By Jeff Marcus
There’s something hauntingly prophetic in Ricky Nelson’s 1962 hit “Teenage Idol.” In fact, it could easily stand as Fabian Forte’s musical biography (“Some people call me a teenage idol/Some people say they envy me/I guess they got no way of knowing/How lonesome I can be”).
Fabian Forte was easily one of the ’50s most popular teen dreams, leaning more toward Elvis Presley’s raw sexuality than the boy-next-door charms of Frankie Avalon or Bobby Rydell, his Philadelphia counterparts. In the looks department, Fabian was two parts Elvis with one part Ricky Nelson.
Even in song, Fabian’s small catalog of tunes has more in common with Elvis. While Frankie was crooning about “Venus” and Bobby was belting out lounge lizard classics like “Volaré,” Fabian was declaring “I’m A Man” and a “Tiger,” so “Turn Me Loose” (“Gonna get a 1,000 kicks/ Gonna kiss a thousand chicks/So turn me loose”). Ozzie and Harriet would certainly not have stood for that.
What sets Fabian apart from the dozens of others that became members of this club is that he didn’t seek out fame and fortune — it literally landed in his driveway.
Fabian Anthony Forte (his real name; many writings cite it erroneously as Fabiano) was 14-½ years old when he stood in his driveway and watched an ambulance whisk his very ill father off to the hospital. At the same time, a man drove up to his neighbor’s house. The man was struck by the scene unfolding in front of him.
“Are you interested in the rock and roll business?” the man asked a nearly sobbing Fabian, who had to stay behind to look after his two younger brothers. Fabian told the man to go to hell. That man was Bob Marcucci of Chancellor Records.
Fabian’s neighbor kept prodding him to talk to their friend. When it became apparent that Fabian’s father could no longer work, the young teen, who had a job in a drugstore delivering packages, reluctantly agreed to take a meeting with Marcucci.
“If I can make any money, I’ll give it a shot,” Fabian told the record executive.
Marcucci and crew quickly threw him into rehearsing (which made him uncomfortable), they picked out his wardrobe (which he hated), and put him on $30-a-week allowance (which he liked).
“I was a fish out of water. I was awkward and didn’t know what the hell I was doing,” exclaimed Fabian.
It showed. Fabian’s story isn’t exaggerated for entertainment’s sake. In viewing old television appearances, he resembles a kid who was thrown in the ocean without a life preserver. Fabian is stiff as a plank. His arms flap at his sides like wet noodles and his eyes wander all over the place as if to say, “Save me, I’m drowning.” He was. The guy looks as if he’s naked to the world (which he was once, in an infamous 1973 Playgirl spread, but that’s another story).
“At first I didn’t like it,” Fabian said during an interview at his 20-acre ranch in southwest Pennsylvania. “I was like a rebel without a clue.”
If Fabian is anything, he’s brutally honest: “I made my first record — a horrible, horrible record called ‘Shivers,’” which became a local hit.
Philadelphia gave birth to many teen idols, as “American Bandstand” was rooted there.
“I was brought over to meet Dick Clark. I did the next record, called ‘I’m In Love,’ which was not very good, either. It got such a great response from the audience, that the next song I did called ‘I’m A Man’ by Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, which I liked a lot and was very comfortable with, was giving me more experience, but I still felt like a fish out of water.” It became Fabian’s first national hit and landed firmly in the national Top 40, peaking at No. 31 in the winter of 1959.
Fabian never lost sight as to why he agreed to become a reluctant star.
“I was doing it for my family,” he says, as if he’s telling this story for the first time. “I didn’t really like what I was doing with the pompadour and the white bucks, which I f**king hated. But I had a goal.”
Within a 13 short months, Fabian placed eight songs in the Top 40, three of which made it into the Top 10. Not bad for a guy who never wanted to be a star and admits that he wasn’t much of a singer to begin with. Fabian became one of the first manufactured rock stars who rode the wave of fame simply because he had the look.
