“[Women] show up while you’re singing, running up to you as if you’re not,” he laughs when I ask him about his devoted female fans. “They’ve got old pictures in your face of when they were 18. They’ve got memorabilia that you’ve signed, all over the world.”
A few days after the show, Anka and I walked the hallways of a downtown Toronto photography studio. When I told him how much I enjoyed his concert, it struck me that he genuinely appeared to appreciate the sentiment — never mind that it was coming from someone too young to have heard his chart-topping singles when radio disc jockeys had them on heavy rotation. It mattered what this audience member thought. And that, I realized, is the key.
By the end of the show, Anka stands on stage, legs apart, fists firmly planted on his hips, soaking the adulation in. He evokes an image of Peter Pan: ageless and brimming with the joy of performing, having honed the tricks he learned from hanging with the pirates and lost boys of Las Vegas — the Never-Never Land where adults flee to feel like kids again.
At 15, he worked part-time at the local IGA when Campbell Soup Company promoted a contest awarding the person who collected the most soup can labels a recording session in New York City. Familiar with the customers who bought the brand, Anka cleverly arranged to collect all of their labels in addition to his own. He won.
The song he recorded wasn’t a hit, but it gave him that taste of showbiz he’d been salivating for. A year later, in 1957, he made his way back to the Big Apple to pitch another tune — one he wrote about a 19-year-old girl from church named Diana.
Paired with ABC-Paramount Records producer Don Costa — whose understanding of Anka’s brand of teenage ballad Dalton calls “a perfect match” — “Diana” shot to No. 1 in Canada, the U.S. and overseas, landing the 16-year-old on both Dick Clark’s American Bandstand and The Ed Sullivan Show that same year. He also went on the road, touring the U.S. with the likes of Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, the Everly Brothers and Buddy Holly.
He embarked on his first European tour in 1958 and, in June 1960, at the age of 18, he became the youngest performer to ever headline New York’s iconic Copacabana nightclub — made famous by his idols Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack — lending him a measure of respect that proved crucial when he started playing Vegas shortly after.
After a string of chart-toppers in the late 1950s, his only top 10 hits on U.S. radio in the 1960s were “Puppy Love” (No. 2 in 1960) and “Dance On Little Girl” (No. 10 in 1961). By 1962, he’d switched record companies and, in a move that Dalton deems “absolutely revolutionary,” bought his entire catalogue back from ABC-Paramount.
“If you own the masters, you own those songs lock, stock and barrel. He made money every time somebody bought a record [or] played it … and I’m sure that sustained him through the shallow parts of his career.”
Whether headlining sold-out shows or partying with his Rat Pack pals and their high-rolling friends, Anka — one of the first pop stars to play Vegas — became a fixture in the town through until the 1980s. Yet, as popular as he was as a performer on the strip and abroad, he achieved a new level of fame by writing for others.
Anka’s resumé of more than 900 songs includes the theme to the 1962 film The Longest Day and an adapted version of his song “Toot Sweet,” now known as the iconic opening theme for The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.
Buddy Holly’s final hit was an Anka tune — “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore” (1959) — though he never lived to see it, perishing in a plane crash before its release. Anka also wrote one of Tom Jones’ biggest singles, “She’s a Lady,” in 1971. While he composed music for Sonny & Cher, Connie Francis, the Doobie Brothers and others, the song Feldman calls “the pinnacle of [Anka’s] songwriting talent” remains “My Way.”
Of all the celebrities, royalty and heads of state that Paul Anka has rubbed shoulders with, it’s Frank Sinatra — the Chairman of the Board — people want to hear about. His antics, alone or alongside his Rat Pack buddies, are the stuff of show business lore.“There wasn’t enough room in the book,” he admits of his autobiography, “to tell them all.”
“When you write ‘My Way’ and you’re attached to Sinatra … [it’s] perception,” Anka explains, when discussing his success as a songwriter. “You pass a line where you become somebody who has substance. And [your audience] supports that.
“I subscribed to the fact that what I did back then [could] come back and haunt me,” Anka explains. “So I eat a certain way, I exercise, I don’t drink heavy liquor, I’m not a smoker. I rest my voice. Little things that enable me to over-punch my weight.”
Anka’s will to stay in tiptop shape serves him well both on stage and at home, where he’s got a little boy to chase after. While the singer’s first marriage produced five daughters and, ultimately, eight grandchildren, he and his girlfriend, Lisa, currently raise his only son, seven-year-old Ethan Paul, from his second marriage.
“The love and the focus is the same, the time consumption is probably different,” Anka says about the difference between raising his girls and his son. “Time, today, is very important to me. [It’s] my biggest asset.”
In his prime, Anka was on the road an estimated 230 dates a year. “He probably played as many nights a year as Bob Dylan — only on key,” Dalton quips. These days, the touring is pared back considerably, allowing Anka to bring Ethan to and from school and spend time together playing basketball or riding his motorcycle.
Sure, hearing Anka sing Kurt Cobain’s “A mulatto, an albino, a mosquito, my libido” lyrics to a jazzed-up horn section takes some getting used to, but this is no humiliating William Shatner recites “Rocket Man” redux. The album went gold in a number of countries, followed by a star on Canada’s Walk of Fame, proving Anka’s musical instincts as sharp as ever.
Remarkably, there are still artists Anka hasn’t collaborated with but would like to, including Elton John, Beyoncé and John Mayer. In the last 12 months, he’s “written more than I have in years,” and his latest album, Duets, features artists as varied as Willie Nelson, Leon Russell and Michael Jackson.
“I harken back to Sinatra. He said, ‘Kid, I always get excited about putting a record out and having a hit.’ And I absolutely subscribe to that,” Anka says. “In my mind, I haven’t put my flag in the mountain. I do it to stay healthy and to stay aware and I don’t want to ever just sit back. It’s a great life. It’s a great occupation. I just want to stay on this journey.”
This content was originally published here.