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
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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."
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