Lifelong Idol

Paul Anka learned a long time ago that if he was going to survive the volatile music business, he would have to have a longer shelf life than that of a teen idol with hit records. Youth, like hit songs, is but a moment in time. The teenaged, singer-songwriter knew from the beginning that getting attention wasn’t as important as keeping the momentum going long after the throngs of screaming girls went home. He knew he would have to roll with the flow, expand his musical horizons and continually challenge himself if he was to remain in this grueling industry.
Anka is one of just a handful of artists who started in the ’50s as a heart-throb, and sustained a career up to the present. He’s one of those rare viable, relevant individuals who wrote themselves into American music history and continues to tour and record.
He did it “his way,” beginning in 1957 when Anka penned and sang a little ballad about his crush on his baby-sitter, “Diana.” It was unheard of back then for a songwriter to write, publish and record his own songs, let alone a 16-year old songwriter. There were songwriters and there were singers, and labels usually picked the songs and “assigned” them singers. Anka was the exception—“Diana” was the reason.
He had no idea how his story would unfold.
“To honestly sit here and tell you I know how it all happened at that age, I didn’t—other than I was hungry and I liked what I did,” he said in an interview. “I always had this gnawing in my brain that this was a God-given gift. The dream kicked in on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’…That’s when my life changed.”
To make it as a singer on “The Ed Sullivan Show” was a necessary rite of passage to becoming a star. While Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand” was a nice feather in your cap, it was more of a provincial coming out party with all young musicians dropping in. The Beatles never played “American Bandstand.” They did play “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
The success of “Diana” gave Anka the status to crank out more and more of his original tunes.
Soon Anka found himself traveling by bus with the ‘Cavalcade of Stars’ with the top names of the day in the era of segregation, performing at the Copa Cabana, the youngest entertainer ever to do so, and honing his craft surrounded by the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, Frankie Lyman, and Chuck Berry.
“They are all very autobiographical,” Anka said of his early hits. “I was alone…. even though I was traveling with all these girls screaming, I never got near them. I was a teenager and feeling isolated and all that. That becomes ‘Lonely Boy.’ At record hops, I’m up on stage and all these kids are holding each other with heads on each other’s shoulders. Then I have to go have dinner in my room because there are thousands of kids outside the hotel—’Put Your Head on My Shoulder’ was totally that experience.”
Things were motoring rather nicely for Anka and other young American teenage idols of the period when they got blind-sided from abroad. The British Invasion was a game changer. February 9 marks the 54th anniversary of when the Beatles appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
“The ’50s were great for me, but I have to be honest with you, the ’60s sucked,” he states. “That’s when the Beatles came to town and rode us off the radio.”
Well, they pushed many of the singers aside, but when you’re also a songwriter of Anka’s status, you keep on keeping on.
“Songwriting and performing are what gave me the confidence to keep going,” he says.
He wrote the theme song to “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” and he wrote the Academy Award-nominated title song for the movie The Longest Day, in 1962, in which he also had a starring role. He also began writing songs for other artists.
“After a few hits,” he says, “I knew I was a writer, and with writers, the power was always in the pen,” states Anka. “When I started writing for Buddy Holly and Connie Francis, I felt that it made me different. People would say, ‘Hey, you can write, you can fall back on something.
“That’s the power of songwriting. It helped that I was also learning from the traditional people—guys like Sammy Cahn who wrote songs for guys like Frank Sinatra—guys I admired and hung out with.”
This “Cahn” influence and Sinatra connection came into play for Anka in a big way later in his career.
For years Sinatra was after Anka to write something for him. It was when Sinatra said he was going to retire that Anka found the right vessel to change his mind about hanging it up.
“I wasn’t ready to give him anything in the ’50s and ’60s,” explains Anka. “I couldn’t have given him something like ‘Lonely Boy,’ or ‘Puppy Love,’ he would have thrown his shot glass at me.”
So in 1967, Anka adapted a French song, “Comme D’habitude,” which had different lyrics and a much different feel, into a song he simply called, “My Way.” It became Sinatra’s signature song.
“We were already friends, but the song elevated our relationship to another level and it was a turning point for me,” Anka said.
By the ’70s, Anka was back to recording another string of hits, including “(You’re) Having My Baby,” confirming his status as an icon of popular music.
Plenty of other artists have him to thank for some big hits, too. His 900-song catalog includes such titles as “She’s a Lady” (Tom Jones), “Puppy Love” (Donny Osmond), “It Doesn’t Matter Any More” (Buddy Holly) and “Teddy” (Connie Francis).
“It’s gratifying to have other artists recording your material… and it became more gratifying through the years because I had five daughters to put through school, so the checks came in handy,” he said.
Anka’s songwriting ability came into play once again when he co-wrote Michael Jackson’s posthumous No. 1 worldwide hit, “This Is It.”
The singer Anka, not the songwriter Anka, continued to do his thing as well. In 2005, he released Rock Swings and in 2007, Classic Songs, My Way.
Unlike the campy heavy metal album Pat Boone recorded in 1997, (In a Metal Mood: No More Mr. Nice Guy), people actually liked Rock Swings. It did raise a few eyebrows, when he performed tunes made famous by Nirvana, Bon Jovi and Van Halen, but the big band swing vibe worked. Rock Swings went Top 10 in the UK, and was certified gold in the UK, France, and Canada; hit No. 2 on Billboard’s Top Jazz Albums chart and went on to sell half a million units worldwide.
Anka’s album, Duets, was released in 2013. On it, he performs duets with artists such as Willie Nelson, Tom Jones, Dolly Parton, Michael Jackson, Elaine Paige, Celine Dion, Michael Bublé, his daughter Anthea Anka, and two computer possible duets with Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr.
His long-awaited autobiography, My Way An Autobiography, came out the same year. My Way is bursting with rich stories of the business and the people in Anka’s life: Elizabeth Taylor, Dodi Fayed, Tom Jones, Michael Jackson, Adnan Khashoggi, Little Richard, Brooke Shields, Johnny Roselli, Sammy Davis, Jr., Brigitte Bardot, Barnum & Bailey Circus acrobats, and many more. Anka is forthcoming, funny and smart as a whip about the business he’s been in for almost six decades. My Way moves from New York to Vegas, from the casino stage to backstages all over the world.
“For me,” Anka says, “the good has always been the enemy of great. To be great, you’ve got to forget about that select few who are going to talk about you if you don’t quite make the mark. You’ve got to challenge yourself.”
Earlier in this article, we quoted Anka as saying “songwriting and performing” were the things that gave him confidence to keep going.
You can’t overlook the “performing” part of that statement. Anka, like Sinatra and Davis, is a stage man. He takes over a room with a style that is steeped in tradition. And he thrives on it.
“I love it, because I survived to become part of something ongoing,” he says. “With every song, you see a different look in people’s eyes or a different rush to the stage. By the time you get to ‘My Way’, they’re reaching up, some of them crying. That’s the part you work your whole life for.”


The E Center at the Edgewater

Saturday, Feb. 10 (8 p.m., doors open 6:30 p.m.)

See “Showtimes” for tickets