The first time Neil Sedaka appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” the really big show almost didn’t go on.
It was 1961, and the young singer-songwriter was at the top of the pop charts. He planned three numbers for his “Ed Sullivan” debut that would illustrate his multifaceted background. “Calendar Girl,” his radio hit at the time, showed Sedaka’s flair for pop hooks. A selection by Chopin would let people know that the Juilliard-trained pianist was no stranger to classical music. And the last piece was a tribute to Sedaka’s roots in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn: “My Yiddishe Momme.”
It was that last song that caused problems.
“There was a bit of a squabble during rehearsals,” Sedaka said, because the song was seen as too Jewish. “[Sullivan] said he didn’t want to put it on the show, and his son-in-law, who was the producer, was also against it.” But word got around the theater that the Jewish melody might get the kibosh, and Sullivan relented just two hours before airtime. “I think they didn’t want to be seen as antisemitic,” Sedaka recalled.
So he sang “My Yiddishe Momme” on national television, and the reaction he received was overwhelmingly positive. “The sentiment of the song is absolutely beautiful,” said Sedaka. “I knew it would go over great.”
More than four decades later, Sedaka, 64, is singing the same tune. This month he starts rehearsals for his premiere Yiddish concert — performing with the Klezmatics at Carnegie Hall on June 3 in a show to benefit the Folksbiene Yiddish Theatre. “My Yiddishe Momme” will be on the song list.
In a telephone interview from his home in California, where he spends winters with his wife, Leba, Sedaka told the Forward that he has wanted to perform in Yiddish for many years. After all, over the years he has sung in French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and Japanese — but never his own mameloshn.
The impetus for turning to Yiddish after all this time came last year, when his mother-in-law passed away. As a tribute to her, in 2003 he released his newest CD, “Brighton Beach Memories,” a collection of 13 traditional songs including “Shein Vi Di L’Vone,” “Bei Mir Bist Du Shein” and “Mein Shtetele Belz.”
“I heard these songs growing up in Brighton Beach,” he said. “When I went on the family picnics, on the bus we would sing these songs with a kazoo and a ukulele. They bring back wonderful memories for me.”
“I can’t get through the CD without weeping,” he added.
Yiddish was not, however, the main language spoken in Sedaka’s house when he was a child. His mother Eleanor was Ashkenazi but his father — Mac, a cabdriver of Turkish descent — was Sephardic, and Neil grew up in a house with his paternal aunts and grandparents; they spoke Ladino, not Yiddish.
Nonetheless, Sedaka remembers, there was plenty of Yiddish spoken around the heavily Jewish neighborhood. And after his aunts moved out, and his grandmother died — soon after his bar mitzvah at Temple Beth El in Manhattan Beach — he had more contact with his mother’s side of the family, which spoke Yiddish. Sedaka does not claim fluency, but can speak and understand some of the language today.
Sedaka started writing songs as a child, and by the time he was a teenager, his tunes were playing on the radio; Connie Francis climbed the Billboard charts with Sedaka’s “Stupid Cupid” in 1958, when he was just 19. That same year, he signed a contract with RCA, but there was some concern that such a Jewish-sounding name would hamper his career. There was talk of changing his last name to Howard (in honor of his longtime collaborator Howard Greenfield) or Roy (in honor of Roy Rogers, whom Sedaka admired), but in the end he kept his family name. “I said, ‘This is an unusual name, I’m proud of where I come from, and there’s no reason I should change my name,’” he recalled.
Sedaka’s career took off in two directions: As a singer, he struck gold with songs like “Breaking Up is Hard to Do,” “Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen” and “Oh! Carol” — which he wrote about his teenage sweetheart Carol Klein, later known as musician Carole King. As a songwriter, Sedaka penned hits for the Monkees (“When Love Comes Knocking at Your Door”), Tom Jones (“Puppet Man”) and Captain & Tennille (1976’s Grammy-winning “Love Will Keep Us Together”).
