Billy Joel calls him "the Davy Crockett of rock 'n' roll," and if that rugged, coonskin-cap image doesn't exactly fit the man, the pioneering intent behind the statement sure does.
In his 55 years in the pop biz, Neil Sedaka, 73, has been a chameleonic force, from squeaky Justin Bieber-esque teenthrob (Breaking Up Is Hard to Do) to insta-hit songwriter (Where the Boys Are) to reinvented funky white guy (Bad Blood).
He's still at it. A theatrical tribute to Sedaka, Laughter in the Rain, opened to raves in London's West End. "The show went back to my roots, through 35 songs in my career," he said.
Sunday, the Brooklyn-born legend brings those roots and that epic songbook to Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater. Raised by Sedaka-loving parents, I dialed him up to talk about today's pop, the perils of teen idolhood and how Elton John saved his career.
Do you take any interest in today's pop? Would any of this stuff pass muster in the Brill Building, the infamous bastion of songwriting you inhabited in the mid 20th century?
I listen to Adele. I like Maroon 5 and Coldplay. I like Snow Patrol. Peter Gabriel's last album was fabulous; that should have won a Grammy. They brought back melodic music to pop music, and I'm happy about that.
You were a teen star in the '50s and '60s: Oh! Carol, Breaking Up Is Hard to Do. Did you Bieber it up some, tease the girls and such?
Besides having the gift, I was just around at the right time. I was the wholesome poster boy! Elvis was in the Army, Little Richard went and found God, and Jerry Lee Lewis married his 13-year-old cousin! Ha! That was just the right time for me.
In the late '70s, you had a career rebirth, lil' Neil Sedaka all grown up and smoldering.
Yes, I had to reinvent the sound of Neil Sedaka! Elton John signed me to his record company, and that meant everything to me. So thank you, Sir Elton! The song Bad Blood was total reinvention. Even James Brown called me up and said, "You're in my territory now!" It's difficult to stay in this fickle business for so long. So 55 years has been incredible.
You've written more than 500 songs. That's crazy. Can you ever shut that sucker off?
The blank page is the driving force of a creative person. I give myself time to go to the piano and write, but it does haunt me in the night. It's part of the brain that's different for scientists. When I sat down to write Love Will Keep Us Together in the early '70s, after just four bars of melody, I realized it was a hit. I just knew. I'm inspired by singers, and if you listen to Love Will Keep Us Together, you'll hear Al Green and Diana Ross and the Beatles. The slow version of Breaking Up Is Hard to Do was inspired by Dinah Washington, my favorite vocalist of all time.
With your Brill Building past, does it tick you off you're not in the Rock Hall of Fame? Heck, the way I see it, you built a wing of that place!
I don't want to go into that. That's political. There's only one person who matters and you know who that is. [Psst: He's talking about Rolling Stone publisher and HOF head Jann Wenner.] It'd be lovely to see it happen in my time. My comeback was bigger than Tina Turner's! They've called me a cerebral Buddy Holly and Roy Orbison!
Final question: One of your hits comes on the radio. Do you turn it off or turn it up?
I turn it louder! I love to listen to my work! They're my children!
Sean Daly can be reached at [email protected] Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.