His were the songs our parents let us listen to when we were kids because they were sweet and clean and nothing like “that infernal rap.” Fifty years after our parents were dancing at the sock hop to Neil Sedaka, the singer/songwriter is back – again – with Waking Up is Hard to Do. In a tribute to his grandkids (including the six-year-old granddaughters who sing back-up on the album), Sedaka has re-tooled his own songs into an album of kid-friendly doo-wop hits: “Love Will Keep Us Together” has become “Lunch Will Keep Us Together,”"Calendar Girl” turned into “Dinosaur Pet,” and so forth. He talked with Babble about performing with kids and for kids, and proved he’s one of those old-time performers you wouldn’t mind adopting as a surrogate grandpa. – Jeanne Sager
So, your first Billboard hit was in 1958. Fifty years later you’re doing kids’ music.
I have three delicious grandchildren. The twin girls will be six, and the boy is three. And they inspired me to do a children’s album. I always played my big hits on their piano. I came up with the idea of changing the lyrics to suit children. I don’t know if you have a copy yet?
I do, and I listened to it with my three-year-old, and she loves it. She’s been running around singing “Dinosaur Pet.”
How wonderful! Did she listen to “Happy Birthday Number Three”?
She did, and she doesn’t remember that she’s three – she keeps telling me that she’s two-and-a-half even though she’s three-and-a-half. So she said, “We can play this on my birthday.”
Neil Sedaka sings with his daughter, 1980
That makes me feel good. I get that reaction from everyone who has children. So maybe I’ve hit on something. The melodies, of course, are known by the parents and grandparents. The little ones will probably think these are the original lyrics to the original tunes. It was a labor of love, and also my six-year-old granddaughters did the background vocals.
This wasn’t your first time working with kids. You worked with your daughter when she was still a kid, didn’t you?
Thank you for remembering. Dara was sixteen. And it was one of the few father-and-daughter hits. It was called “Should Have Never Let You Go.” (See video at right.) We did all the television shows that year. The Johnny Carson, the Mike Douglas, the Merv Griffin. We did so many concerts in that year, but she decided that show business was not for her.
How did Dad feel about that?
Whatever makes her happy. I was a little disappointed, because she could have been a major star. She had a marvelous voice, and David Foster did an album for her. It was a surprise, but you know, not everybody is cut out for show business. It takes a certain personality.
Now your granddaughters are your son’s kids?
Yes, my son has the two girls and the boy.
How did your son and his wife feel about the girls being pulled in on this project?
My daughter-in-law was thrilled. She said, “I always hoped you’d do a duet with my kids.” It really was a thrill being in the studio. As a matter of a fact, I was on CBS morning television, and there’s a clip of my granddaughters in the studio. (See video, previous page.) The reason I got them to sing for that long on a microphone in a studio was I bribed them with cookies and candy.
As every grandfather has to do.
That’s right. They think every Papa can sing and write songs, because I’ve been singing to them all their lives. It’s very strange when they see me in concert; it’s a mixed emotion. They are almost a little jealous that I am being shared by the audience. Charlotte has said to me, “But you’re my Papa! You sing to me in my living room, and now all these people are listening to you and asking for your autograph.” They are a little bit jealous.
How did they feel about having the old songs changed?
They were delighted by the songs. As a matter of fact, Charlotte and Amanda always say, “Oh, we can share them with our friends now.” They go to parties and they have sleepovers, and they can share them with their friends.
I needed help with the lyrics. Instead of “macaroni and cheese,” it’s “mac and cheese” today.
It’s kind of a guessing game when you turn on the album and you start listening and trying to figure out which song they came from. Some are very obvious – Breaking Up is Hard to Do became Waking Up is Hard To Do – but then Calendar Girl became Dinosaur Pet. You kind of have to know Sedaka to know what you’re listening to.
The tune is familiar, but you have to listen for awhile. My son has helped me with several of the lyrics, since he has little ones; instead of “macaroni and cheese,” it’s “mac and cheese” today.
What made you think that doo-wop would work for today’s kids in general, not just your own grandkids?
They’re very happy songs; they came from a time when the songs were very positive and very naïve and very happy and very uplifting.
What else are the girls listening to now?
Oh, you know, Dora the Explorer. They have their own DVDs in the car and when we go on planes. Every December I take them to Hawaii for ten days where Papa does a concert, and they get to swim with the dolphins.
I’ll adopt you as my grandfather!
Thank you, get in line! I love being with them. You know, I’m a kid at heart, and I think part of my appeal is “Oh, you know, he looks like my favorite uncle,” or “He’s reachable, he’s touchable, he’s not aloof.” I think that’s part of my success. And I would see people taking children to my concerts even before I did this album.