Happy birthday, Neil Sedaka!
Neil Sedaka, whose long list of chart-topping hits includes “Calendar Girl,” “Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen,” and “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do,” turns 75 today. In his book, Don Kirshner: The Man with the Golden Ear, Rich Podolsky describes the moment Don and his partner at Alson Records, Al Nevins, first met Neil. The rest, you could say, is music history.
The chill of being rejected by Hill and Range still stung but Neil and Howie were desperate for a chance, and so they headed right down to Aldon Music. When they opened the door, they saw a closet-size office with boxes all over the floor and two desks pushed together in the middle of the room. Shoved against the wall was an upright piano. To Neil, Aldon looked to have been in business only a couple of days, and the office wasn’t ready yet for walk-ins.
“We’d like to see the publisher,” Neil asked a young guy with his sleeves rolled up. He was sweeping the floor.
The guy leaned on his broom. “We’re in conference. Come back in an hour.”
They agreed, and as they walked down the hallway Neil muttered to Howie, “I think the conference is, ‘How are we going to pay for this office.'”
Don put the broom in a small closet and rolled down his sleeves. “They should be back soon,” he told Al, and buttoned his cuffs. A little while later there was a knock at the door.
“It’s open,” Don called, and the two kids came inside.
Words rushed from the short one’s mouth as if he were a door-to-door salesman who might get the boot any second.
“I’m Neil Sedaka and this is Howard Greenfield. I study at Juilliard. We’ve been writing together for five years and have had several songs published and recorded.”
“Like what?” Al wanted to know.
“Well, we’ve sold several R & B songs to Atlantic for Clyde McPhatter, Laverne Baker, and the Clovers,” Neil replied.
“And just recently Dinah Washington came out with our song ‘Never Again,'” Howie added.
Al shot a look at Don that said, I find that hard to believe. “Really?” he asked. Don jumped in. They’d find out in a minute whether the boys had something to offer. He pointed to the upright in the corner. “Okay, let’s hear what you’ve got.”
Neil took his place behind the piano and positioned the chair so he was half sitting, half standing. It reminded Don of how Bobby [Darin] had played the first time they were at Natalie [Twersky]’s place.
Neil played a few songs, which Don thought were good. When the kid was a few bars into the next one, “Stupid Cupid,” the bell went off in Don’s head. Neil banged out the notes in a rousing rendition of a song Don instantly knew teenagers would love. And he knew just the person to record it.
Stupid Cupid you’re a real mean guy,
I’d like to clip your wings so you can’t fly . . .
Hey, hey, set me free,
Stupid Cupid stop pickin’ on me.
Don looked at Al to see his reaction, but his parter did not look happy.
“Where’d you get those songs?” Al demanded.
“What do you mean?” Neil asked. He looked shocked as he turned to face the challenge. “We wrote them, that’s where. We’ve written over five hundred songs in the last three years. If you don’t believe me, you can ask Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler.”
“Excuse us for a moment,” Don said. He was totally blown away. Ertegun was a founder of Atlantic Records and Wexler was one of his partners.
While Neil and Howie waited by the piano, Don pulled Al aside. “Did you hear that song, Al?” Don whispered. That song’s a hit! This is exactly the kind of talent I knew was out there. Did you ever see such talent? I can’t believe nobody’s signed them.”
“Even if they did write those songs,” Nevins said, then paused and glanced over. “Just look at them. They look like pishers.”
“I don’t care what they look like,” Don whispered urgently. “We need to sign them.”
Al’s eyes narrowed for a moment. He was silent. “Okay,” he said at last, “but this is your deal, not mine.”
“Fine. This is what I told you I’d do for you. You won’t be sorry.”
They strolled back to the boys standing beside the piano.
“We think you’ve really got something,” Don said, “and we want to sign you to write exclusively for Aldon Music. We’ll give you each fifty dollars a week against future royalties. We’ll publish your songs and help get them placed.”
Howie was about to say something, but Neil put a hand on his friend’s arm and looked around at the boxes and the dust. Don could see the kid was skeptical.
“You get us a hit and then we’ll sign.”
“I’ll get you that hit,” Don promised. “Come back here in a couple of days. I want to introduce you to an old friend of mine. Her name is Connie Francis.”