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Doing It His Way

Since his teen-idol days in the 1950s, Paul Anka has been setting—and defying—the musical trends.
Joe Rhodes
From the Print Edition:
Arnold Schwarzenegger, Summer 96

He always knew. Even when he was 13 years old, an ugly ducking adolescent, too short and too chubby for the girls to pay him any mind, Paul Anka knew that some day things would be different, that some day they'd hear his voice, listen to his songs and everything would change. It didn't matter that his parents tried to dissuade him, that his friends didn't really understand. He knew.

"It's one of those things that's in your blood," he says, sitting in the dark-paneled study of his hilltop Beverly Hills home, firing up a Cohiba--"my fat little babies" he calls them--reflecting on a remarkable four-decade musical odyssey in which he has transformed himself from a puffy-cheeked teen idol to a respected songwriter and, ultimately, into one of the most bankable night-club performers in the world able to sell out showrooms from Manila to Mexico City, Las Vegas to Berlin. There is hardly a place on the planet where he is not a household name, where the songs he has written--everything from "Puppy Love" to "My Way" to Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show" theme--are not instantly recognized.

"I always had the desire," he says, leaning back in his easy chair, surrounded by the trappings of success--the Swiss humidor filled with Cuban cigars, the world-class wine and art collections, the giant-screen television built into the wall with three smaller screens above it (so he can watch movies, news and sporting events simultaneously). And on the sofa, an embroidered throw pillow that says: Be Reasonable. Do It My Way.

"I was like a junkie," he continues. "From a very young age, this--to be a singer and songwriter--is all I want-ed. And everyone thought I was crazy."

Who could have blamed them? Who could have imagined that a kid from Ottawa, Ontario, a Lebanese restaurant owner's son, would end up like this, with more than 800 songs to his credit, still going strong at 55, on the road more than 30 weeks a year and about to release his 112th album, due out this summer, a collection of Spanish-English duets with old friends ranging from Julio Iglesias, Tom Jones, Celine Dion and The Bee Gees to a host of Latin American artists. If you want proof of Anka's undiminished box-office appeal, consider this: He recently signed an unprecedented $6 million deal to do a total of 18 shows a year for the next four years at Bally's Grand Casino in Atlantic City and the Foxwoods Resort Casino in Connecticut.

"Jimmy Durante always used to say to me, 'I don't need the money, I need the work,'" Anka says, a smile creasing his perfectly tanned face as he tries to explain why he is still so driven, why he can't let himself relax. "It's so true. I've seen so many guys in my profession who quit and then don't know what to do with themselves. I'd be scared to death if that happened to me.

"I perform because I still need it. Because, in the beginning, people didn't come to see me because I was a performer, they came to see me because I had a hit song. Everybody was jumping in their cars to get a look at me, because it was the thing to do. But now when they come, it's not because I have a song on the charts. It's because they know I'll give them a performance like no one else."

Even before he was old enough to shave, Anka was consumed with proving himself to the world. He used to borrow his mother's car--without her permission and years before he had a license--to drive from Ontario to Quebec, where there were no liquor laws and the nightclubs had amateur nights. Twenty bucks went to each night's winner--Anka almost always won.

"I was pretty precocious, pretty aggressive," he says, recalling the unbelievable chutzpah it took for a 14-year-old kid to steal his mother's car just so he could perform. "I think my parents knew they had an unusual child."

They did what they could to slow him down. When the car, an Austin Healy, broke down on one of his midnight runs ("I kept going in first gear and I put the piston rod through the hood. The engine was all over the Champlain Bridge."), Anka soon found himself in the custody of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, charged with grand theft auto. "I later found out my father had rigged it with the judge," he says, laughing. "They wanted to put a scare in me. So I kind of straightened up a little bit after that."

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