Doing It His Way
Since his teen-idol days in the 1950s, Paul Anka has been setting—and defying—the musical trends.
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."
But not too much. Anka put together a vocal group called The Bobbysoxers and booked them into topless nightclubs. "I was too young to actually be in the club," he says, "so they made me stay in the dressing room when I wasn't singing. I'd punch holes in the walls so I could get a look at the girls."
Whenever a rock and roll show came through Ottawa, he was there, trying to get backstage to meet his idols. Once he finagled his way into Fats Domino's
dressing room and talked the rotund piano player into autographing a white-sleeved jacket for him. Domino's manager, Irving Feld, tossed the brash kid out before he could get the autograph, but not before he could shout to Feld, "Remember my name. I'll be working for you one day." Two years later, Anka's prediction came true.
Anka was obsessed with becoming a pop star and would do anything to make it happen. When he heard that a soup company was giving away a trip to New York to the person who could collect the most soup can labels, he took a job in a local grocery store so he'd have access to the cans. He won. But he couldn't persuade any record companies to sign him. That same year, 1956, his parents allowed him to travel to Los Angeles where he actually scored a record deal, recording a single called "Blau Wilde De Veest Fontain" (the name of an African city he'd read about). He returned to Ottawa, confident that stardom was imminent. It wasn't.
"I think the song got played a little in Buffalo and then...nothing," he says. "I was a failure at 14."
But he kept writing songs and, at his parents' insistence, considered more practical careers. He took journalism courses and worked for a while at The Ottawa Citizen. He studied shorthand. But the musical dreams simply wouldn't disappear and at 16 he returned to New York City. ("I'm letting you go," his father said, "but this is your last shot.") He carried with him a song he'd written soon after his trip to Los Angeles. It was a painful, pleading love song meant for a girl--four years older and oblivious to his existence--on which he had a terrible crush. Her name was "Diana."
It was the song that made his teenage dreams come true. Released in 1957, it would hold the record for years as the second best-selling single of all time (behind "White Christmas"). "Diana" instantly made Anka an international sensation. The girls who'd ignored him all those years were lining up to see him, to touch him, to scream out his name. He rode in limousines and stayed in the finest hotels, pampered and catered to in ways beyond any 16-year-old's imagination. Even the real Diana suddenly wanted to spend time with him. But she'd missed her chance.
Anka found himself running in pretty fast company on endless "Caravan of Stars" bus tours, crossing the country with Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Bobby Darin, Fabian and the girl who would soon fall in love with him, Annette Funicello. Those were the days when they'd pile everyone with a Top-40 hit onto a single tour. Everyone would come out, sing their one or two hit songs and leave. There was plenty of time for ego trips and trouble, plenty of time for young minds to be led astray. But Anka, in spite of his meteoric success, never gave in to temptation. He was too obsessed with the music. He still had too much to prove.
"My commitment, my dedication was a lot different," he says. "There were guys shooting heroin, being so whacked out we could barely get them onstage. But I had my life together. Part of that was my upbringing, that I had great parents, and there were a lot of people looking out for me.
"But the other part was that I wasn't in that pretty-boy category. I wasn't a product. I wasn't selling looks. My whole thing was that I was the writer and the producer. I was constantly developing my craft, and that to me was always the selling point. I was so dedicated to this that I didn't fall into any of the traps. I really had a sense of the business, of where to go and what to do."
If he'd been the best-looking kid in school, the tallest or the most popular, Anka acknowledges that he might not have been as driven to succeed, that he might not have been capable of writing the lost-soul love songs like "Lonely Boy" and "Diana" that touched so many teenage hearts, songs that spoke to all those other kids who would never look good in tight pants, who would never get the girl of their dreams.
"Listen, when you don't have all those other things, you have no choice but to be sure of yourself. I mean, I wasn't selling glamour,'' Anka says. " So I took the weaknesses and made them work for me. Some people take their shortcomings and they make them their strengths. And when it all happened for me at 16, it just gave me more confidence. It let me know that I was right, that I'd been right all along. So everything else didn't matter.
"I believe in luck and I believe in timing. When a kid gets up there and sings, 'I'm Just A Lonely Boy,' do you know how many lonely boys are out there, sitting in their bedrooms at night, thinking about the girl who would not go to the prom with them? So I was the guy they identified with. And the honesty of those records just breaks through."
