Neil Sedaka, singer-songwriter – portrait of the artist

'The worst thing anyone's ever said? That I don't look like a rock'n'roller'

What got you started?

I was a child prodigy at the piano: I started to play by ear at the age of seven, studied with a private teacher at eight, and at nine got a scholarship to the Juilliard school in New York. I then studied for 10 years to be a concert pianist, before I discovered I could write music and sing.

Is it important for pop and rock songwriters to have classical training?

It was for me. Most of the other early rock'n'rollers only knew four chords.

What was your big breakthrough?

Going into the Brill Building [in New York]. It was full of little rooms owned by small music publishing firms that were dedicated to finding young writers for the teenage record market. Howard Greenfield and I wrote songs in one of those rooms, with just a piano and a desk, five a days a week, from 10 in the morning till five in the evening. It was a great training ground.

What have you sacrificed for your art?

I really can't say I've sacrificed anything. Music is so much a part of me: my parents told me that when I was an infant, I wouldn't eat unless the radio was playing music.

Is there a downside to fame?

You do have to give up your privacy. But the good thing is that you can get a table in a restaurant or a seat at the theatre. I work very hard for it, though – I've been writing for 60 years, and singing for over 50.

Which artists do you most admire?

Oh goodness gracious, I listen to so many different artists, from classical to pop. Evgeny Kissin, the great Russian pianist; Maroon 5 and Coldplay; Stevie Wonder and Peter Gabriel; Snow Patrol. I have very eclectic tastes.

What's the worst thing anyone ever said about you?

"Too clean cut"; "smiles too much"; "doesn't look like your typical rock'n'roller". I started out just as Elvis was going into the army, Jerry Lee Lewis married his 14-year-old cousin, and Little Richard became a priest. Then I appeared on American Bandstand [a TV show for teenagers] and I was smiling and happy.

What one song would work as the soundtrack to your life?

Laughter in the Rain, the lead song on my album Sedaka's Back. I'd been off the charts for about 12 years, then Elton John turned out to be a big Neil Sedaka fan and put me on his record company. I'll always be grateful to him.

Is there anything about your career you regret?

Not having the right management at the beginning of my career, and not being more pushy. I tend to be on the quiet side. I think I would have been bigger if I had a big mouth.

In short

Born: Brooklyn, New York, 1939.

Career: Hit songs include Oh! Carol, Calendar Girl, Breaking Up Is Hard To Do and (Is This the Way to) Amarillo. He performs at the Sage, Gateshead (0191-443 4661), on 10 October, then tours. Details: neilsedaka.com.

Low point: "Between 1963 and 1975, I worked very little. The Beatles had come to New York and changed music – all the solo singers were out of work."

High point: "The fact I'm still around after more than 50 years."

Contributor

Interview by Laura Barnett

The GuardianTramp

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