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'Idol' sparks revival of Neil Sedaka's songs

Clay Aiken just one hopeful to belt out songwriter's tunes
/ Source: Billboard

The proclivity of “American Idol” for celebrity judges has not only given last year’s runner-up Clay Aiken the B-side to his current single “The Way,” but has given songwriter Neil Sedaka a new lease on creative life.

The song, “Solitaire,” best-known as the Carpenters’ No. 17 hit from 1975, is the title track of Sedaka’s 1972 album. It was also cut by the likes of Elvis Presley, Shirley Bassey and Johnny Mathis.

It is one of several tracks co-written with lyricist Phil Cody after former teen idol Sedaka took a hiatus from collaborating with Howie Greenfield, his Brill Building writing partner on such Sedaka-sung classics as “Oh! Carol,” “Calendar Girl,” “Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen” and “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do.”

Sedaka says he’s been a big fan of “American Idol” from the start, but initially he was met with skepticism when he called to volunteer his judicial services.

Convincing the producers that he was for real, Sedaka did in fact appear — and was serenaded by Aiken’s stellar performance of “Solitaire.”

“It got such a fantastic reaction that he recorded it for debut album 'Measure of a Man,’ but it didn’t get on,” Sedaka says. “So he did a marvelous version for the new single. It shows that a good song is a good song, no matter how many years ago it was written — and that you never know when a young artist will pick up your song.”

Indeed, Sedaka senses a “resurgence” of his material, which first gained notice in 1958, when the Sedaka-Greenfield classic “Stupid Cupid” hit for Connie Francis. He points to the forthcoming album by 14-year-old newcomer Rene Olmstead, produced by David Foster, which includes “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do.”

“She sounds like Patsy Cline, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday all wrapped in one,” Sedaka says, “and when David gets behind something, you know what happens.”

Sedaka himself knows, as Foster played piano for him in the mid-’70s, when he made a dramatic comeback with his 1974 chart-topper “Laughter in the Rain.” He now sees potential for another return to the charts as an artist.

“I have some songs that I feel are as good as 'Breaking Up’ and 'Laughter in the Rain’ and the Greenfield-Sedaka 1975 hit for Captain & Tennille 'Love Will Keep Us Together’ that have been ignored on various albums that weren’t promoted properly,” he says. “I think I can happen again as a recording artist if they’re produced for today’s market.”

Whether Sedaka does in fact “happen again” as an artist, his screenwriter son Marc has compiled a demo of some of these lesser-known songs for producers and record companies. “When I go back 30 or 40 years, I find so many hidden treasures,” says the senior Sedaka, “and I’m an old song-plugger anyway, from way back.”

He recalls writing with Greenfield for Al Nevins and Don Kirshner’s Aldon Music. “We were the first Brill Building team, before Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil and Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich and the whole gang,” he says. “We had the room with no windows, and then came ’Stupid Cupid’ and Francis’ follow-up hit 'Where the Boys Are,’ and we got a room with windows.”

Brooklyn-born Sedaka also has returned to his heritage with an album of old Yiddish songs: “Brighton Beach Memories — Neil Sedaka Sings Yiddish.”

“When I was growing up ... I heard Yiddish singing duo the Barry Sisters, and my family would sing along with their records,” Sedaka says. “It’s not commercial, but I don’t care: I get joy out of singing these old songs. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do over the years but never got the chance.”

Sedaka is slated to perform some of these Yiddish songs June 3 at Carnegie Hall, to benefit the Yiddish Theater of New York.