Canada’s first teen idol, still going strong, on Elvis, Frank, money and the Mob
'LONGEVITY IS WHAT I’M ABOUT’
Canada’s first teen idol, still going strong, on Elvis, Frank, money and the Mob
IN THE 1950s and ’60s, Paul Anka was the Canadian Elvis Presley. He turned out a string of hits, including Diana, Lonely Boy and Put Your Head on My Shoulder, all of which he wrote. But unlike many of his teen-idol peers—such as Frankie Lymon (who died in 1968) and Bobby Darin (1973)—Ottawa-born Anka managed to transform that early success into an adult career that has continued to flourish. He wrote the lyrics for Frank Sinatra’s monster hit My Way and reaped a nightly payout for the theme to The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. At 61, the father of five daughters, with two grandchildren, still performs onstage 35 weeks a year, as well as working as a producer and businessman. He is strongly tipped to receive the Order of Canada in an upcoming honours list. Recently he talked with Contributor Ashley Jude Collie in Los Angeles.
Even now, many people both south and north of the border don’t seem to know you were born and raised in Canada.
Many Canadians probably assume, like many Americans, that I became American. I have dual citizenship—all my daughters have Canadian passports—and Canada had a great deal to do with the stability and foundation to cope with this business and the success I’ve had. The Canadian environment is conducive to being as normal to centre as you can get.
My upbringing taught me patience, perseverance, how to exist in the world, and I carried that through, surviving those earlier years of my career when a lot of my cohorts didn’t—like seeing Frankie Lymon, two seats away from me, doing heroin. You had to make a choice, and with youth and peer pressure it was possible to cross that line. Which I didn’t. So my saving grace was my Canadian roots.
You’ve written songs for Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Buddy Holly, Tom Joneshow did you find them as people?
The people I’ve dealt with, most of them I wouldn’t hang out with. A portion I don’t really respect as people. They’re not role models for me. Some were just too lost, too taken with themselves.
Presley is a case in point. He was a nice person. But he just couldn’t take the fact that he was getting older, and his success just isolated him so much. He used to come backstage to my show in Vegas and I’d say, “Let’s go to dinner,” but that was a stretch for him. You couldn’t take along 12 guys with guns and knives, plus he was out of it. It was just very sad.
Same with Michael Jackson. I worked with him earlier. They just don’t know how to have a trace of being normal. You know, it’s OK to go out, it’s OK to be seen. It’s OK not to be so much of a circus or a cartoon of yourself. Because ultimately that’s a very tough image to live.
You’ve talked of being in the steamroom with Sammy, Frank and Dean Martin. What would a fly on the wall have seen?
We were in total awe of Frank Sinatra and his guys. I’m in Vegas hanging with them, and Frank, who was a man’s man, says, “Come on, kid, we’re going to the steamroom. Here’s your robe.” My robe was “The Kid.” Dean’s was “Dago.” Yeah, written on them. Sammy was “Smokey the Bear.” Frank was “Blue Eyes.” And I’d be sitting there trying to keep my cool with these guys, who were older than I was, and there’d be tables of food brought in, girls would be coming in—10 to 15 in number—steam doors were opening, [laughs] massage tables were being used.
Sinatra teased you about writing a song for him, but presumably you couldn’t give him a teen love song. How did My Way happen?
You’re right, I knew Lonely Boy wouldn’t work for him. First of all I was scared to death. But what really motivated me was a) knowing him and having a sense of what he wanted, and b) meeting him in
Florida where he came to my show and said he was retiring. That motivated a panic in me and I took it very seriously— he was our guy. So I returned to New York, sat at the typewriter at one in the morning and hammered away thinking of him retiring—“And now, the end is near/And so I face the final curtain...”—and it was done by five. The rest is history.
You wrote the Tonight Show theme for Johnny Carson, but did you ever think the show and song would turn out to be so big?
Absolutely not. The first time I met him I was doing a TV special in Britain, and I wanted some comedy and asked to see some tapes of some comics. I got his tape, a skit where he was a game show host in the morning, in front of screaming kids, but he drank all night and was hung over during the show. Very funny.
So he does the special with me and I run into him again in New York. He was thinking of taking over this talk show and was looking for a tune to open it. So I did a demo of what I thought would play at 11 at night, that would be a signature type of thing. It wasn’t Shakespeare [hums opening bars]. But every time I hear it, I think of two words—“Here’s... royalties!”