He had five Top-20 hits before he turned 18. One of them--"Puppy Love"--was written for Funicello. They were, for a while, America's perfect teen couple. He also wrote a song for her called "It's Really Love" that, years later and stripped of its lyrics, became the "Tonight Show" theme. Funicello, always a reluctant pop icon, wanted nothing more than to marry Anka and start a family. But he was not ready to give up the road. There were, as he says, "too many mountains to climb."
But in the early '60s, the pop culture tidal wave caused by The Beatles changed the face of pop music forever. Suddenly, everyone wanted British accents, long hair, groups. The pompadoured crooners of the '50s were no longer fashionable. Some of them panicked and tried to jump on a bandwagon they didn't understand. Most them disappeared. But not Anka.
"You always have to have the hunger," he says, explaining why he survived when so many others did not. "When the Beatles invasion came, I went on to something else. I wrote the theme for The Longest Day [the 1962 war epic, for which he received an Academy Award nomination]. And I started working the nightclub circuit, because that was all there was. I had faith in myself, and if you stay true to yourself, you'll always do all right. But if you panic, you've lost it."
He was one of the first pop singers to play Las Vegas showrooms--years before Elvis. He focused on songwriting and spent more time in Europe and Asia, places where his appeal never waned. "So what if I wasn't in the Top 10 anymore?" he says. "I was working Las Vegas for three weeks at a time, hanging out with Frank Sinatra, earning more money than when I had hit records. My voice was getting better, I was headlining in all these countries and I realized, if I keep focused, this is just going to get better. I'm a better singer and I know I can write better songs."
He lived in Italy for a few years and spent extensive time in France and England, a citizen of the world. In 1963, he married Parisian model Anne de Zogheb in a lavish ceremony at Paris' Orly Airport. They have five daughters--Amelia, Anthea, Alicia, Amanda and Alexandra, ranging in age from 19 to 29--and a relationship that has lasted almost as long as Anka's career, something he does not take for granted.
"You know, my grandmother used to say, 'While I'm down here planning, God's up there laughing,' " Anka says, unsure if he can explain why his career and marriage have enjoyed such longevity. "I guess the thing with most things that are worthwhile is that you can't give up easily. You've got to hang in."
It was during his time in Europe that Anka developed an appreciation for wine, cigars and long, luxurious meals. Bruno Coquatrix, who owned the Olympia theatre in Paris, introduced him to all three. "I was 18, 19 years old and Bruno was one of those great Damon Runyon-like figures of France. He knew the best of everything and he always had a cigar in his mouth.
"Bruno really introduced me to that joie de vivre. He took me under his wing and I remember every fine restaurant he would take me to, every vineyard, every wine bottle that he sent back because he didn't like the taste. He was the one who introduced me to cigars, a Montecristo after every meal. He was my idol, this cat. He just loved life. And we all loved him."
Because he was so focused on his career, afraid to do anything that might damage his throat, Anka neither smoked nor drank before he met Coquatrix. "But he taught me that cigars are pure, not like cigarettes at all. Once you realize the process of what goes into a cigar, you realize it's not going to hurt you. And with the best wine, you'll never get a headache."
Consequently, Anka will not compromise when it comes to wines or cigars. "I'll do a Jamaican or a Dominican now and then," he says, "but I've been into the Cuban thing for years and I pretty much stay with that. I'm used to the taste and there's no reason to jump all over the place, unless you're experimenting.
"After lunch, with coffee, I may smoke a Partagas. And at night a Cohiba. I used to smoke Montecristos a lot, and I still like them. But I jumped over to Cohibas. I love smoking when I'm in the studio," he says. "When I'm in the studio this week [working on the Spanish-language duet album], I'll pass cigars out to everybody. Most of these guys have never had a Cuban cigar in their life and there's a calmness that comes over everything when everyone lights up. The cigar really becomes like a friend, especially when I'm creating.
"It's definitely a bond, especially with people who are not used to smoking them. You're giving them a special kind of treat and it's a confirmation that, in a sense, we're all on the same level. I don't do it all the time, but when I do it's a special moment.
"Last week we were working in Miami, and I took everybody to a place called Diego's. I ordered a $300 bottle of Lafite Rothschild and gave out cigars at the end of the meal. And it was amazing when we went back to work that night, the reinstillment of energy."
