Pop Culture

'Rock 'N' Roll Survivor': The life and times of Neil Sedaka 

The man behind such hits as "Laughter in the Rain," "Calendar Girl" and "Breaking Up is Hard to Do," Neil Sedaka is a beloved figure in the history of American pop music. In "Neil Sedaka: Rock 'n' Roll Survivor,"  Rich Podolsky tells the singer/songwriter's amazing story. Here's an excerpt.


After dating Neil for four years, Leba decided she wanted to get two things done: first, she wanted to fix her nose, which had a small bump, and second, she wanted to get engaged. Neil, on the other hand, was riding an incredibly successful streak of hit songs and was constantly on the road. At 23, he wasn’t sure he was ready to get married. That didn’t sit well with his girlfriend, and led to a blow-up while they were on a date at the Concord Hotel, as Neil would later recall in his autobiography:

“‘Fine, she yelled, ‘don’t marry me! But some day I’ll walk in here with my husband—a famous doctor or lawyer—with my perfect nose, wearing my Christian Dior dress, and I’ll sit in the audience applauding ever so politely while you’re sweating it out up on that stage.’”

A few weeks later, while Neil was away performing in Pittsburgh, Howie Greenfield convinced him that Leba was right. Neil called Leba and proposed, but she only believed he meant it when Howie got on the phone to assure her.

The wedding took place at Esther Manor on September 11 1962, a week after Labor Day. The reception was held at the Concord Hotel so that Esther could be off duty and enjoy it too. The next day, nationally syndicated Broadway columnist Earl Wilson ran a story under the headline ‘Neil Sedaka Marries Catskill Mountain Heiress.’

At the reception, Neil’s mother Eleanor approached the happy couple and announced that she was raising Neil’s allowance from $200 to $225 a week. Leba was stunned. At that point she had no idea that Eleanor and her lover Ben Sutter were making all of Neil’s financial decisions. Neil’s mother had another surprise, too: she had chosen and pre-planned their honeymoon. They were taking the QE1 luxury liner to Europe for a four-week whirlwind trip.

A month before the wedding, Neil and Leba had stopped by Eleanor’s apartment in Brighton Beach. Nonchalantly Leba mentioned where she and Neil were hoping to live.

“Neil and I are going to look for a small apartment in Manhattan,” she said. “Maybe somewhere not too far from Don Kirshner’s office.”

Eleanor stared at Leba for a while and then finally spoke.

“If you move into Manhattan,” she replied angrily, “I’ll cut you both off. The choice is yours.”

At just 19 years old, Leba wasn’t about to take on Eleanor. “She may have been little,” Leba told me, “but she was mighty.” Neil, who had grown accustomed to obeying his mother since birth, went along with his mother’s wish for the two of them to live nearby in Brighton Beach.

Together, Eleanor and Neil—without Leba—picked out a beautiful apartment at Seacoast Towers, a brand new development just a few blocks away from where Neil had lived with his mother. But the construction fell behind schedule, and the apartment wasn’t ready in time. Instead, Neil and his new wife would move into a much smaller apartment on Ocean Parkway, and while the kids were on their honeymoon, Eleanor supervised the decorations and the installation of their new furniture. This didn’t exactly thrill Neil’s new bride either, but there wasn’t much she could do. Eleanor was a very strong-willed, controlling mother. But if Leba thought that was the worst of it, she was in for a big surprise.


Eleanor used Neil’s dissatisfaction with Al Nevins’s management as leverage to persuade Neil to allow Ben Sutter, a former air conditioning salesman, to take over. In fact, the two of them talked Neil into buying back his own management contract. Neil duly paid Nevins–Kirshner Inc. the sum of $25,000 so that Sutter could be his new manager.

Sutter did manage to book Neil into the Copacabana—although not as a headliner but as the opening act for comedian Jan Murray. Neil was excited and disappointed at the same time. While he had always wanted to play adult supper clubs like the Copa, it was embarrassing to be the opening act for someone else in his own hometown.

When Sedaka balked at signing with Kirshner that first day they met in the spring of 1958, Kirshner tried to impress him by playing an as-yet unreleased 45 of Bobby Darin’s ‘Splish Splash.’ Sedaka was duly impressed and agreed it was a surefire hit. Kirshner explained that he had pulled the strings to get Darin seen, and that the two of them had been a songwriting team for three years. After Sedaka wrote ‘Stupid Cupid’ for Darin’s girlfriend, Connie Francis, it didn’t take long for the two men to bond.

“He wanted to be—and would have been—the next Sinatra, if it wasn’t for his [bad] heart,” Sedaka told me. “He was one of the great live performers. His was incredibly versatile.”

When Sedaka bumped into Darin before his first Copa engagement, he was eager to get Darin’s reaction to the idea of him opening the show for Murray.

“That’s not right,” Darin replied. “You’ve got the number one record in the country … [you] should be the headliner instead of opening for a comedian.” Fortunately for Neil, Murray had to cancel his appearance, so Neil became the headliner—but no thanks to Sutter.

Sedaka’s opening night at the Copa was just as big a deal for Eleanor as it was for Neil. She got all dolled up and insisted that Neil sing ‘My Yiddishe Momma’ during the show. The song ends with the following lines:

How few were her pleasures, she never cared for fashion’s styles   
Her jewels and treasures she found them in her baby’s smiles
Oh I know that I owe what I am today
To that dear little lady so old and gray
To that wonderful yiddishe momma of mine

And yet there was nothing old and gray—or out of fashion, for that matter—about Eleanor Sedaka. By now she had bleached her hair blond, and she sat ringside at the Copa in her new mink stole. When Neil finished the song, Esther stood up and took a bow right along with him.

Reprinted by arrangement with Jawbone Press. Copyright © Rich Podolsky, 2013.