Paul Anka’s enduring work has ranged from Sinatra to Nirvana

“I’M 98 YEARS OLD!” he crows on the phone. Not quite; he’s 74. But he’s still going strong, singing with an orchestra Friday at the Cape Cod Melody Tent.

On Thursday, Paul Anka had a birthday.

“I’m 98 years old!” he crows on the phone.

Not quite; he’s 74. But he’s still going strong, singing with an orchestra Friday at the Cape Cod Melody Tent.

“I got older, but I haven’t changed,” Anka says. “I’m certainly humbler because I’m still around.”

Trip back, for a moment, to 1957: there he was on top of the pop charts, a 16-year-old Canadian kid with a hit single called ‘Diana’, a song he wrote at 15½. And that same year, he was on that fabled first rock ‘n’ roll cross-country rock ‘n’ roll cavalcade billed as “The Biggest Show of Stars” tour: Anka, Buddy Holly and the Crickets, Lavern Baker, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Eddie Cochran, the Drifters and more. They played 73 shows in 80 days.

“You’re hopeful, but you don’t even know,” says Anka about the possibility of a singing career. “Back then, pop music was just in its infancy stage. You had nothing to relate to. You had this desire that you wanted to make music and you loved music, but who could’ve seen what would happen?”

As a singer, Anka had hit singles from the ’50s through the ’70s – though he and his smooth-singing comrades took a hit when the Beatles and the British invasion hit in the mid-’60s. As a writer, Anka’s had many successes – ‘It Doesn’t Matter Anymore’, the Tonight Show theme, ‘The Longest Day’, ‘My Way’, ‘The Way You Make Me Feel’ and ‘She’s a Lady’, to name a few. In 2005, he recorded an album called Rock Swings – swing versions of songs by the likes of the Cure, Bon Jovi, Nirvana and Van Halen, among others. He released a Duets album in 2013 with Michael Bublé, Celine Dion and Chris Botti (on trumpet) among the collaborators.

The Cape Cod Times spoke to Anka from his home in Lake Sherwood, California, about 30 miles north of Los Angeles.

Q: What’s the best part of the job: writer, singer or performer?

A: Really tough question. They’re all indigenous to what I’m doing, but if you’re a writer that’s what you’re about. You’re all alone and you’re at that keyboard. It’s your imagination and you’re isolated from everything. Performing is a whole other process. I do it because it’s fun, and I do it well after years of working at it. I still love an audience. I’m just out there to entertain and please some people. You get off on that moment, but after that it’s just done. There’s a huge black hole between what you’re doing and the people. With writing, you’re making an impact – you hear it on the radio, you hear it (sung) by other artists – you hear [Frank Sinatra sing] ‘My Way’, you hear Buddy Holly (sing ‘It Doesn’t Matter Anymore’). You impact people’s lives. It has its own kind of existence, which is great. It’s the one for me that I like the best because it’s kind of having the gravitas of being the writer or the producer.

Q: Roughly, how many songs do you think you’ve written?

A: Oh, I don’t know accurately; 200, 300, 400 songs.

Q: Does writing come as easily as it used to or is it a more difficult process?

A: You’ve done it and you had a goal back then. When you start out you live and breathe rock ‘n’ roll or pop music, whatever you want to call it, daily. You’ve got to put out four albums a year. We don’t have to do that (now). I worked very diligently at improving my craft in many ways, and I became a writer. Do I do it as much today? No. I’m running a business. I’ve got a publishing company; I’ve got my music; I’ve got this new hologram company that I’m doing. The state of the music industry, the bad shape that it’s in, I don’t have to do it. Last year, I had a big song with Michael Jackson, ‘Love Never Felt So Good’ (a 1983 demo, released posthumously). OK, that’s great, that’ll hold me a couple of years. Do I have to sit down and write every day? No. For what and why?

Q: A music business/lawyer friend told me you made around $300,000 a year from publishing on the Tonight Show theme when Johnny Carson was on the air. True?

A: Yeah. I don’t know if it was $280,000 or $420,000. I was taken aback because no one knew it would last all these years. When I met Johnny, he was a comedian. I gave him a job (as an opening act), and we got to know each other a little, not a lot. We’d run into each other in New York, and he says he has this TV show he signed on to do – “I might do this Tonight Show thing for about a year. I might need a song” – the wrong thing to say to me! So within a week [Anka sings the opening bars]. Did I know it would go on a million years? Of course not, I had no idea. You write and then next week you write for another artist who will like some of them and not like some of them.

