Saturday, January 23, 2010

Honoring the Music

Category: 50 Songs to Hear

SONG: Stephen
ARTIST: Neil Sedaka
SONGWRITERS: Neil Sedaka / Howard Greenfield
ALBUM: The Hungry Years
YEAR/LABEL: 1975; Rocket

I'm pretty passive, except when it comes to my music.
(Neil Sedaka)

One of the largest holes in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame could easily be filled by the induction of Neil Sedaka. His songwriting skills, long list of hits, and six decades as an entertainer stand as his chief credentials. The only possible reason that he is not in the Hall of Fame is the perception that he is "pop." (For the record, the Platters were also pop -- yet they are in the Hall of Fame.)

Yes, Neil Sedaka is pop. And he's darn good at it. Sedaka was, and remains, one of the voices that defined the pre-Beatles music scene. Modern people scoff at the "light" or "meaningless" music of that era. There indeed was an innocence to those days, and Sedaka was a master of that outlook. He delivered his lyrics with an infectious, smiling voice that one could not help but like. Sedaka was not trying to change the world in the 60s, he was trying to make the listener feel good. And, more times than not, he succeeded.

Sedaka's popularity faded in the States as Beatlemania arrived and "innocence" gave way to the turbulence of the later 60s; however, he found a devoted following in England. Among his fans numbered one Elton John, the most successful music act of the 1970s. In a time when Elton could do no wrong (1973) he formed a record company, Rocket, and one of his first signings was Neil Sedaka. In 1974 the label released "Laughter in the Rain" as a single and Sedaka was back, as the album title said, and at the top of the Billboard charts. The next year, Elton teamed up with Neil on the song "Bad Blood,' from the album The Hungry Years, and Sedaka scored his second #1 song within a year.

The star of The Hungry Years is not the big hit but rather the lovely, haunting "Stephen." In the song Sedaka pays tribute to the father of American music, Stephen Collins Foster. Foster lived long before the era of recorded music, yet his songs remain to this day firmly ingrained in the fabric of America (two states have Foster songs as state songs: Florida's "Old Folks at Home" and "My Old Kentucky Home," which may be the best-known state song in existence thanks to the Kentucky Derby). In this marvelous ballad Sedaka acknowledges the debt that every songwriter for the past 150-plus years owes to Foster for making their job possible when he sings, "I can feel your magic in my fingers."

Sedaka begins the song by asking, "Have we traveled down this road together? Tell me, Stephen, are we part of one another?" Sedaka knows the ups and downs of life as a songwriter (he began as a "staff songwriter" and had several of his songs rejected for sounding "too intellectual") that Foster -- and every songwriter since -- endured. In the chorus Sedaka promises the master, "I'll be your voice, I'll be your hands. Come touch the world again."

Neil Sedaka remains one of the great artists of American music, and "Stephen" is one of his great contributions to the world of music.


The entire The Hungry Years album
-- Sedaka looks at getting older ("Crossroads"), life as a musician ("Your Favorite Entertainer"), and proves he's still a great pop ("Lonely Night [Angel Face]," a hit for the Captain and Tennille) AND "deep" ("New York City Blues") songwriter.

"Solitaire" (from Sedaka's Back) -- this is one marvelous number. People ranging from the Carpenters (who had a hit with the song) to Elvis to Shirley Bassey to Clay Aiken have covered it, but there's nothing like hearing the man who wrote it deliver it in all its emotional power.

Any "oldies" compilation -- too often modern music is far too cynical. Cure the cynicism by listening to some music that was designed to make you feel good -- and I guarantee Sedaka's oldies, from "Oh Carol!" to "Breaking Up Is Hard to Do" to "Calendar Girl," will do exactly that.

"King of Clowns" (available on All-Time Greatest Hits) -- and speaking of oldies, do not pass up the opportunity to hear one of Sedaka's greatest songs, from then or since. A marvelous broken-heart tune that should have been a much, much bigger hit.


When I Lift Up My Head
Rose of My Heart
Rock of Ages, Hide Thou Me
Our Town
Old Memories Mean Nothing to Me
Not That I Care
Nobody Eats at Linebaugh's Anymore
My Book of Memories
Lost to a Stranger
A Little Bitty Heart
Life Has Its Little Ups and Downs
Life is Too Short
I Want a Home in Dixie
I Lost Today
Down to the River to Pray
Don't Let the Stars Get in Your Eyeballs
A Death in the Family
Dark as a Dungeon
Bottomless Well

Stealin' Time
Starting Tomorrow
Sleep's Dark and Silent Gate
She's a Runaway
Painted Bells
Out to Sea
One More Song
New Delhi Freight Train
Long Way Home
Heart of Rome
Harriet Tubman's Gonna Carry Me Home
Entella Hotel
Desperados Under the Eaves
Crossing Muddy Waters
Cliffs of Dooneen
Bruised Orange (Chain of Sorrow)
Baby Mine

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