By Jeanne Sager
MONTICELLO February 14, 2006 He sings like the guy next door.
For Sullivan residents, he really is.
The man who brought the world Laughter in the Rain, admitted Breakin Up Is Hard to Do, still owns property in Merriewold between Monticello and Forestburgh.
And Neil Sedaka credits Sullivan County with starting him on the path to a six-decade career in show business.
Going to the mountains was a big thing, he recalled. We stopped at the Red Apple Rest, of course, and I had my hot dog.
A Legendary History
The Sedaka family was vacationing in Livingston Manor at the Kenmore Hotel when a lady named Ella Greenfield heard Neil practicing on the resort piano.
A student at the Juilliard school of music in New York City, 13-year-old Sedaka thought he was on the way to becoming a classical pianist.
But back in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, the Greenfields had another plan.
Howard Greenfield lived on the other side of the same building as the Sedakas. On October 11, 1952, at his mothers urging, he knocked on their door.
Greenfield was a poet, and Sedaka a musician.
He proposed getting together to write songs.
I said, I dont know how to write pop songs, Sedaka recalled with a laugh.
But he agreed to try his hand at composing and found his love of music expanding into the popular genre.
His mother, he recalled, was disappointed.
Eleanor Sedaka wanted her son to be a classical pianist.
The family came from humble means Mac Sedaka drove a cab but Neil was supposed to make something of himself.
When I became a celebrity, everybody changed their tune, he recalled. After a few hits, my mother would open the window in Brighton Beach and say, Neils on the radio!
Sedakas collaboration with Greenfield lasted 30 some years.
In just the four-year span between 1959 and 1963, the duo sold more than 25 million records.
Love in the Mountains
Sedakas first real success came with Connie Francis recording of his song Stupid Cupid.
Its a song he said convinced his wife, Leba, that he was serious.
It was 1958, and Leba Strassberg was 16 years old, working behind the desk at her parents resort, Esther Manor, on Route 17B outside Monticello.
He was 19, and hed been booked with his band, the Nordanelles, to play Esther Manor that summer.
It was love at first sight, Sedaka recalled.
But he had to convince the family.
Esther Strassberg was very upset when she saw the group of teenagers walk into her hotel.
When we walked in, she said, Im sorry, all the waiter and busboy positions have been filled, Sedaka said with a laugh. We said, No, were the band.
Esther called booking agent Charlie Rapp in a panic, Sedaka said, but she agreed to let the boys audition.
They won the gig by impressing the audience, and Esther let them stay. (This was a fair amount better than Sedaka did at his last job in the county. He was fired from a job as a camp counselor at the Stevensville because he kept oversleeping!)
Sedaka set about impressing Leba, telling her he was a songwriter.
She said, Thats ridiculous, I dont know anybody who writes songs, Sedaka said with a laugh.
But when she took a trip to New York City and heard Stupid Cupid on the radio, she was hooked.
The couple began dating, and while Sedaka was on tour, Leba would sign letters to his fans during study hall at Monticello High School.
A Second Home
Hed return to Sullivan County to perform in the resorts and to see his love.
He learned to ski at Holiday Mountain, went for Chinese food at Bernies in Rock Hill.
He worked with Jackie Mason, who was then social director at Esther Manor.
He played the Nevele, Grossingers, the Pines, the Raleigh, the Concord.
He distinctly remembers the knockers on the tables of the Concord that the guests used to show their appreciation for the music.
If the audience didnt like you, theyd walk out, Sedaka explained. But theyd eaten so much for dinner they couldnt clap, so theyd use the knockers.
I got a few knockers, but not enough!
He found fans and developed as a singer in his time in the Catskills.
It was a wonderful training ground for a musician, he said. It was a difficult audience, the Jewish audience, because they were very picky.
But with his success as a writer, he began to earn fame as a performer too.
He recorded the much-covered Breakin Up Is Hard to Do, Calendar Girl, and Next Door to an Angel.