It’s the same with (the theme for) ‘The Longest Day’. I said I can’t keep doing all these songs myself. I’m going to grow up and want to be like the Rat Pack – there was nothing else to look at, hard rock hadn’t hit, the Beatles hadn’t hit – and I said I’m going to stay a writer and then that’s what took off. This good-looking little kid that was manufactured because of his looks, I didn’t care really. I just liked my writing.

Q: The Beatles and the British Invasion, that kind of knocked you for a loop, didn’t it?

A: It didn’t in the sense that I met them first. I was an international creature by the time they came out. I’d been to Japan and Europe. I was loving my international thing, and it kept me going. I ran into them in Paris, and I had pictures with them, and then I had drinks with them in London. Nobody knew who the hell they were. I liked the music. I brought it back and give it to my agents, Norman Weiss and Sid Bernstein – they’re the ones that flew over and brought the Beatles back here. I was kind of a part of that. What did it do? There was a limited time when it came to airtime with radio back then, and radio was it. It took some time away from some of us; it put the focus on them and off of us and a lot of my contemporaries were wiped out. But my writing kept me going. It didn’t bother me that much even though it was a small hurdle. I’d already evolved into the Rat Pack and working with the guys in Vegas because to survive we emulated them. We wanted to be like them. We couldn’t see past that.

Q: A song of yours resurfaced in the last season of Mad Men.

A: ‘Times of Your Life’. It was great. I love Mad Men. It’s like Sinatra would sit around and say, “All that stuff that I’ve done, [what] I love [is] having a hit record.” You always love when people embrace your music and use it in different ways. ‘My Way’. What’s next? [Hearing it played during] Eskimo chess tournaments? You always get a kick out of it, because that’s part of your life.

Q: Sid Vicious, the late Sex Pistols’ bassist, covered ‘My Way’ with these machine-gun guitar riffs, sneering vocals and reworked lyrics. I read that when you heard Sid’s version you were “destabilized” by it.

A: For a moment. Once I settled down and investigated it I could see the guy was sincere. He went to Paris to do it, and it meant a lot to him, and that was his only capability. He sang a certain way, and that was it. By then I’d heard eclectic versions of it, but nothing like that! After I studied it, I thought “Everybody’s entitled to do their own thing, man”.

Q: Was he trashing it or was it a tribute? Or maybe both?

A: It might have been both, but I also think it was an anthem for him. He was doing things his way. I don’t think it was an out-and-out trash at all.

Q: Maybe he was taking the same stance Sinatra took so many years ago, just in a very different manner.

A: Exactly.

Q: Until I did the research, I didn’t know that ‘My Way’ was originally a 1967 French song that you put new lyrics to. How did ‘My Way’ take the shape it took?

A: I was in a small town in the south of France and I heard this song on the radio. Not unlike my assessment of rock songs for Rock Swings, I saw more in it than what was being said. It was called ‘Comme d’Habitude’, and it was about two people who were married for a long time. They got up every day, and they did the same thing as usual. Very French and graphic. I listened to it and said, “Wow, there’s more to this.” It was a moderate success in France and I said, “Give me the rights to it” and they gave it to me. Musically, I took some notes off and put on my own vibe on and worked at the piano. I had a foundation if you will.

I put it in drawer and didn’t know what I was going to do with it until I went to Miami and was working at the Fontainebleau. Sinatra happened to be in town. He was doing a movie. He called me up and he said, “Kid, we’re going to dinner” – that was his nickname for me, he had one for everybody – and the long and short of the narrative was he said “I’m quitting show business, I’m getting out. I’m sick and tired. The Rat Pack is over. I’m getting hassled.” I think the FBI was all over him for that Mafia deal. And he said I’m quitting. But I’m doing one more album I owe the record company, and Don Costa’s going to do it. Don was my producer – I had introduced him to Sinatra and he did most of his records. He said “You never wrote me that song.” He was always teasing me through the years, “When are you gonna write for me?” I was scared to write for him because he hated pop music. He did it because the company made him do it, but he hated it.

So, I left for New York after my gig and I thought about Sinatra quitting. If you take him out of the equation, there was a big hole. He was the guy, so at one in the morning I pull out that lead sheet. I sat at the piano and I typed everything at my [IBM] Selectric. I said “OK, what would Frank do with this? What would he say?” So I put him in my place and I just started – “And now, the end is near…” I started typing it the way you would start writing it. Saying things I would never put in – “I ate it up and spit it out!” That’s the way he spoke! And I just followed it through and called him up. He was at Caesar’s Palace finishing his last gig. He said “Bring it out, Kid.” I flew out and I played it for him. Two months later I get a call from L.A. It was Don in the studio, and he said, “Kid, listen to this.” He put the phone up to the speaker. I hear it in New York and I start crying. I’d never written anything like that. I was so moved. So, Sinatra quits and it became such a big hit he calls me up a little while later and says “Kid, I’m coming back, write another one,” and that’s when I wrote ‘Let Me Try Again’ (in 1973).

