Born: 1941, Ottawa, Ontario
Genres: Pop / Adult Contemporary / Jazz
- Canadian Music Hall of Fame
- Canadian Walk of Fame
- Hollywood Walk of Fame
- Juno Award in 1975 for Composer of the Year
- Wrote over 400 songs
- 3 Number One Hits, 13 Top Ten Hits, 25 Top Thirty Hits
- Peaked at #1 on the charts.
- 2nd biggest-selling single of all-time worldwide.
“Lonely Boy” (1959)
- Peaked at #1 on the charts.
- 4th biggest single of the year in Canada.
- 5th biggest single of the year in the U.S.
Top 20 Hit Singles:
<Peak Chart Position in the Billboard Hot 100>
- “Crazy Love” (1958) <#15>
- “Let the Bells Keep Ringing” (1958) <#16>
- “You Are My Destiny” (1958) <#7>
- “My Heart Sings” (1959) <#15>
- “It’s Time to Cry” (1959) <#4>
- “Put Your Head On My Shoulder” (1959) <#2>
- “My Home Town” (1960) <#8>
- “Puppy Love” (1960) <#2>
- “Summer’s Gone” (1960) <#11>
- “Dance On Little Girl” (1961) <#10>
- “Tonight My Love, Tonight” (1961) <#13>
- “The Story of My Love” (1961) <#16>
- “Eso Beso (That Kiss!)” (1962) <#19>
- “Love Me Warn and Tender” (1962) <#12>
- “A Steel Guitar and a Glass of Wine” (1962) <#13>
- “You’re Having My Baby” (1974) <#1>
- “I Don’t Like to Sleep Alone” (1975) <#8>
- “I Believe There’s Nothing Stronger” (1975) <#15>
- “One Man Woman/One Woman Man” (1975) <#7>
- “Times of Your Life” (1976) <#7>
Hits He Wrote for Others*:
- “My Way” (1969) – for Frank Sinatra
- “She’s a Lady” (1971) – for Tom Jones
- Theme of the Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson (1962)
* Although he composed these for other singers, for some of them, he sang his own version as well.
David Cobb in Canadian Magazine quoted a Parisian reviewer commenting about Paul Anka after seeing him perform in Paris: “A finger of Johnnie Ray, a touch of Frankie Laine, the zest of Elvis Presley, several drops of the Platters – shake and serve. That’s the Paul Anka cocktail.”
Simply put, Paul Anka was Canada’s first international rock and roll superstar, first teen-idol, and should be regarded as the godfather of Canadian pop.
He was born into a tightly-knit family in the Canadian capital of Ottawa. His parents owned a two-storey restaurant and lounge, The Locanda, which was a popular hangout for the city’s Lebanese community and offered free meals to singers who performed there. When Paul became a teenager, he knew he wanted to be a singer and in show business. His father felt that show business was not legit and that he should become a proper businessman. But through the support of his mother, his dad gradually softened up. He studied some piano and sang in the St. Elijah Syrian Orthodox Church choir.
He began to sing everywhere and assembled a vocal group called the Bobbysoxers. Among the venues where they performed was a local topless club. Anka says he was too young to be there, so they made him remain in the dressing room when he wasn’t on stage. Even gutsier was his practice of secretly borrowing his mother’s car, before he was old enough to obtain a license, to drive across the river to Hull, Quebec to perform. One night, the car broke down on the bridge and he kept pushing it on in first gear until the piston shot through the hood.
In those days, New York City was the end-all and be-all of the world’s entertainment industry. Anka dreamed of going. He discovered a contest put on by Campbell’s Soup of collecting labels, the victor winning a free trip to New York. He spent three months’ collecting the soup labels and won the contest. He was mesmerized by the city and vowed to return.
In the summer of 1956, Anka went to Los Angeles to visit his uncle. He worked at a playhouse selling snacks during intermissions. Everyday he would go through the yellow pages and call record companies to ask for an audition. One day his uncle drove him to Modern Records / RPM and he performed a song he wrote called “Blau-Wile Deveest Fontaine”. He was signed onto this same label as B.B. King and John Lee Hooker, among others. The song became the flipside of “I Confess” and was released as a single that year. It did not become as successful as Anka had hoped.
When he returned home, at only 14 years of age, he was invited to appear on CBC TV’s shows “Pick the Stars” and “Cross-Canada Hit Parade”. His parents suggested that, in case his career in singing fails to take off, he should have a backup plan of something more practical. So, while still writing songs, Anka took some journalism courses and landed a job with the Ottawa Citizen (newspaper). Whenever there was a rock concert in Ottawa—Fats Domino, The Platters, Chuck Berry*—Anka was there, always attempting to make it backstage to meet the stars. He succeeded in sneaking into Domino’s dressing room to get his autograph. Manager Irving Feld caught him and kicked him out but not before Anka suggested that he take down his name so he could hire him for one of his shows one day. During those days in Ottawa, Anka also met and befriended such Canadian acts as The Diamonds and The Four Lads.