Esther Strassberg still was unsure whether this rock-and-roll star was as good for her daughter as a lawyer or doctor, but she gave in with some cajoling from husband Irving.
When Sedaka and Leba married on Sept. 11, 1962, they celebrated at the Concord and later purchased a second home in Merriewold Park to spend time near her family.
The gated community was an artistic community, Sedaka said, but it was hard to crack.
It was a bit of a scandal when I bought . . . if they didnt like you, they didnt give you electricity, so youd have a house but you couldnt turn the lights on! he explained. Being a rock n roller, they were a bit concerned about me, but I was a family man.
They soon warmed up to the Sedakas, and the couple became close with the parks other famous residents, Agnes DeMille, Bruce Cousin Brucie Morrow, George Abbott and summer resident Carol Burnett.
Hungry Years Give Way
To Laughter in the Rain
The Sedakas raised their children in Brooklyn and Sullivan County, then moved to London during what he calls the hungry years.
Hed sold 40 million records from 1958 to 1963, and then the Beatles came to town.
From 1963 to 1975, he was out of work as a singer, but Sedaka continued to write.
Artists like the Monkees and Tom Jones had hits with his words.
But he didnt get back into the studio and back on the charts until he had a chance meeting with Elton John at a BeeGees concert.
He said, You can be as big as Carole King, Sedaka recalled.
Ironic, as Carole King was once Carol Klein, Sedakas high school girlfriend, the girl for whom he penned the hit, Oh, Carol. She responded with Oh, Neil.
John signed Sedaka to his Rocket Record label, and suddenly, Sedaka was back.
He released Sedakas Back and The Hungry Years, both top-selling albums, and he gave the world Laughter in the Rain and launched Captain and Tenille to stardom with Love Will Keep Us Together.
I was no longer a ghost from the 50s, Sedaka said with a laugh.
The Offers Keep Coming,
But I Remember My Roots
Today Sedaka is still touring. Since Esthers death three years ago, the couple limits their visits to the county to once a year when they visit Lebas aunts, Shirley Goldstein and Irene Asman.
Their daughter, Dara, now works on radio and television jingles in New York.
The 41-year-old had a hit with her dad in the 1980s, Shouldve Never Let You Go, one of the few father-daughter collaborations to ever make it to the top of the charts.
Marc Sedaka, 39, is a screenwriter in Hollywood. He and his wife have three children, 3-year-old twins Charlotte and Amanda and 5-month-old Ethan Michael, who keep Neil and Leba in Hollywood much of the time.
Sedakas songs have been recorded by artists as diverse as Perry Como and Clay Aiken, Sheryl Crow and Englebert Humperdink.
Breakin Up is Hard to Do has been listed as one of the top 50 most recorded songs of the 20th century.
And Sedaka said he owes it all to his beginnings.
It was a great way growing up, he said. What did I love about Sullivan County? The atmosphere, the clean air, the social life . . .
He recently put his stamp of approval on a play, set in Sullivan County, that features 15 Sedaka songs.
Hes been approached before, even got an offer from the legendary Andrew Lloyd Webber.
But he said yes to Breakin Up is Hard to Do because the production team impressed him.
I liked their approach, liked their enthusiasm, he said. We sat down, and I gave them some information about the mountains.
He had a lot of help from Leba filling in the details.
Now the play is showing in Coral Gables, Fla. Sedaka said theres a chance it might one day make it to Broadway.
Hell make it back to New York next month with a performance in Purchase on Saturday, March 4, and another the following day in Dix Hills.
From there hell head overseas, but Sedaka will be back in the country in May with performances scheduled in Englewood, NJ and Brooklyn.
A new collection of songs in Yiddish, songs he sang as a kid at bar mitzvahs and weddings, is on sale on his Web-site, www.neilsedaka.com.
Its nice that people whove grown up with me in Sullivan County come to the concerts, he said. I think people do relate to me because I was always very attainable.
I remember where I came from, remembered my roots.
And he learned to tell a story in 2 and a half minutes of song, he said, the stories of life.