The Rebirth Of Paul Anka

‘People need songs about real, human things…’

THE HEADLINER ROOM at Harrah’s Club, Reno is nothing like the big showrooms of Las Vegas, but it’s large enough to hold Paul Anka’s cabaret act and about 400 fans. With a small band, a piano accompanist, and a bright young English conductor/music director named John Harris, Anka puts on one of the most smoothly polished yet musically stimulating shows you could hope to see in such a place. His set includes a couple of current popular ballads, all of Anka’s best-known compositions including ‘My Way’ and ‘She’s a Lady’, and a generous medley of early hits, handled lightly but with dignity.

The audience is responsive, recognizing and applauding each song as it starts, particularly the oldies. Most of them are under forty, and thus young enough to remember when these songs were hits, in the late ’50s and early ’60s. They’re also old enough to appreciate Anka’s flawless showmanship as he moves through the audience, talking and joking with people from places like Wisconsin and Kentucky, who will never forget this moment in the spotlight.

The show is well-paced, the band is excellent, and Anka is a superb entertainer. He gives more for the price of a ticket than most rock bands I’ve seen this year. It’s a side to Paul Anka that most people under thirty aren’t aware of, any more than they’re aware of much of anything he’s done since 1962, or why it is that, after what seems an awfully long time, Paul Anka suddenly has the Number One record in the country.

ITEM: Paul Anka has sold more records than any other, rock & roll artist who emerged in the Fifties, with the exception of Elvis Presley. Altogether, he has sold close to 100,000,000.

ITEM: ‘Diana’, his first song, written at the age 15, sold 8 million copies within two years, becoming one of the five biggest selling records of all time. It still sells steadily, all over the world.

ITEM: Paul Anka has written over 350 songs, nearly all of which have been published and recorded.

ITEM: Paul Anka wrote the theme music for The Johnny Carson Show.

ITEM: Among the artists he has discovered and given their start in the business are Steve Goodman and John Prine.

ITEM: Paul Anka was the first artist to produce and record his own material, to be distributed through a major record company – several years before such arrangements became commonplace.

ITEM: Paul Anka was the first American pop singer to perform behind the Iron Curtain.

ITEM: Paul Anka is about the same age as Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Bill Wyman and David Crosby.

Some of these facts may be as new to you as they were to me before meeting Paul Anka. They reveal a man quite a bit more complex than his image among rock fans would have it. The more I discovered about him, in fact, the more I was forced into a radical adjustment of my own image of Paul Anka.

He was born in Ottawa in 1941. As early as he can remember, his sights were set on show business, and his grade school years were full of acting, singing and performing. What impressed people most from the start was the intense energy and total lack of fear or hesitation on the part of this diminutive young man. By the age of ten, he was going out nights to sing and do imitations at a small dive across the river from his home. At age 12, he won a contest with his impersonation of Johnny Ray. At 15, he spent the summer in California and cut his first record, backed by the Cadets of ‘Stranded in the Jungle’ fame, for a small R&B label.

Lyrically stiff, but with a bit of the flair for comedy and phrasing soon to emerge, the record sold a few thousand and disappeared. The following Spring, Anka journeyed to New York with four songs he’d written, including ‘Diana’, and was: signed by ABC-Paramount Records on the first day. The record came out three months later and by the end of summer Paul-Anka was a millionaire.

Anka’s unwavering belief in himself and his ceaseless, driving energy did as much to get him to the top as his music, at a time when would-be teenage singers were as common as dirt. As a song; ‘Diana’ was not that exceptional – the lyrics were puerile, the melody primitive. What made it a classic was the forcefulness of Anka’s young personality, pouring out from between the grooves.

The next five years for Paul Anka were spent as one of the world’s top entertainers. He toured America countless times, on package shows run by Dick Clark, Alan Freed and his manager Irv Feld, and starting in 1960 when he came of age, in night clubs from Las Vegas to New York, where he was the youngest performer ever to appear at the Copa. He toured the world several times, drawing overflow crowds wherever he went, and causing riots in several places. He starred in five movies, composed the theme music for The Longest Day, appeared on Broadway in What Makes Sammy Run, and in 1960 he wrote, directed, produced and starred in a cinema-verite documentary called Lonely Boy that is regarded today in film circles as having been years ahead of its time.

And of course he made hit records. ‘You Are My Destiny’, ‘Crazy Love’, ‘All of a Sudden My Heart Sings’, ‘Lonely Boy’, ‘Put Your Head On My Shoulder’, ‘It’s Time to Cry’, ‘Puppy Love’, ‘My Home Town’, ‘Hello Young Lovers’, ‘Summer’s Gone’, ‘The Story of My Love’, ‘Tonight My Love, Tonight’ and ‘Dance On Little Girl’ were all Top Twenty hits between 1957 and 1961, and there were many lesser hits.