Like most teen idols, he had a one-year shelf life before the new flavor pushed him aside. Fabian placed one more record on the charts, a 1960 single called “Kissin’ And Twistin’.” It peaked at No. 91. Fabian’s recording career evaporated as quickly as it began.
Fabian also went Hollywood, a natural segue, as Elvis had shown the industry how profitable rock and roll could be. His 1959 movie hit, “Hound-Dog Man,” resembled Elvis’ “Love Me Tender,” released three years earlier. Even the photos of each star’s wardrobe test are eerily similar. Fabian is forever being criticized as the poor man’s Elvis Presley, but Conway Twitty, Ral Donner and Terry Stafford did the same thing.
“My road manager told me that Elvis was on the phone and that he wanted to meet me. I asked him, ‘Why?’ He came up to my hotel room, which I couldn’t believe. I opened up the door, and there he was.”
Fabian said that both of them appeared awkward at first; Elvis was said to be terribly insecure and felt threatened by others who could steal the spotlight.
“We started laughing and joking around, and Elvis told me that he was learning karate. I had four other guys in the room with me. Elvis said, ‘Have your four guys surround me. I want to practice my karate.’ He wanted to do it, and he did it, and he got around them and knocked them all on their ass. He ripped his pants, by the way. I gave him a pair of my pants to wear home. That’s how I met Elvis Presley.”
Eventually, Fabian became more comfortable performing, and it showed when he appeared as a guest on Dean Martin’s program. There is a great clip of the master crooner sharing a duet with Fabian on “I Love To Love.” Surrounded by a bevy of beauties, Dean tells Fabian: “Don’t touch nuttin’.” When Fabian belts out the lyrics “squeeze me” to one of the girls, Martin begins to hug him. Fabian delivers his line, “Not you” with precision timing. The guy showed that he clearly had potential.
Fabian became a capable actor, landing roles in John Wayne’s “North To Alaska” and “Bus Stop,” under the direction of the highly acclaimed Robert Altman, which Fabian calls a career high point.
“Acting came natural to me,” Fabian declares. Still unsure of himself, he adds, “I don’t know why.”
He held his own with screen legends, including Bing Crosby (“High Time”), Jimmy Stewart (“Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation” and “Dear Brigitte”) and Robert Redford (“Up Close And Personal.”)
Yet, Fabian’s uncertainty in himself reminds me the old cartoon gag, where the central character has a devil perched on one shoulder and an angel on the other. Fabian is always caught in a one-on-one tug of war with himself.
While Fabian never will be mistaken as one of the great singers of rock and roll, he hardly is the worst, as he has been dubbed by many critics (anyone remember Paul Petersen or Edd “Kookie” Byrnes?).
There is this thing that happens to all teenagers: They grow up. When adult life becomes complicated, and we learn that father didn’t always know best, we tend to embrace the things we held dear from our childhood. That rite of passage has allowed Fabian, who still tours for enthusiastic fans, to survive more than 50 years after he begrudgingly joined the teen idol club. And no one is more surprised about that than Fabian himself.
If you searched the world over, you couldn’t find a teen idol who differed more from Fabian than Neil Sedaka. The Brooklyn-born pianist studied at the prestigious Juilliard School of Music for six years at the prep level and a few years at the college level. Neil had every intention of becoming a classical musician and studied with renowned instructors like Rosina Levine.
At age 13, Neil discovered that he had a knack for writing songs. In high school, he was in a doo-wop group called The Tokens, who later had a hit with “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”; Sedaka had left the fold by that time.
Young Neil stumbled upon a 16-year-old poet who lived in his Brighton Beach apartment complex by the name of Howard Greenfield.
“He knocked at my door and asked if I wanted to write songs,” Sedaka says in his distinctive New York accent.
Sedaka was reluctant at first, “as I was too busy with my Chopin and Bach. But he convinced me, and I’m glad he did.” (The duo remained writing partners until Greenfield’s death March 4, 1986).