*A piece of trivia: apparently Chuck Berry was inspired to write his song “Sweet Little Sixteen” after seeing an Ottawa fan.
Breakthrough … More Like Smashthrough
Later that year, Paul’s parents gave him $100 to return to New York to visit record companies with some of the new songs he had written. He stayed at the President Hotel with the group The Rover Boys who introduced him to ABC-Paramount producer Don Costa. Anka sang to him a song he wrote about a former babysitter. The song’s name was “Diana”. Costa liked it and the song was recorded. At 16, Paul was too young to sign the recording contract, so his father came down to New York to sign on Paul’s behalf. The song was sent to radio stations around the English-speaking world. Everyone sat back and watched it scale the charts, higher and higher, on both sides of the Atlantic. When it reached number one, Paul Anka was now an international pop star and teen idol. “Diana” went on to sell over 10 million copies, becoming the second biggest of all-time after Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas”.
Promoters began to ring up Anka expressing their desire to send him on a world tour. As fate would have it, the man who’d kicked Anka out of Fats Domino’s dressing room, and who’d been told by Anka to take down his name in case he needed him in the future—Irving Feld—arranged Anka’s tour and became his manager. In late 1957, Paul Anka embarked on a 91-city tour of Canada, the U.K., and the U.S.. Later in 1958, he toured Japan and then, with Buddy Holly, Australia. He also became the first pop star from North America to play behind the Iron Curtain. Feld ended up saving Anka from the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly as is explained in Canada’s Jam Pop Encyclopedia:
[Paul Anka] also did a set of concert dates at the Olympia in Paris, breaking all previous attendance records. It was in 1959 that Anka appeared in Feld’s biggest rock n’ roll show of all [The Winter Dance Party Tour]—it featured Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper, Ritchie Valens, Dion and the Belmonts, and others. Fate sidestepped Anka when Feld told him the he wanted him to stay because he’d promised his father he’d keep an eye on him, thus missing the fateful plane crash of February 3, 1959 that killed Holly, the Big Bopper and Valens.
Prior to Holly’s demise, Anka wrote a #1 hit song for him that became one of his last: “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore”. “Diana” was followed up with several more songs that did well on the charts: “It’s Time to Cry”, “My Heart Sings”, “You Are My Destiny”, “Crazy Love”, “Put Your Head On My Shoulder”, “Puppy Love”, “My Home Town”, and “Dance on Little Girl”. Reminiscing about his string of hits, Don Costa said in 1975, “He just couldn’t write a bad song”.
He was also invited to appear in a couple of motion pictures in addition to writing songs featured in them. These included The Private Lives of Adam and Eve (with Mickey Rooney) and Girls Town. Though both films are considered by most as turkeys, the song “Lonely Boy”, featured in the latter film was another number one hit and the 4th biggest song of the year 1959 (5th in the U.S.).
There comes a time in every young man’s life, when, with impending hair loss, hormone deceleration, and a mutating metabolism, the realization takes hold that one cannot be a teen machine forever. Anka found that the strenuous rock and roll grind was repressing rather than utilizing his talents, and began to change his style and image into a lounge act. He debuted at the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas and became the youngest artist to headline the Copacabana in New York. It was June 1960; Anka was 20 years old and a millionaire. Instead of resting on his laurels and sailing off into the sunset, he continued catering to the adult market and scoring songs for movies in which he starred. Such films included Look In Any Window (1961) and The Longest Day (1962). His theme-song for the latter film was nominated for an Oscar.
In 1962, Anka left ABC-Paramount, which sent shockwaves through the recording industry. He also stunned everyone by making a bold but incredibly smart business move: he bought the rights to all his songs. The record company settled on a quarter-million dollars and told him he was nuts. But with countless reissues and covers of his songs over the years, he made a fortune. Anka felt strongly about owning the rights to his own songs, so he made a landmark deal with his new record company—RCA Victor—in which he produced his own masters through his own company for release on RCA. His new songs, however, became only moderate hits. Perhaps his biggest success was composing the theme song for The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson which debuted in 1962.
Rock stars are notorious for attracting women and, by this point, you are probably wondering about Paul’s love life. He had written the song “Puppy Love” for Mouseketeer and actress Annette Funicello. The two were dating but their hectic careers presented too much of a strain for them to continue with their relationship. Anka ended up marrying a European model named Anne DeZogheb. They tied the knot in Paris in 1963.