During this time Anka had tried rock & roll, R&B and country & western, but soon realized that his interest and ability ran toward pop ballads and big, orchestrated productions. His writing had become more sophisticated, and many of his songs had already been accepted as standards. Through his constant touring, he had become one of the most accomplished showmen in the business, and all of these factors helped save him when the teen craze died down in 1961 and most of his contemporaries hit the skids. At the age of 20, Anka was accepted by the pop establishment, and could headline at any of the biggest rooms in America and Europe any time he wanted.

Most of this is fairly common knowledge. After 1961, the story becomes less familiar, and more interesting. Anka was far from satisfied with his deal at ABC, where he had little control of his publishing and a royalty contract unchanged since 1957. In 1962 he left ABC, bought back all of his masters and publishing, and entered into a landmark deal with RCA whereby he was to produce his own finished masters, through a company known as Camy Productions, for release on the RCA label. Through his publishing company, Spanka, he controlled all publishing rights. Spanka, run by Anka’s father, is today one of the largest music publishing interests, heavily involved in the international licensing of hit songs from France, Italy and other countries, in addition to Anka’s own huge catalogue.

Anka started strong on RCA with ‘Love Me Warm and Tender’ and ‘A Steel Guitar and a Glass of Wine’ both hitting the Top 20 in early 1962, but ‘Eso Beso’ later that year at No. 19 was his last big entry. In 1969 he hit No. 27 with ‘Goodnight My Love’ but it looked as though his days as a recording star were at an end.

A lot of it had to do with the times. Surf music, Beatle rock, folk rock, acid rock, these were the trends that dominated the charts in the mid-Sixties. And Anka wasn’t interested in trying to be something he wasn’t. “I never got into the acid-rock thing,” he explains. “I understood it, intellectually, but to me there always had to be a structure; a song, and a sense of professionalism.”

During those years he built up his stock internationally, recording songs in Italian, French and German for release in those countries, and selling a steady quantity of whatever records he issued to his faithful fans. Those weren’t exactly down-and-out days, although Anka remembers commiserating with Neil Sedaka, Bobby Darin, Carole King, Neil Diamond and others he’d come to know during the heyday of New York teen pop. These were people who shared his convictions as to what music should be, and like most of those who’d reigned in the early ’60s they were having trouble weathering the middle years of the decade. All except Diamond, a singer with many similarities to Anka, who got his break a couple of years later when bubblegum music made its appearance and some of the early ’60s crowd, notably Don Kirshner, made a comeback.

But Paul Anka had no interest in bubblegum music, and although he considered becoming a ‘sensitive singer’, he decided against it. “I’ve always been too much into my own thing to go out and do somebody else’s songs. And although I admired the Bob Dylans and Tim Hardins, the kind of songs I was writing and always have written are different from that. I like that big sound, and I believe it’s possible to make a meaningful, personal statement within that style. You don’t have to sit on a stool alone with an acoustic guitar to say something real…”

In 1970 he ended his affiliation with RCA and went to Buddah, where his second single, ‘Jubilation’ (written for a Tom Jones musical called The Gospel Singer) almost became a hit. When it failed, Anka decided to take advantage of his dry spell as a recording artist to explore other areas. He spent time in Nashville with Kris Kristofferson, where he discovered John Prine, took him under his wing, and got him signed to Atlantic.

Anka’s greatest success in the early ’70s was as a songwriter. He wrote a series of songs intended for other singers who were out of favor and needed a hit, giving Wayne Newton and Sammy Davis, Jr. their biggest hits in years. But it was ‘My Way’, written for Frank Sinatra, that caused the biggest stir. The song could not have been better tailored to the singer, and it brought Sinatra to the attention of an entire new generation. ‘She’s a Lady’ gave Tom Jones a similar lease on life, and by that point Anka was beseiged with offers from over-the-hill singers who wanted a hit.

He was starting to get jealous, however; the next hit he would save for himself. He’d left Buddah, and was persuaded by his cousin Bob Skaff, who also happened to be an executive, at United Artists Records, to record with Rick Hall at his Muscle Shoals studio. The result was ‘Havin’ My Baby’, his first No. 1 record since 1959, and an album that many consider his best. All of which has virtually launched him on an all-new career.

One of the first things I wanted to ask Paul Anka was whether it wasn’t confusing, in terms of his own identity, to wear so many hats: rock & roll singer, pop showman, MOR songwriter, and now hit artist. “Not at all,” he replied, “I was never just a rock & roll singer, I was always into more things, and I feel comfortable with all of it. I listen to everything and I mean everything; all styles appeal to me. The only thing I haven’t done is R&B, and that may change too now that I’m working with Rick Hall.” Hall’s studio has produced hits by Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Bobby Womack, and too many other R&B stars to name. The same studio band now backs Anka.