Buddy Holly released your song It Doesn’t Matter Anymore just before he died. Talk about Buddy-were you supposed to be on his fatal plane flight?
Great guy. Gave me my first guitar. You know, back then we all talked about taking private planes. I was on a sister tour with Buddy, and I was the youngest one of the group and my manager, Irv Feld, just didn’t want me on those planes. I knew what they were going through—they just wanted to get some stuff done, do the laundry, whatever. A big loss.
What do you remember of fellow teen idol Bobby Darin?
Oh, god, Bobby. We started out at the same time, went on tours together, liked that Sinatra kind of style. Played the Copa. Hung out with the same group. Very cocky, very sure of himself. He talked a lot about dying, knew that he wasn’t going to live because of a very bad heart condition. When he went out to L.A., I lost some contact with him. He went a little Hollywood, Sandra Dee and that stuff.
Saw him near the end in Vegas, said he’d been deliquent in getting a heart operation. He’d changed styles. Wanted to do Bob Dylan. Ran out of money and had to go back to work. Told me he’d found out that his “sister” was really his
mother. And that just killed him. He was very close to his grandmother, who he thought was his “mother.” That turned him around. [Pauses] My best friend.
How have you survived when so many others haven’t?
Good question because longevity is what I’m about. I’ve just kept my eye on the goal. I have a very professional commitment to my career and business. I don’t do anything that’s going to hurt my body. I’ve passed 60 and am in good shape but I
don’t act 16.1 take care of that temple. I do believe everything in moderation, including moderation.
But early on you were obsessed about being a singer-songwriter.
I was nuts, I’d drive through storms, walk backward to Cornwall because of the wind and it’s 30 below, just to sing. All I wanted to do. I wouldn’t take no. Every time someone said no, I said yes.
“No, you’re too short.”
“F— you, I’m too short!”—take my weakness, make it my strength.
“No, you’re a Canadian.”
Even back in Canada they rejected me for a while. Because Canadians weren’t supposed to be sexy, teen idols. I was one of the first guys to suffer from that—“How can you be good, you’re Canadian! Those Americans know how to do it.” So I was going to do better than those Americans. And that drove me because I was going to bring this back home so that my people could see it. Today, when I go back it’s, “You’re the man!”
Talk about the Copa in New York.
The Copacabana in the sixties was on the east side in a basement, a very unglamorous setting, run by the Mob. Every Friday night scores of them would be there with their girlfriends. And Saturday night with their wives. And you knew it. And there’d be 150 guys with no necks, and they were just the toughest guys you ever saw. You’d be singing onstage and if the spotlight left me and hit ringside, eight guys would be under the table.
But they never put a palm on me. I never asked for a favour. But there was nowhere else to work. From the Copa to Vegas, they controlled the business. And they got what I was about—a nice kid from Canada, a good performer and artist—but nor did I want to get involved. We respected each other. They were great to work for. Their word was their bond.
Would you still like to have another hit?
Sinatra and I used to talk about this. With everything we’d accomplished, it would always be great to be on the charts. But the record business has changed drastically. The infrastructure and components that we once knew are gone. I will probably sell a lot of records in the next year or
two, with the things I have planned, but it won’t be because of radio.
And there are new avenues today, where you can sell one or two million. There are performers now like Diana Krall, Josh Groban, who don’t need radio play, who don’t adhere to the record companies’ focus on 20-year-olds.
Bottom line—it’s always great to have a hit record. My last Spanish album went gold, and gave me five consecutive decades with charted music.
And you still have big revenue streams.
From my point of view, where I control my publishing, my writing, I own my masters, Em looking at an incredible marketing stream. We’ve been increasingly licensing my music to corporate advertisers which can mean millions of dollars. I’m also hired by multinationals like Coca-Cola and Philip Morris and by big conventions, to throw parties and sing for executives for up to $400,000 a night. There’s Internet sales, merchandise we sell at our concerts, how we license it, and there’s enough of my body of work out there—124 albums—that there’s a flow that satisfies me.
How does it feel to be one of the last bridges to pop’s early golden years?
I’m proud of it. But I’ve continued to go forward and am surrounded with current work and contemporary people. It’s been said that after Tony Bennett goes, there’s not going to be many of us left that do what I do. Then I’ll have my run at it, and I might stretch it to 70 if I remain healthy and I’m not embarrassing myself. Then it’s adios, it’s been a great ride. I loved it. I?il
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