Neil Sedaka is an American singer-songwriter who has written dozens of hit songs. Many of them he sang himself. Others are better known in cover versions by artists ranging from Elvis Presley to Ariana Grande.
Sedaka’s wholesome image and infectious cheerfulness are easy to slight and have too often belied an extraordinary career. His song “The Immigrant” was a Top 30 hit when he released it in 1975, but today it seems even more relevant, as debates rage in the United States over immigration, repatriation and racism.
Recent events along the US-Mexican border have revealed how easy it still is for restrictionists and xenophobes to gain the upper hand, and to enact hard-line policies that inflict misery on people drawn to the US in hopes of a better life. Sedaka dedicated “The Immigrant” to John Lennon, who at the time was mired in a bitter dispute with US authorities over his application for permanent residence in America. “I thought the song was beautiful”, Lennon told Sedaka after watching him perform it on TV, “Yoko and I were watching and we loved it”.
A musical talent at eight-years-old
Born in Brooklyn, New York in 1939, Sedaka was only eight-years-old when he began to attend the Juilliard School of Music on a piano scholarship. By the time he was thirteen, though, his interests had shifted decisively from classical to popular music, and after teaming up with his neighbour, the 16-year-old lyricist Howie Greenfield, they found work in the fabled Brill Building on Broadway, where professional hit-makers wrote rock ‘n’ roll songs for an exploding teenage market.
Sedaka composed songs for some of the great Black female singers of the late 1950s, including LaVern Baker (“I Waited Too Long”) and Dinah Washington (“Never Again”), but he scored his biggest success with Connie Francis, for whom he and Greenfield penned the trivial “Stupid Cupid”. Their range and growth as a songwriting team, however, was evident by 1960, when they wrote the lush ballad “Where the Boys Are”, which Francis recorded for the “spring break” movie of the same title, and which many artists have since covered.
Sedaka’s career as a singer took off during these same years. Beginning in 1959, he produced a string of bubbly, doo-bee-doo-wappy hits such as “Oh! Carol”, “Calendar Girl” and “Happy Birthday, Sweet Sixteen”, before achieving his first number one record with “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do”. During these years, Sedaka sold 25 million records, second only to Elvis, and unlike Elvis, he wrote or co-wrote his own songs.
And then the wheels came off. The Beatles arrived, revolutionizing the music scene in America as they had already done in Britain, and immediately casting successful solo acts like Sedaka (as well as Paul Anka, Ricky Nelson, Frankie Avalon, Fabian, Elvis and others) into cultural obscurity.
Sedaka continued to write and record songs, but his most notable airplay during these years came when other people sang his music, including The Monkees, The Fifth Dimension, Tom Jones and Tony Christie (“Is This The Way To Amarillo”).
By 1971, Sedaka had abandoned hope of making his comeback in the United States and moved his family to England, where he played rough working men’s clubs in the north and tried hard to get his voice back on the radio. His luck turned when he recorded an album with the future members of 10cc (best known for their number one hit, “I’m Not In Love”), and met Elton John, who signed him to his Rocket Record Company, and re-launched him in America.
The comeback attempt worked, and Sedaka stormed again to the pinnacles of popular success with his album Sedaka’s Back and singles like “That’s When the Music Takes Me,” “Laughter in the Rain” (his first number one since “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do”), “Bad Blood” (another number one, with Elton John on backing vocals), “Solitaire” (covered by The Carpenters, Jann Arden, Sheryl Crow, Clay Aiken and many others), and “Love Will Keep Us Together” (the best-selling single of 1975, not for Sedaka, but for The Captain and Tennille).
“The Immigrant” belongs to this period. Strikingly different from the love songs and ballads that make up the bulk of Sedaka’s output, it was among the finest products of his new songwriting partnership with the lyricist Phil Cody, and it took Sedaka as close as he ever came to political controversy.
The issue of immigration was important to Sedaka and Cody. Sedaka’s parents both came from Jewish families who relocated to New York. His mother’s origins were Russian-Polish. His father’s were Turkish.
Cody’s father, meanwhile, emigrated from Sicily to New York in 1930 with dreams of becoming an opera singer, but he spent his career as a carpenter. Cody said he wrote the lyric for “The Immigrant” with his dad in mind, but it also clearly arises from painful personal experience. “I spent a lifetime being teased about being a little dark Italian kid in a white Protestant neighbourhood,” he remarked recently.
In “The Immigrant”, Cody and Sedaka do not go back to the beginning of international migration to America when roughly 30,000 years ago, the ancestors of the Indigenous peoples of the Americas crossed over from Asia.
Instead, they concentrate on the powerful allure of what for more than two centuries has been known as “the American Dream” of freedom, equality and opportunity, and the ways in which that dream — then as now – was being betrayed by intolerance and self-interest, as indeed it had been betrayed from the start by vigilante and legislative agendas that were virulently anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic, anti-African, anti-Asian and anti-communist.
There were, he imagines, harbours with open doors, billboards with advertisements, “plains and open skies”, “dream boats” travelling “to the heart of America,” and people “waiting in line for a place by the river.” “Was it anything like that when you arrived?” he asks his father. Cody begins the lyric with a vision of what the United States was like when his father (“the young searching foreigner”) arrived “to live in the light of…liberty”.
In the chorus, Cody is much more confident. Steeped in nostalgia, he asserts that, when his father settled in New York, “It was a time when strangers were welcome here”.
Sedaka’s music enhances the optimism of Cody’s words, lifting the emotional register of the song, and displaying his immense gift for the memorable melody. Above all, the chorus speaks directly to the belief that shaped the US as a nation of immigrants: “people could come from everywhere”.
In the second verse, Cody makes it plain that those days of acceptance are gone. “Now,” in the 1970s, people still arrive with hearts “set on miracles”, but they are turned away, and the promises of the “magical land called America” are denied to them.
Sedaka closes the song with a return to the hope of the chorus, and a reaffirmation of the America Dream that places “The Immigrant” in the same tradition as Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus” (1883), the sonnet affixed to the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”.
The promises of the US have always been threatened by powerful forces both within and without the country. Cody and Sedaka’s song concerns the liberal ideals of freedom and cultural plurality that drew people like Cody’s father and Sedaka’s grandfather to America, and that in the current political climate are once again under siege.
Like many great songwriters, Sedaka has fallen in and out of favour. But at his finest, he composed songs that lodge themselves firmly in the mind, and that remains moving and relevant. In “The Immigrant”, he speaks out on one of the most controversial issues in all of American history and champions a vision of the country that prizes compassion and diversity.
Lyrics to ‘The Immigrant’
Harbors opened their arms to the young searching foreigner
Come to live in the light of the beacon of liberty
Plains and open skies, bill boards would advertise
Was it anything like that when you arrived?
Dream boats carried the future to the heart of America
People were waiting in line for a place by the river
It was time when strangers were welcome here
Music would play
They tell me the days were sweet and clear
It was a sweeter tune, and there was so much room
That people could come from everywhere
Now he arrives with his hopes, and his heart set on miracles
Come to marry his fortune with a hand full of promises
To find they’ve closed the door, they don’t want him anymore
There isn’t any more to go around
Turning away, he remembers he once heard a legend
That spoke of a mystical, magical land called America
[Chorus x 2]