Q: How many people do you think have designated ‘My Way’ as the song to be played at their funeral?

A: Maybe thousands. I’ll tell you what’s come up now, which is real cute. I’m close to Warren Buffett – great American, great guy. We’ve sung together at the Fortune magazine event and we do ‘My Way’. At the last outing, he said, “Paul I want it played at my funeral.” And I said, “Really, Warren? How would you like it if you sang it?” He said, “How do you mean?” I said, “Let’s get an orchestra, go in a studio and you’re gonna sing it.” (They did it.) He’s fearless. Beyond that, I’ve got this new hologram company I’m starting. We’re shooting a hologram – I call it a humangram, I don’t like hologram – and Warren Buffett is singing ‘My Way’ and you’ll see him [doing it] in person at his funeral. No one sees it till then.

Q: How about your funeral? What happens there?

A: I have no idea. I won’t be there.

Q: I know that. But if you’re making plans, is that your song too?

A: I haven’t even thought about it. I don’t know. I wish I could say this is gonna happen, but I couldn’t give you an intelligent answer.

Q: Your Rock Swings album, I loved it and it’s the first time I’ve heard Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ where I could understand the words.

A: It’s amazing that you said that. You know who said that to me? [Ex-Nirvana drummer/Foo Fighter singer-guitarist] Dave Grohl called me and said, “That’s the first [expletive] time I ever heard the words!” It’s my favourite track.

Q: The way Nirvana plays it, it’s nasty and snarlier, with that cranky, distorted electric guitar. Your version is about 180 degrees from that. How did you envision it reconfigured in your own style?

A: If you’re a musician, when you dissect a song and put it in front of you with notes and chords, you [try to] keep the integrity of what your limitations are, of what you’re really capable of doing, to get the optimum out of something. Not over-reaching. You sit there and you find the tempo, the vibe. A great song is a great song, and it can be done in any fashion – it can be redone as a ballad, it can be redone as a Latin song.

Q: I never knew what ‘Teen Spirit’ is about. What do you think it’s about?

A: Truly, I have no idea. I think it’s about a gathering of people hanging out or planning to hang out. It certainly dictates that – “Load up! Load up!” – and then it gets into this libido thing, and esoterically what it feels like when you’re high, but not without a purpose.

Q: I want to skip back to the first tour with Buddy Holly and the others in 1957. What are your thoughts now?

A: It was very gratifying, very emotional and very passionate because it was the beginning and egos were checked at the door. Even though we were kids and we had little egos, we were this little band of pioneers. Other than our fans, everyone was against us. We were piled on a bus making 300 bucks a week. To me, that was a lot of money. It was hard work, but (it was) with a bunch of guys where you really loved their music. There was a broad base of experience and learning. You got over the fears. What I took from that and what I learned from the Rat Pack in Vegas was you learned to fail and it was OK. Today, in this media-driven society, you can’t do that. You fail a couple of times, you’re gone. Back then, we weren’t afraid to go out make mistakes. … You take that journey for quite a few years until you come out with some wisdom about how to deal with success, life, what you are.

Q: I can’t let you go without asking about your most controversial song …

A: ‘[You’re] Having My Baby’.

Q: Yes. When I heard that as a kid, on the radio in 1974, I said “What the hell is this?!”

A: I write from inspiration, what I see, feel. It was kind of part and parcel with the me generation. People were getting into all about themselves. I was having children, ultimately five girls, and I was inspired not only by my wife, but by women who wanted to have a child but didn’t want to be married. It was a topic that had not been touched. Whatever you read into it … Everyone was on a soapbox, that whole women’s thing came out with “What do you mean ‘yours’? It’s mine and it’s ours!” Semantics. If it hadn’t had that controversy, it never would have been a No. 1 record.

Q: But wasn’t it an anti-abortion song?

A: No. It was not that. If it was I would tell you it was, but it had nothing to do with it. What it was: It was for each individual to have the right to do what they wanted with their body. It was not written as an anti-abortion song, not at all. It was a song about two people.

© Jim SullivanCape Cod Times, 1 August 2015

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