Rise to fame with RCA Victor: the late 1950s
After graduating from Abraham Lincoln High School, Sedaka and some of his classmates formed a band called The Tokens. The band had minor regional hits with songs like “While I Dream”, “I Love My Baby”, “Come Back, Joe”, and “Don’t Go”, before Sedaka launched out on his own in 1957. Eventually, after a few personnel changes, in 1961, the Tokens hit No. 1 on the Billboard pop charts with the international smash “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”. Meanwhile, the very young Sedaka’s first three solo singles, “Laura Lee”, “Ring-a-Rockin'”, and “Oh, Delilah!” failed to become hits (although “Ring-a-Rockin'” earned him the first of many appearances on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand), but they demonstrated his ability to perform as a solo singer, so RCA Victor signed him to a recording contract.
His first single for RCA Victor, “The Diary”, was inspired by Connie Francis, one of Sedaka and Greenfield’s most important clients, while the three were taking a temporary break during their idea-making for a new song. Francis was writing in her diary, Sedaka asked if he could read it, and Connie promptly replied with a “no.” After Little Anthony and the Imperials passed on the song, Sedaka recorded it himself, and his debut single hit the Top 15 on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at No. 14 in 1958.
However, his next two singles did not fare so well. His second single, a novelty tune titled “I Go Ape”, just missed the Top 40, peaking at No. 42 but it became a more successful single in the United Kingdom with a No. 9. The third single, “Crying My Heart Out for You”, was a commercial failure, missing the Hot 100 entirely, peaking at No. 111 but it also became a very successful single on the pop charts in Italy with a No. 6. RCA Victor had lost money on “I Go Ape” and “Crying My Heart Out For You” and was ready to drop Sedaka from their label. But Sedaka’s manager, Al Nevins, persuaded the RCA executives to give him one last chance.
Knowing he would not get another chance if he failed again, and desperate for another hit, Sedaka himself bought the three biggest hit singles of the time and listened to them repeatedly, studying the song structure, chord progressions, lyrics and harmonies—and he discovered that the hit songs of the day all shared the same basic musical anatomy. Armed with his newfound arsenal of musical knowledge, he set out to craft his next big hit song, and he promptly did exactly that: “Oh! Carol” delivered Sedaka his first domestic Top 10 hit, reaching No. 9 on the Hot 100 in 1959 and going to No. 1 on the Italian pop charts in 1960, giving Sedaka his first No. 1 ranking. In the UK, the song spent a total of 17 weeks in the top 40, peaking at No. 3 (4 weeks). In addition, the B-side, “One Way Ticket”, reached No. 1 on the pop charts in Japan. Sedaka had dated Carole King when he was still at high school, which gave him the idea to use her name in the song. Gerry Goffin – King’s husband – took the tune, and wrote the playful response “Oh! Neil”, which King recorded and released as an unsuccessful single the same year. Thus, this was the only time the melody of the song was used by a popular artist and a future sensation around the same time.
Big hits in the early 1960s
After establishing himself in 1958, Sedaka kept churning out new hits from 1960 to 1962. His flow of Top 30 hits during this period included: “Stairway to Heaven” (No. 9, 1960); “You Mean Everything to Me” (No. 17, 1960); “Run, Samson, Run” (No. 27, 1960); “Calendar Girl” (No. 4, 1961; also reached No. 1 on the Japanese and Canadian pop charts); “Little Devil” (No. 11, 1961); “Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen” (No. 6, 1961); his signature song, “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do” (No. 1, two weeks: August 11 and 18, 1962); and “Next Door to an Angel” (No. 5, 1962). Singles not making the Top 30 during this period included “Sweet Little You” (No. 59, 1961) and “King of Clowns” (No. 45, 1962). RCA Victor issued four LPs of his works in the United States and Great Britain during this period, and also produced Scopitone and Cinebox videos of “Calendar Girl” in 1961, “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do” in 1962, and “The Dreamer” in 1963. (His second LP was the only one made in the big band style with songs combined in a single record.) He made regular appearances on such TV programs as American Bandstand and Shindig! during this period.