Doing It His Way

Since his teen-idol days in the 1950s, Paul Anka has been setting—and defying—the musical trends.

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"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.

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