A nostalgic note
“Oy, Carol”? “Breaking Up Gives Me Tsuris”? No, Neil Sedaka won’t be revising his old songs at the Wilshire Theatre on Saturday and next Sunday. He’ll be revisiting the Yiddish music he heard growing up in Brooklyn.
The show is an outgrowth of his recent album, “Brighton Beach Memories,” featuring classic Yiddish songs. The concert’s second half will highlight his vast catalog of hits originally recorded by him (“Calendar Girl”) and by artists including Elvis Presley and “American Idol” finalist Clay Aiken, who had a hit this year with the ‘70s composition “Solitaire.”
Sitting in the West Hollywood condo he shares with his wife, Leba, (who, along with his 88-year-old mother, helped him with the Yiddish pronunciations), Sedaka, 65, explained the new turn.
What was the genesis of this project?
You know, I have been recording for nearly 50 years, and I wanted to do something that was close to my heart. I grew up in a Jewish family in Brooklyn and sang these songs at bar mitzvahs and weddings and family picnics. It always brought tears to my eyes, tears of joy. And after 40-some-odd albums I thought now was the time to give back to my people.
Set the scene of your childhood.
I remember very vividly a family picnic -- we would play the kazoo and we would sing “Shein Vi Di L’Vone” and “Eishes Chayil,” “Bei Mir Bist Du Shein” and “Vi Ahin Zol Ich Geyn.” It was a very happy time after the Second World War growing up in Brooklyn. I thought the whole world was Jewish. We would play stickball and kick the can in the streets. We would sing. Everyone had a piano if they wanted their children to be cultured.
Where did your family come from?
My mother and father were born in New York, but my father’s parents were born in Istanbul, Turkey. They are Sephardic Jews, so they spoke Ladino [a mix of Spanish and Hebrew]. I can speak Spanish. My grandmother died when I was about 12. My mother is Ashkenazi, and that is why we started listening to the Eastern European Jewish songs.
When did you discover that the whole world isn’t Jewish?
Being in show business I never had any trouble with that. I felt no anti-Semitism at all. People always thought I was Italian. I started on Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand” and there were people like Frankie Avalon, Bobby Rydell, Fabian, who were all of Italian descent.
There was a strong Jewish presence in the Brill Building where you became a prominent songwriter.
Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Neil Diamond, Paul Simon, absolutely. It’s an interesting phenomenon that many were young Jewish kids trying to prove themselves. We had parents who wanted us to excel and pushed us, not that I had to be pushed. But yes, very interesting that a lot of us growing up in Brooklyn after World War II with Irving Berlin and Richard Rodgers in our subconscious, perhaps that had something to do with it.
How did you get started on this album?
I went to the library in New York and looked at 40 or 50 songs, selected the ones I had remembered. The first one, I think, was “Vi Ahin Zol Ich Geyn” -- “Tell Me Where I Can Go.” I recorded it at John Ross’ studio here in L.A., chose some local musicians and wept through the whole session. I’m a very weepy kind of person. I sent the finished recording to family and friends, not thinking anything else. Alan Grubman, who used to be my lawyer, called me, “It’s so moving, so emotional. I think this is going to have a life of its own.”
And it did. Sameach Records, a small Jewish label, picked it up and put it in yeshivas, shops and temples, and then I got a call from the Folksbiene Yiddish Theatre who heard the record and asked if I wanted to do a Carnegie Hall concert in June. We raised $500,000 for them. Then Koch Records called me and said they’d noticed that this album had been in the Top 10 various weeks on Amazon.com, a Yiddish album, and they are interested in putting it in retail stores.
Which of the songs do you connect with the most?
I think “Mein Shtetele Belz” -- “My Little Town” -- which is the singer’s in Russia: “The town where I grew up ... the roof is collapsed ... the windows caved in ... I’ll go back and never really recognize it.” It moves me. And “My Yiddishe Mamme,” of course, the Sophie Tucker recordings and Al Jolson recordings. Those two stand out to me.”
-- Steve Hochman