His new album is the most acceptable thing he’s done, in terms of ‘youth’ standards, in years. The Fame band provides a tight, rhythmic track that stands out immediately from the big faceless orchestras Anka has traditionally used. His voice has become smoother and better controlled than ever; there are songs, notably ‘How Can Anything Be Beautiful’ that could pass for soul music. The album includes several strong possibilities for follow-up singles, including a version of ‘It Doesn’t Matter Anymore’, which Anka wrote for Buddy Holly just weeks before his fatal plane crash. It appears that Paul Anka is embarked on a path that will establish him once again as a universally popular recording star. Why now?

“A lot of reasons. I had to put in time developing my credentials all over again, after being so long without hits. And I needed a new sound, which came about when I went to Muscle Shoals, and when I started using Odia.” Odia Coastes is a black singer that Anka discovered in a small San Jose club. She now tours with him, does a featured spot in his show, and has an album of her own coming out on United Artists. It’s her voice that answer’s Anka’s on ‘Havin’ My Baby.’

I wondered if there wasn’t also some change in the general climate, a return of sorts to the musical values that Anka had always adhered to: “Absolutely. I can feel it changing, and people I talk to have the same feeling. People need real songs, about real human things. It always has to come back to that.” Among the things coming back are Anka’s own early hits. Recently, Donny Osmond has topped the charts with new versions of ‘Puppy Love’ and ‘Lonely Boy.’

Although it was clear from the content of his show that Anka hasn’t renounced his early hits despite recent success with more mature material, I asked if he still respected those records. “Yeah, I do,” he admitted readily. “For awhile there I didn’t, around 1966, ’67, that period when everybody was saying that stuff was old fashioned, I believed them. But now I’ve come to respect them again. You have to. Sure it was primitive; the technology, the conditions we worked under you had so many hours to finish a song, and that was it. You couldn’t take months like they do today, bring in all the top session guys and so on. You had to do it, and do it right. But that very pressure brought out the best in a lot of people. There were some real geniuses in those days, and you’ve got to give them credit. Those records, not just mine but a lot of the stuff that came out in that era, were forgotten for awhile, but now a whole new generation is discovering how good they were.”

A faraway look came over him. “You know, there was something very special that happened there, in the late Fifties, early Sixties. It was a new business; the old was on its way out, and the people who were building the music business as we know it today, we all had something in common. There was some kind of force, driving us all on; it was almost like watching a child come forth. There weren’t that many and we all knew each other – the publishers, the managers, the producers, the artists, it was like we were all part of a cast, like somebody somewhere said ‘okay, let’s get about 1,000 people and start a thing called the music business.’ It was a real phenomenon, and we could all feel it happening. I think that whole atmosphere brought out heights of creativity in everybody.”

One factor that has kept Paul Anka’s early hits from a popular re-evaluation is the fact that they haven’t been available since 1962. “When I went to RCA, I decided to redo them all. I wanted to update them, I thought I could do a better job. I was wrong. It’s one of my biggest regrets. There’s an innocence and spontaneity to those early things that just can’t be recreated.” The remade versions were good enough in their own right, but they’ve given millions of people the wrong impression, and I couldn’t help wondering why he had held back on reissuing the originals.

“I’ve always had a thing about being thought of only in terms of yesterday. I’ve avoided the oldies shows, though I’ve had some good offers. It’s all right for some of them, it keeps them in the business at least, but beyond that it’s worthless. Whereas I was always trying to change, stay contemporary. And I guess because I wasn’t selling records there for awhile, I didn’t want my old stuff to be the only thing I was making it with. So I held onto it.”

But now, with his new credibility as a songwriter and hitmaker, Anka is anxious to make his ABC material available, and predicts there’ll be a high-quality repackage out before the end of the year. Having that out will only add to the stature that Anka has attained for himself, and bring him more attention from the young audience he’s been out of touch with for so long.

One of Anka’s highest priorities currently is to increase his rapport with that audience, which is as much his own generation as the older Vegas crowd. I was surprised to learn that he makes a lot of campus appearances, and plans to do more. “I do colleges, and theatre-in-the-round, a lot. My show is different for those people, too. I dress more casually, and the whole show is less slick. The humor I use is more topical. I really dig it, and I’m gonna be doing more. I just did a tour of seven cities, playing the big hotels and showrooms, but in the future I plan to confine my cabaret to Vegas, where I live, and concentrate on concerts where I can stretch out and really get into the music.”

Paul Anka’s s prospects have never been better. Fifteen years ago, he was being hailed as the best all-around entertainer of his generation. And there has yet to emerge another individual who could realistically challenge that claim. If you haven’t thought about Paul Anka lately, that’s something worth thinking about.

© Greg ShawPhonograph Record, 1 September 1974

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