His 1982 autobiography “Laughter in the Rain” recounts his golden years as a musician: recording with Elton John, touring with the Carpenters, appearing on television with Bette Midler. But it also details the roller-coaster nature of Sedaka’s career throughout the 1960s and 1970s, as his clean-cut pop style went in and out of favor. “When you’re on top, you’re surrounded by backslappers and yes men,” he wrote. “But when you’re down, you’re yesterday’s news. The phone doesn’t ring.”
But Sedaka has never been easy to write off; he has a history of making comebacks just when people think he’s down and out. True, the last time he recorded a song that hit the pop charts was in 1980, when his duet with his daughter Dara, “Should’ve Never Let You Go,” reached the top 20. (He called this moment “the ultimate kvell” as a parent.) But he continues to tour with his band six months a year. And he’s preparing for yet another return to radio this week — as a songwriter — when “American Idol” alumnus Clay Aiken releases his cover of “Solitaire,” a song Sedaka recorded in 1973, before Aiken was born. “He sings it brilliantly,” said Sedaka.
For now, though, Sedaka is focused on his Carnegie Hall performance. The concert was the brainchild of Folksbiene executive director Zalmen Mlotek and his cousin Moishe Rosenfeld, who produces special events for the theater. Folksbiene — which will begin its 90th theatrical season later this year — holds a gala fundraiser every year, but this time marks the event’s debut in the legendary auditorium. “It’s the first time that Yiddish has been presented in this fashion, by the Yiddish movement, in Carnegie Hall,” said Mlotek.
The organizers called on the Klezmatics, a venerable six-piece contemporary klezmer combo currently promoting its sixth CD, “Rise Up!/Shteyt Oyf!” Next they contacted Sedaka. Once both were on board,
Mlotek and Rosenfeld asked if they’d perform together.
“Moishe Rosenfeld and Zalmen Mlotek are the people making the shiddachs here,” said Klezmatics trumpeter and composer Frank London. “They were aware of Neil’s Yiddish projects and thought it would be too cool for words” if the pop icon joined up with the edgy band.
Both parties readily accepted. “We love Yiddish song, and we love Neil Sedaka’s work,” said London.
Sedaka, who said he was “impressed” by the Klezmatics’ musicianship, noted that the band would give his songs a fuller sound than they have on his CD, which was recorded with only three musicians. “They will beef it up and make it much more strong,” he said. Sedaka plans to sing selections from “Brighton Beach Memories,” and may throw in a few of his own English songs, like “One More Ride on the Merry-Go-Round” (which was recorded by Peggy Lee) and “You Mean Everything to Me” (which he said is “very Yiddish in flavor, my mother’s favorite”).
In addition to accompanying Sedaka, the Klezmatics will perform their own material at the concert, which marks their Carnegie Hall premiere. (Sedaka played the hall once before, with the New York Pops.) The New Yiddish Chorale will also take the stage.
Sedaka and the Klezmatics come at Yiddish music from different directions. The Klezmatics are known for their original songs or unusual renditions of lesser-known old songs, while Sedaka prefers what might be described as Yiddish music’s greatest hits.
“When he did this project, he really chose to do the chestnuts of Yiddish song, and over the Klezmatics’ career, we’ve chosen to go the other way,” said London. But, he added, “that’s not to say that we don’t love these chestnuts. So it gives us the excuse to explore those songs, which we probably wouldn’t have done on our own.”
London said that his band’s mission and the Folksbiene’s mission are closely linked. “We’re trying to present Yiddish song in a way that is a vital part of our 21st-century life,” he said. “Folksbiene is trying to do this in the same way that the Klezmatics are trying to do: They’re trying to make plays that resonate in our world.”
Mlotek added that the Carnegie Hall concert might act as a springboard for Folksbiene, to establish the New York-based organization as a “national Yiddish theater” whose shows will tour the country next season. Bringing together a forward-thinking klezmer band with a contemporary pop singer, he said, is a great way to show that Yiddish culture is still vibrant.
“Getting someone like Neil Sedaka marks the evolution of bringing this culture to new audiences,” said Mlotek, “introducing this culture to a generation that would otherwise not know about it. This is the natural evolution of how Yiddish music and the Yiddish word need to be acknowledged at this point in time.”
Wayne Hoffman is managing editor of the Forward.