Neil Sedaka's Breaking Up Is Hard to Do

Jan 1, 2004 12:00 PM, By Gary Eskow


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The Brill Building, 1619 Broadway, New York, New York, circa 1962. Under the glass, that one spot reveals more about the history of pop/rock than almost any other place on the globe. Heir to the fabled Tin Pan Alley that spawned Irving Berlin and The Gershwins, the still-standing Brill Building was the home of a crew of young songwriters, singers and at least one producer, Don Kirshner, who would change the face of popular culture. One of the building's other notable habitues was a fresh-faced kid from Brooklyn with a glossy tenor, a clever harmonic sense and tons of ambition.

Born in Brooklyn in 1939, Neil Sedaka was a gifted pianist once lauded by none other than Arthur Rubinstein as one of New York's best young players. Sedaka was on course to become a classical musician and even enrolled at the famous Julliard School, but a collaboration that he and neighbor Howie Greenfield began several years earlier would pull him in a different direction. A slew of hit records, including the Number 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 brilliant lyricist,” says Sedaka of his writing partner, who died of AIDS on his 50th birthday. “In two-and-a-half minutes, he could tell an entire story. His words almost felt like a novelette.” It would take several years for the pair to pen their first hit, “Stupid Cupid,” which Connie Francis recorded in 1958. She later had a colossal hit with “Where the Boys Are,” written by Sedaka and Greenfield for the movie of the same name. They were only 13 when they began working together.

Sedaka was nothing if not precocious. He formed The Tokens in 1954 when he was just 15. “I was sitting in math class one day at Lincoln High School and I heard a kid humming in a quiet falsetto voice next to me,” the singer recalls. “His name was Jay Siegel and his voice was extraordinary. I asked him if he wanted to be in a group with me, and that's how The Tokens were born.” Alas, by the time the group, led by Siegel's soaring falsetto, hit it big with “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” Sedaka had moved on and hit the big 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 a number 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 pop partnerships at a time when Carole King and Gerry Goffin, and Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil were also making a name for themselves.

“We'd all get together on a daily basis and play our new material for each other,” Sedaka says. “No one was impressed 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 several months, but I was persistent and eventually convinced him to write words for it.”

Despite the lukewarm reception the song had engendered from his colleagues, Sedaka had a strong feeling about it and pushed Al Nevins — his manager, producer and engineer — to track the song. A session was booked in the spring of 1962 at RCA Victor on East 24th Street in Manhattan. Sedaka's memories of the date are vivid.

“All we had to work with were four tracks, so we had to be very careful in the recording process,” he says. “I used to love the sound Les Paul and Mary Ford got from overdubbing, and I copied it a bit; in fact, I was one of the first singers to multitrack my own harmonies.”

The self-described “King of the Tra-la-la's and Doo-be-doo's,” Sedaka recalls, “Every time I ran out of lyrics, I'd throw in a ‘doo-be-doo,’ and it became a trademark. In fact, the night before we tracked ‘Breaking Up Is Hard to Do,’ I called up our arranger, Alan Lorber, and told him I wanted to incorporate ‘down dooby doo down down’ as a prominent part of the vocal arrangement. The record came to be known as the sandwich song. There's a piece of bread to begin with — the syllabization — then the meat and finally another piece of bread. All of my hits in the '50s and '60s used this same technique.”

On his way into Manhattan the following day, Sedaka picked up The Cookies, the three background singers who lent their talents to the record. The Cookies, who went on to record some hits of their own, had the naughty sound and attitude that was popular at the time. Sedaka taught them their parts on the trip into town. “I remember that the band thought I was nuts when we started adding background vocals throughout the entire song prior to recording my lead vocal,” he notes. “But Al Nevins, whose contribution to my recordings was very important, was extremely patient with me. Al was an excellent guitarist who had had a hit in the '50s called ‘Twilight Time’ with his group the Three Suns.

“I was a real kvetch, and I wanted to be involved every step 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 the tracks went down properly, listening on small speakers to be sure that all of the vocals — the lead in particular — cut through. I wanted the high end to cut through, because my voice had a lot of treble and I was a bit of an egomaniac. I wanted to bury everyone else!”

The completed background tracks — comprising three tracks of Sedaka throughout the song and The Cookies, who entered in the release and executed three-part harmony on the fade — were bounced along with the musical parts as a stereo pair, leaving two tracks for Sedaka's lead vocal. In those days, records were mixed and put on the air in short order. Released in June 1962, “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do” entered the charts at Number 62 and quickly made its way to the pinnacle.

“Imagine! I was just a pisher — a 22-year-old kid from Brooklyn — and my record was on top!” he marvels today. True, no one ever got more mileage out of a 1-4-2-5 verse progression, and the lead vocal glues a release whose harmony elides surprisingly, but what does Sedaka view as the principal attraction of “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do”? “I think the song is unusual because it coupled a sad lyric with a happy tune. My success has always had some pathos, a bit of a Chaplin-esque quality about it.”

Fourteen years after its original release, Sedaka re-recorded “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do” for Elton John's Rocket Records. Slowing down the tempo and delivering the song as a gin mill ballad, Sedaka once again topped the chart with the song, making him the only artist ever to have two Number One records of a song at two different tempos.

These days, the 64-year-old Sedaka is still hard at work. He performs two weeks out of every month; has a new CD, The Show Goes On, which can be purchased through his Website (; and has just finished work on an album of Yiddish material, which he recorded in Los Angeles with John Ross at the board. “It's time for me to go back to my roots,” Sedaka says simply.

Neil Sedaka's "Breaking Up is Hard to Do" rose to Number One on the charts in August of 1962. Remembering is hard to do? Click here for the rundown of the top hits from that year..

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