The British invasion, with the Beatles leading the march, was blamed for stalling the careers of many North American singers like Paul Anka. He later commented that he saw the Beatles perform in Paris and bought some of their records but didn’t think they’d wipe everyone in the U.S. and Canada off the charts. But that’s exactly what they did.
Anka did manage three or four noteworthy hits after the British Invasion in the 60s. He must have figured that if the Europeans could storm the American charts, why can’t North Americans score on the European charts. He spent considerable time performing in Europe, and his song “Ogni Volta” was the first multi-million seller in Italian history. When in North America, he worked primarily in Las Vegas hanging out with the “Rat Pack” and Frank Sinatra.
I’ll Do It My Way
What ultimately turned Anka’s career around in the U.S. and Canada was a string of events at the end of the decade that began during a visit to France in 1968. Paul was listening to the radio and heard the Claude Francois song “Come d’Habitude”. He felt there was something to the song and sought to buy the rights. He succeeded at no cost.
Later on, Paul was having dinner with Frank Sinatra and a few friends. Sinatra told him he was quitting the business, that he was sick of it. Anka was devastated. He really looked up to Sinatra and couldn’t believe he was retiring. He decided he had to do something.
At one o’clock in the morning in his New York apartment during a thunderstorm, Paul Anka sat down at his piano, pulling out the song he’d heard in France. He subtly reworked the melody and began to think up some English lyrics. “What would Frank say if he were singing this melody?” he thought while playing it on the piano over and over again. And the words began to come out. “And now the end is near, and so I face the final curtain…”. Wikipedia quotes Paul as saying:
I read a lot of periodicals, and I noticed everything was “my this” and “my that”. We were in the “me generation” and Frank became the guy for me to use to say that. I used words I would never use: “I ate it up and spit it out.” But that’s the way he talked. I used to be around steam rooms with the Rat Pack guys – they liked to talk like Mob guys, even though they would have been scared of their own shadows.
He finished off the song at 5AM. He called up Sinatra who was at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas and played him the song. Sinatra was blown away and wanted to record it immediately. Apparently, Anka’s record company was furious, thinking that he should have kept the song for himself. But Anka had written it for Sinatra. Frank Sinatra recorded the song in only two takes in less than half an hour. He rang up Paul in New York and played it for him over the phone. Anka says, “I started crying. It was the turning point of my career.” The song, of course, was “My Way” and was released in 1969. Not only did it pull the plug on Frank Sinatra’s plans of an early retirement, it became his signature song. It saved the careers of both Anka and Sinatra. The song has been covered by countless artists over the years, including Elvis Presley, Tom Jones, and Nina Simone.
An interesting bit of trivia is that David Bowie had been asked to pen English lyrics to “Comme d’Habitude” in 1968. He came up with “Even a Fool Learns to Love”. But because Anka had already bought the rights to the original French version, Bowie’s was never released. “Life on Mars” became Bowie’s riposte to losing out on the fortune.
Paul Anka also wrote “She’s a Lady” for Tom Jones in 1971 which became the Welsh singer’s biggest hit.
Comeback and Glide
In terms of his own recordings, Anka had hit the Top 40 only once since 1963. In 1974 all that changed when he began recording ballads. He teamed up with songstress Odia Coates and released “You’re Having My Baby”. Not only was it a number one hit, it finished in 9th place in RPM’s Top 100 singles of the year. Follow-up singles, “One Man Woman/One Woman Man”, “I Don’t Like to Sleep Alone”, “I Believe There’s Nothing Stronger”, and, what began as a jingle for Kodak—”Times of Your Life”—topped the charts as well, some doing better in Canada and some in the U.S.. He was awarded a Juno Award in 1975 as composer of the year. In 1980, Paul Anka was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame.
Gliding on the successes of those songs, he recorded less frequently, though continually, after 1975. In 1983, Anka teamed up with Peter Cetera and momentous Canadian producer David Foster and released “Hold Me ‘Til The Morning Comes”. His 1998 album Body of Work features duets with such singing giants as Celine Dion, Patti LaBelle, Tom Jones, and Frank Sinatra. In 2005, he recorded the album Rock Swings, which is—you guessed it—swing versions of classic rock songs like Van Halen’s “Jump”, Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger”, Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, and others. Its success prompted the 2007 follow-up Classic Songs: My Way, consisting of more big-band arrangements of contemporary standards (Bryan Adams’ “Heaven”, Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now”, Foreigner’s “Waiting for a Girl Like You”) and featuring duets with Jon Bon Jovi and Michael Buble.
In 2005, Paul Anka was awarded a star on Canada’s Walk of Fame in Toronto. He has also been given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (the American equivalent). A street in Ottawa is named “Paul Anka Drive” in his honour.