Anka takes a long draw on his Cohiba, taking a moment to appreciate his success. He is proud of his home, his paintings, his terrace with the white grand piano. He is especially proud of his wine collection, hundreds of rare and exotic vintages--everything from a 1918 Château Haut-Brion Bordeaux to a 1934 Lafite Rothschild to large caches of Pétrus and Château Montrose.
"We're a young country," he says, pleased that the pleasures he's enjoyed for so many years in Europe are finally taking hold in North America. "When we discover certain aspects of other places, we run with it. And it's great. It's time. We're becoming more sophisticated and more discerning.
"If somebody gives me a cigar that I don't like, that's been bruised up or isn't soft enough, I turn it down. Same with the wine. I've always said, if you're going to drink, drink the best; and if you're going to smoke, smoke the best. People should enjoy good things."
During one of his visits to France, in 1968, Anka heard a French rock song on the radio called "Come d' Habitude." "The lyrics were very French in nature," he says, "you know, 'I get up in the morning, I drink the coffee, your armpit smells, but I love you,' something like that. But there was something in the tune that I liked. I had a pretty successful music publishing operation in France and I asked my partner about this song, told him I wanted to buy it. He said, 'You want it, take it.' As simple as that. I mean, we weren't buying the pyramids here."
A few months later, Frank Sinatra came to see Anka perform at Miami's Fountainebleau Hotel. "He kept teasing me about writing him something," Anka remembers, still sounding slightly in awe of the moment. "Well, I wasn't going to give him 'Puppy Love' or 'Lonely Boy'--he'd have tossed me out the window.
"Anyway, I was back in New York a few weeks later, it was after midnight, and it was raining. And I started thinking about this French song and playing it on the piano, making it less rock and roll and the whole time I'm thinking about Sinatra, about how great it would be to write a song for Sinatra. That was one of the 18 times he was going to retire, so I'm thinking about this and I walk over to the typewriter and I type: 'And now, the end is near.'"
Magically, the fluffy French rock song and Sinatra merged in Anka's mind. He wrote the song as if he were writing a play, with Sinatra as the star. "When I started getting to, 'Eat it up and spit it out,' I had it. It wrote itself. I finished at five in the morning and called Don Costa (Sinatra's musical director and the talent scout who had discovered Anka in the '50s) and said, 'Don, I think I've got something.' "
Anka flew to Las Vegas, where Sinatra was playing Caesars Palace, to deliver a demo of the song to the Chairman himself. "In those days," Anka remembers, "if Frank said 'kooky,' that meant he was really excited. Well, he was crazy for it. They took the song and about a month later they called me in New York and played the recording over the speakers. I started crying. It was the turning point of my career."
It has become his signature piece, a song powerful enough to be embraced not just by Sinatra but by Elvis Presley and even the Sex Pistols' Sid Vicious. The song, Anka says, was always more about pain than bravado, something that rang through when Presley started performing it toward the end of his life. "He used to say to me, 'Man, that song means so much to me,' " Anka says of Elvis. "When he sang it, the song changed. It was as if he had a premonition, maybe a death wish."
It is the song, more than any other, that Anka's audiences want to hear. When he plays corporate engagements--special (and extremely lucrative) performances for corporate executives and their clients or sales staffs--he often changes the lyrics to fit the occasion. "I'll change it to 'Your Way' for the CEO at AT&T or whatever and sing something like, 'And here, the phones are clear,' and they go nuts. It kills them."
He is amazed at how audiences still react to his music, screaming for songs he wrote when he was 16 as if they were hearing them for the first time. "It's a little peculiar to be singing 'Puppy Love' at my age," he admits. "And I've thought about retiring some of the old ones. But people won't let me. They start screaming out, 'Why didn't you do "Having My Baby"?' And you feel guilty."
So he continues to sing the old songs, the new songs, all the ones in between. On his new album, he has Latin artists singing some of his hits with Latin arrangements, reinventing his music as he goes. "A song is like a great play," Anka says, "and Shakespeare said, 'The play is the thing.' Well to me, the song is the thing. And a song can have many lives."
He finishes the Cohiba, the last trail of smoke floating gently toward the ceiling. Paul Anka smiles, contented, the smile of a man who always knew.
Joe Rhodes is a Los Angeles-based editor for US magazine.
You must be logged in to post a comment.