In 1963, when songsmith Neil Sedaka was about to become a father for the first time, he jokingly issued an edict to his wife. "He didn't care whether it was a boy or a girl," Leba Sedaka recalls, "as long as his firstborn had perfect pitch." It was a girl, named Dara, and she made her debut fully equipped with "extraordinary musical abilities," according to her father. "She had had nine months of training," says Neil. "I used to sing to her mother's belly."

That may sound like just a lot of proud-papa talk, but 12 years later Dara's first two tunes, Nana's Song and Hey, Mister Sunshine, were cut as the flip sides to two of her father's hit singles. The work established her as one of the youngest pop songwriters in history and beat by one year the age at which her father started his songwriting career.

In her early childhood, Dara remembers Sedaka as going through "his hermit stage." Though he was already hugely successful as a composer, pianist and performer, his sweet-sounding songs were eclipsed during the 1960s by the excitement of the British rockers. As a result, Neil Sedaka spent a lot of time at home in Brooklyn, collecting royalty checks. He continued to write songs, relying increasingly on his precocious daughter as a sounding board. "He didn't patronize her," says Dara's school chum Robin Kramer. "He took her opinions very seriously."

When it came to formal music lessons, however, Dara balked. "Playing the piano came naturally to me," she explains. "I didn't want to bother to sit down and learn the proper chords." Instead, she listened with relentless concentration to radio's Top 100 songs. By the time she was 8, "she knew all the lyrics, backup vocals, harmonies and instrumental parts," boasts her dad. "She was a human jukebox."

In 1973 the elder Sedakas took Dara and younger brother Marc on tour in England, where Neil was, in a sense, rediscovered by Elton John. With John belting backup on such new Sedaka offerings as Bad Blood, the family fortunes soared again. Back in New York, life eventually took on the trappings of stardom: an Upper East Side co-op, limousine travel and yachting vacations. Dara was enrolled in a posh private school, but her first reaction to elitist living was unsnobby distress. "I missed Brooklyn a lot," she says.

She toured with her dad, singing harmonies, shed 45 pounds of teenage pudginess, "mostly by starving," and survived "a terrible crush" on Shaun Cassidy. Parker Stevenson, Cassidy's co-star in The Hardy Boys, has become a family friend. "I'm still very single," Dara says with an enigmatic smile, "and so is Parker."

Last year her hit duet with Dad, Should've Never Let You Go, sold just under half a million copies, and she co-wrote the first cut of his latest album, Now. Still, she notes wryly, "I haven't exactly become Debby Boone."

Even with her own royalties piling up and offers of record contracts coming in, Dara isn't rushing the possibilities of a music career. She lives at home with her parents and brother, and likes it. "I've led a sheltered life," she admits. "Despite the showbiz clich├ęs, we're a very close-knit family. We do everything together."

For the moment, Dara, now 18, has decided to forgo college while pondering a fashion career at Bloomingdale's, where she works as a salesgirl for special customers. Starstruck as ever, she recalls that "one day Mario Thomas and Mary Tyler Moore came in to browse, and I thought I would die."