The Brill Building, 1619 Broadway, New York, New York, circa 1962.Under the glass, that one spot reveals more about the history ofpop/rock than almost any other place on the globe. Heir to the fabledTin Pan Alley that spawned Irving Berlin and The Gershwins, thestill-standing Brill Building was the home of a crew of youngsongwriters, singers and at least one producer, Don Kirshner, who wouldchange the face of popular culture. One of the building’s other notablehabitues was a fresh-faced kid from Brooklyn with a glossy tenor, aclever harmonic sense and tons of ambition.
Born in Brooklyn in 1939, Neil Sedaka was a gifted pianist oncelauded by none other than Arthur Rubinstein as one of New York’s bestyoung players. Sedaka was on course to become a classical musician andeven enrolled at the famous Julliard School, but a collaboration thathe and neighbor Howie Greenfield began several years earlier would pullhim in a different direction. A slew of hit records, including theNumber One worldwide smash, “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do,”would come from their creative partnership.
“Howie, God rest his soul, was a wonderful man and a brilliantlyricist,” says Sedaka of his writing partner, who died of AIDSon his 50th birthday. “In two-and-a-half minutes, he could tellan entire story. His words almost felt like a novelette.” Itwould take several years for the pair to pen their first hit,“Stupid Cupid,” which Connie Francis recorded in 1958. Shelater had a colossal hit with “Where the Boys Are,” writtenby Sedaka and Greenfield for the movie of the same name. They were only13 when they began working together.
Sedaka was nothing if not precocious. He formed The Tokens in 1954when he was just 15. “I was sitting in math class one day atLincoln High School and I heard a kid humming in a quiet falsetto voicenext to me,” the singer recalls. “His name was Jay Siegeland his voice was extraordinary. I asked him if he wanted to be in agroup with me, and that’s how The Tokens were born.” Alas, by thetime the group, led by Siegel’s soaring falsetto, hit it big with“The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” Sedaka had moved on and hit thebig time on his own.
Sedaka and Greenfield were well-established hit-makers by the time“Breaking Up Is Hard to Do” was released, having scored anumber of Top 20 singles, many of which were recorded by Sedaka.“The Diary,” “I Go Ape” and “Oh!Carol” had catapulted the pair into the upper echelon of poppartnerships at a time when Carole King and Gerry Goffin, and BarryMann and Cynthia Weil were also making a name for themselves.
“We’d all get together on a daily basis and play our newmaterial for each other,” Sedaka says. “No one wasimpressed with ‘Breaking Up Is Hard to Do.’” In fact,Sedaka says he had to prod Greenfield to supply lyrics to the tune.“Howie wasn’t impressed either! I put it aside for severalmonths, but I was persistent and eventually convinced him to writewords for it.”
Despite the lukewarm reception the song had engendered from hiscolleagues, Sedaka had a strong feeling about it and pushed Al Nevins— his manager, producer and engineer — to track the song. Asession was booked in the spring of 1962 at RCA Victor on East 24thStreet in Manhattan. Sedaka’s memories of the date are vivid.
“All we had to work with were four tracks, so we had to bevery careful in the recording process,” he says. “I used tolove the sound Les Paul and Mary Ford got from overdubbing, and Icopied it a bit; in fact, I was one of the first singers to multitrackmy own harmonies.”
The self-described “King of the Tra-la-la’s andDoo-be-doo’s,” Sedaka recalls, “Every time I ran out oflyrics, I’d throw in a ‘doo-be-doo,’ and it became atrademark. In fact, the night before we tracked ‘Breaking Up IsHard to Do,’ I called up our arranger, Alan Lorber, and told himI wanted to incorporate ‘down dooby doo down down’ as aprominent part of the vocal arrangement. The record came to be known asthe sandwich song. There’s a piece of bread to begin with — thesyllabization — then the meat and finally another piece of bread.All of my hits in the ’50s and ’60s used this sametechnique.”
On his way into Manhattan the following day, Sedaka picked up TheCookies, the three background singers who lent their talents to therecord. The Cookies, who went on to record some hits of their own, hadthe naughty sound and attitude that was popular at the time. Sedakataught them their parts on the trip into town. “I remember thatthe band thought I was nuts when we started adding background vocalsthroughout the entire song prior to recording my lead vocal,” henotes. “But Al Nevins, whose contribution to my recordings wasvery important, was extremely patient with me. Al was an excellentguitarist who had had a hit in the ’50s called ‘TwilightTime’ with his group the Three Suns.
“I was a real kvetch, and I wanted to be involved everystep of the way. Because there was so much bouncing done in those days,mixing was a part of the recording process, and I made sure that thetracks went down properly, listening on small speakers to be sure thatall of the vocals — the lead in particular — cut through. Iwanted the high end to cut through, because my voice had a lot oftreble and I was a bit of an egomaniac. I wanted to bury everyoneelse!”
The completed background tracks — comprising three tracks ofSedaka throughout the song and The Cookies, who entered in the releaseand executed three-part harmony on the fade — were bounced alongwith the musical parts as a stereo pair, leaving two tracks forSedaka’s lead vocal. In those days, records were mixed and put on theair in short order. Released in June 1962, “Breaking Up Is Hardto Do” entered the charts at Number 62 and quickly made its wayto the pinnacle.
“Imagine! I was just a pisher — a 22-year-old kidfrom Brooklyn — and my record was on top!” he marvelstoday. True, no one ever got more mileage out of a 1-4-2-5 verseprogression, and the lead vocal glues a release whose harmony elidessurprisingly, but what does Sedaka view as the principal attraction of“Breaking Up Is Hard to Do”? “I think the song isunusual because it coupled a sad lyric with a happy tune. My successhas always had some pathos, a bit of a Chaplin-esque quality aboutit.”
Fourteen years after its original release, Sedaka re-recorded“Breaking Up Is Hard to Do” for Elton John’s RocketRecords. Slowing down the tempo and delivering the song as a gin millballad, Sedaka once again topped the chart with the song, making himthe only artist ever to have two Number One records of a song at twodifferent tempos.
These days, the 64-year-old Sedaka is still hard at work. Heperforms two weeks out of every month; has a new CD, The Show GoesOn, which can be purchased through his Website (www.neilsedaka.com); and has just finished work onan album of Yiddish material, which he recorded in Los Angeles withJohn Ross at the board. “It’s time for me to go back to myroots,” Sedaka says simply.
Neil Sedaka’s “Breaking Up is Hard to Do” rose to Number Oneon the charts in August of 1962. Remembering is hard to do? Click here for the rundown of the top hits fromthat year..