Prior to their Brill building fame, Sedaka and Greenfield penned several hits over at Atlantic Records for artists ranging from Clyde McPhatter and LaVern Baker to The Cookies, who later provided background vocals on Neil’s career-defining song, “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do.”
The musical partnership of Sedaka and Greenfield was the first in a long line of writing teams to be employed by Brill Building entrepreneurs Don Kirshner and Al Nevins for their publishing arm of Aldon Music in 1958.
Neil explains in spectacular detail just what a day in the life of the Brill Building was like: “We would go in from 10 a.m. until five in the afternoon. Howie and I were the first team. I was friends with Carole King, and I brought her up a few months later. Yes, we had our own cubicles with a piano and a desk. If you got a hit, you graduated to a room with a window. That was a big deal. It was the first time that it was young writers and an independent publisher writing for the young teenage market.”
The walls were thin at the Brill Building, and writing teams could hear what another group was doing next to them, creating a healthy competition as a result of cheap construction.
“I always wrote for myself,” Neil continues. “It was a lot of fun, and we lived and breathed music.”
One of the first jobs Sedaka and Greenfield had was to create some hits for teen singing sensation Connie Francis.
“I was playing all of my best ballads for her, because she just had a No. 1 record with ‘Who’s Sorry Now?’ and she was looking for a follow-up, thinking that she would want another ballad. She was bored, she was on the phone, she was writing in her diary, so I whispered to Howie that I’m going to play her ‘Stupid Cupid,’ and he said, ‘Oh, no — that’s not her style.’ I said, ‘I don’t give a shit; I’m playing it.’ She said after eight bars, ‘That’s my next record,”’ Sedaka remembers fondly. (The duo also wrote Francis’ signature tune “Where The Boys Are.”)
Neil was the first Brill Building artist to sing his own songs. Don Kirshner and Al Nevins set up an audition for Neil to sing for RCA Victor’s A&R man Steve Shoals, who had brought Elvis to the label over from Sun Records. Sedaka was signed to a recording contract, and from 1958 to 1963, “I was the Justin Bieber of the late ’50s through the early ’60s,” he says with a chuckle. Sedaka’s first national solo hit was “The Diary,” a song loosely based on the scribblings of Connie Francis during those song audition sessions.
The timing for Neil’s singing debut couldn’t have been better. Rock and roll had been hit hard by the Payola scandal, and many of its original performers were missing in action — Elvis was in the Army, Little Richard found God and Jerry Lee Lewis married his 13-year-old cousin. In an effort to clean up rock music, labels combed the landscape for the next clean teen dreamboat. They found a poster boy in Neil Sedaka.
From 1958 to 1963, Sedaka amassed 13 Top-40 hits, with six of them placing firmly in the national Top 10. “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do,” the song he is most identified with, reached No. 1 for two weeks in the summer of 1962.
Unlike many of his teen-idol counterparts, Sedaka was enormously successful in other countries, particularly the U.K. and Italy. It was in Italy that Neil created what essentially became the medium’s first real music videos. A company called Scopitone had jukeboxes with TV screens; Neil’s promo clips for “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do” and “Calendar Girl” are fascinating to view. “Calendar Girl,” in particular, is something you would see 21 years later on MTV. Filled with lavish sets and Busby Berkeley-esque showgirls, the promo film has all the posh production ingredients of an MGM Hollywood musical from the 1930s and 1940s.
While Sedaka was comfortable embracing the world of pop, he never lost his classical sensibilities, as the piano solo on “Calendar Girl” or the classical melodies of “Laughter In The Rain” and “Solitaire” clearly demonstrate. He was one of the first pop-rock artists to successfully blend rock and classical music together, long before The Beatles, The Moody Blues or the Electric Light Orchestra came along. Sedaka is the rock era’s original piano man.
