’ve Never Let You Go.”

Explaining that people frequently ask him questions like “How do you write songs?” and “Where do your melodies come from?,” Sedaka takes a seat at the grand piano and responds by saying, “I start with a beat. Then, a voice. And then, I look for a melody,” to which he later adds accompaniment.

By way of example, Sedaka uses the 1975 Grammy-winning Record of the Year he wrote for The Captain and Tennille, “Love Will Keep Us Together.” For that song, he says, “I took the vocal style of Diana Ross, added the beat of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys, and then for the bridge, I added the kind of augmented chords you might hear on an Al Green song.” I “stirred them all in a pot,” he laughingly adds, “and then added words.”

At this point, Sedaka takes a moment to look out at the audience as he jokingly sighs, “Ah…there are just so many hits, I don’t know what the hell to sing!,” but goes on to present a rip-roaring take on “Love Will Keep Us Together.” After which, he performs a powerful version of his 1974 hit which he notes has been recorded more than 75 times by a wide variety of artists, “Solitaire.”

Going on to reveal, “I’m a cry baby — I like the sad ones,” he follows that up with a touching rendition of 1975’s “The Hungry Years.”

Explaining more about the years following the British Invasion when he wasn’t featured regularly on the charts, Sedaka admits to the crowd, “I love to sing. So when I was out of work, I went to London, where they had great respect for early American rock ‘n rollers. And in the 70s, Elton John said, ‘I’m going to make you a star again.’”

Performing a record-copy version of the song Elton John helped to make his #1 comeback chart-topper, 1974’s “Laughter in the Rain,” Sedaka elicits smiles and good vibrations from his fans. Following enthusiastic applause, he regales the crowd with a new original song, “I Do It For Applause.” Revealing and poignant, bearing his heart and soul, Sedaka inspires the ardent fans at BergenPAC to respond with a stirring standing ovation.

Some still on their feet, Sedaka gets the entire house clapping, tapping, and snapping to 1974’s “That’s When the Music Takes Me,” a blockbuster number chock full of “good feelin’” and “happy, happy, happy” emotions.

Sedaka ends this impressive night of songs and stories with a composition he says is the “only song to be #1 twice with two different versions — once as a rock hit and once as a slow ballad.” At this point, he gets the entire audience singing along to the 1975 slow version of his signature song, “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do,” which results in yet another heartfelt standing ovation from the smiling crowd at BergenPAC.

For an encore, Sedaka returns to the stage and channels his childhood roots when he plays a nimble solo version of Chopin’s “Minute Waltz” on the Steinway for the dazzled crowd.

With smiles on their faces, audience members file out of the theater, some taking a moment to reflect on what they’ve just experienced. Eileen, for example, says, “His music makes me feel young again,” adding, “This evening brought me back to seeing him in concert so many years ago,” whereas her husband, Lyn, goes on to exclaim, “At 77, he’s still got it!”

And in the lobby after the show, another fan, Gary, can literally be heard singing to anyone who will listen, “I’m the happiest man in the world right now — happier than a millionaire!” Going on to excitedly explain, “That’s what Neil’s music does to me — his songs are stunning, striking, spectacular, and stupendous. He is the greatest, most intelligent writer.” Gary further expresses what many of the Sedaka faithful seem to be feeling when he quietly confesses, “I love his music with a passion.”

It appears obvious that Neil Sedaka’s fans have tapped into something that followers of other great performers already know: There is an experience available to just about anyone which can stimulate the senses, create an uplifting feeling, and make for lifelong memories.

And just what might that be?

Attending live concerts — like this one.

And just why is that, you ask?

Because — as Gary, Eileen, Lyn — and even Neil Sedaka himself — might put it:

“That’s When the Music Takes Me!”

For more on Neil Sedaka’s upcoming concert schedule and latest recordings, please go to neilsedaka.com. For more on other great upcoming shows at BergenPAC — including Tommy James & the Shondells with Felix Caviliere’s Rascals on Sept. 16, and Herman’s Hermits Starring Peter Noone & The Buckinghams on Nov. 17 — please go to bergenpac.org

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