Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen and Breaking Up is Hard to Do were among the signature tunes of my teenage years.
But these may never have made it onto the airwaves if their composer Neil Sedaka had chosen a different path.
The singer, whose career spans nearly 55 years, was heading for a life as a concert pianist before he diverted into the hedonistic world of rock and roll.
Few people may realise that it is because of this choice that Sedaka was once denied entry into the Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition in Moscow.
“I started life as a concert pianist, and then discovered I could write songs,” he explains. “I’ve been writing now for over 60 years. I’m very proud of the body of work, and I’m thrilled to get emails from all over the world from people who’ve enjoyed my work,” he adds.
“I started as a child prodigy, with a piano scholarship to the Juilliard School in New York. I went to the Prep School from age nine to 17, and then onto the college level. I studied with some great teachers, such as Rosina Lhevinne.
“I had every intention of becoming a concert pianist, but I had to make a decision in 1958, and I decided to travel the world as a singer-songwriter, and I started recording for RCA Records. I was one of the original American rock-and-rollers, with Roy Orbison and Buddy Holly.
“But I still have a great love of classical music, and my current British tour begins at the Royal Albert Hall, where they’ll be performing my symphonic piece Joie de Vivre, and I’ll be performing my Piano Concerto, Manhattan Intermezzo. So I’ve started to go back to my roots, and the Intermezzo was recorded on my last CD, The Real Neil, in the UK with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. I’m very excited about that.
“It’s a 20-minute piece in four movements, and is a combination of all the ethnic groups of Manhattan. Being a New Yorker I wanted musically to express all of the nationalities, and the melting-pot of New York city – Chinese, Latin, Russian, German, Italian.”
And so we come to the prestigious Tchaikovsky Competition. Are all these stories true?
“Yes! I was submitted, and they accepted me to come over to Moscow. But a few weeks before the audition was to take place they had linked my name with American capitalistic rock and roll, so I was disqualified and never got there.”
Neil goes on to remember which pieces he would have performed had he been admitted to arrive for audition in Moscow.
“The Prokofiev Third Piano Sonata, Chopin’s G minor Ballade, Debussy’s Reflets dans l’Eau, and some Bach Preludes and Fugues.”
It would have been good to have had a recording of Sedaka playing those pieces.
“Well, in fact there is one,” he adds.
“I won a piano competition in New York in 1956, playing that music. Artur Rubinstein was the judge, and I have a rare tape of it. I was chosen as the best New York City high school pianist, and I got to play on our classical radio station here in New York.”
As I tap away at my keyboard I’m a frequent listener to BBC WM, and a favoured record request is often Neil Sedaka’s own version of Nessun Dorma, Calaf’s great aria from Puccini’s opera Turandot. How did that conception come about?
“I wanted to bring classical music to people who don’t necessarily go to concerts, classical ‘serious’ concerts, so I came up with an idea of writing English words to famous melodies, like Rachmaninov, Schumann and Tchaikovsky, Beethoven...
“And the Nessun Dorma I called Turning Back the Hands of Time – not a literal translation! It did extremely well all over the world, and as a matter of fact I consider it my crowning glory. It was an 80-piece symphony orchestra, and it was one of my biggest-selling albums.”
Does he play any chamber music?
“Oh, I play a lot of chamber music! I still do, for my own enjoyment. Piano Quintets – I did the Brahms F minor, I did the Dvorak, the Shostakovitch, at home with friends.”
But in terms of commercial recordings, Sedaka feels the only “classical” pieces he would be happy to set down would be works he himself had written.
“I’ve written four, going on five pieces, some orchestral, some with the piano. But I’d leave Evgeny Kissin to be going on with the Bach, the Beethoven and the Schumann...”
*Neil Sedaka is in concert at Symphony Hall on November 3, 7.30pm. Details on 0121 345 0600.