By the end of 1962, Neil’s “aw shucks” image lost its flavor with the public at large. Like so many American performers who were cast aside in their native land, Neil relocated to England, where audiences continued to embrace and respect the early pioneers of the rock era.
“I was out of work in New York and in the United States. I figured since The Beatles came here and invaded, I would go to England. Why? Because the English were very faithful fans, especially for the original American rock and rollers — Gene Pitney, me and Bobby Vee were very big. At the request of one of my agents, I went and lived there for three years, and I recorded two successful albums in the U.K.,” Sedaka says.
That move set off one of the biggest musical comebacks in the rock era. It was in England that Neil met Elton John at a Bee Gees concert (Neil was good friends with the late Maurice Gibb).
“Elton said he was a fan of the old Neil Sedaka records. ‘Can I come over to your flat and listen?’ (to Neil’s new material), and I said absolutely. And he walked in with his sequins and his high-heel things and his rhinestone glasses. Elton played me ‘Candle In The Wind,’ which he had just written, and I cried.”
Elton then asked Neil to play him some of his new songs. When Neil finished, John told him that he could make him a recording star again in America. Neil asked Elton, who was the biggest rock star on the planet at the time, “Really?”
John had recently launched his own, Rocket Records, and signed Sedaka to the roster. The partnership produced an instant No. 1 hit with “Laughter In The Rain” in 1974 from the album “Sedaka’s Back.” A poignant track called “The Immigrant,” a song about John Lennon’s United States immigration difficulties, reached No. 22 in early ’75. Another No. 1-smash hit followed, when “Bad Blood” stayed at the top spot for three weeks, with Elton providing background vocals. In the same year, Sedaka earned the Record of the Year when Captain & Tennille had a No. 1 hit version of “Love Will Keep Us Together.” The composition originally was recorded by Sedaka on his 1973 U.K. LP “The Tra-La Days Are Over” and appeared stateside on “Sedaka’s Back” the following year.
But even more than Sedaka’s phenomenal comeback, it was the next song that took everyone by surprise. Sedaka dusted off his 13-year-old hit “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do” and rerecorded it as a ballad, taking it to No. 8 on the pop charts and No. 1 on the adult contemporary charts in 1976. To this day, Neil remains the only singer-songwriter to have a Top 10 hit with a different version of the same song. The only other song that achieve this feat was The Ventures’ “Walk, Don’t Run” and “Walk, Don’t Run ’64.”
So how did the Sedaka’s historical accomplishment come about?
“I was friends with Lenny Welch, who had a hit with ‘Since I Fell For You,’ and he was looking for a follow-up and I was noodling one day, by myself, at the piano, and I discovered that ‘Breaking Up’ worked as a slow ballad. I played it for him. He loved it, he recorded it and had a hit with it. I put it in my own show as an encore, and it got such a good reaction that I decided to re-record it as a ballad.”
Today, at age 72, Sedaka — who professed that he’s an amusement park “roller-coaster freak” and that he loves the music of Adele, Lady GaGa, John Mayer and Snow Patrol — still travels the world to perform for millions of adoring fans. He records in five languages and recently did a Yiddish album, as well as a collection called “Classically Sedaka,” writing original lyrics to Rachmaninoff and Chopin. Sedaka also released a successful children’s LP, where he changed the words to his classic hits, calling it “Waking Up Is Hard To Do.” He recently he recorded his first symphony and piano concertos with the London Philharmonic. He’s even the subject of a West End play called “Laughter In The Rain.” Perhaps, Sedaka should title his next album “Retiring Is Hard To Do.”
So why isn’t Neil Sedaka in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? After all, his piano-men contemporaries — Elton John and Billy Joel — are inducted.
“I deserve to be in it, because there are not many who have lasted so long, who have written so many hits, and I don’t mean to boast, but I deserve it,” Sedaka said, adding “I hope in my lifetime.”
Marcus is author of the two-book series “American Record Sleeves.” Visit his website at www.recordsleevebooks.com