Even Paul Anka’s staunchest admirers are likely skeptical at news that his new album “Rock Swings” features songs originally created and recorded by some of rock music’s raunchiest bad boys.
However, this is easily among Anka’s best albums.
Anka, who has long shown that he will probe to its limits any musical idea that appeals to him, anticipates skepticism over his performing big-band, crooner-style interpretations of songs by Nirvana, Van Halen, the Cure, and Oasis.
“This is not a novelty,” he explains. “When people get past the smirk and the joke, they realize there’s a great quality to this CD. They hear the quality of the musicianship, and the arrangements.”
“Paul has made these songs his own,” says Universal Music Canada president Randy Lennox. “When I first heard the album my immediate thought was, ‘What inspired song choices this man has made.’ I was also amazed at the renditions, and the arrangements within these songs.”
Adds Universal Music Canada Director of Jazz Scott Morin who has co-coordinated the international roll-out of the album”I knew immediately that this was a record done for credibility, not for kitsch. It’s truly another step up in Mr. Anka’s career.”
“Rock Swings” is a stylish recording put together with a hand that knows to stress rhythmic clarity, and fluent dynamics. The production is smooth, and assured. Each song is tailored to Anka’s warm and deepened voice. The result is total credibility. You simply forget what the originals sound like.
Initially, Anka had sought to record a Bobby Darin-related album, in tribute to his crooner buddy who died in 1973. However, several labels passed. Then came a proposal from contacts in Germany for him to record an album of timeless ballads and brassy whammo swingers. This time Anka passed. “That has been done to death,’ he told his backers.
Anka then came up with the idea of interpreting the music that his five daughters, Amelia, Anthea, Alicia, Amanda, and Alexandra had grown up with. He asked Billboard magazine for its international chart listings from 1980s onward.
Then he spent eight months researching the material.
“I worked on about 200 songs in the studio or with my band in my hotel room in Las Vegas,” he recalls. “We’d sit with lead sheets and go, ‘No. No. Yes, that’s got a chance. No, that’s really stupid.’ Then when I heard my demos, I knew this was for real.”
In a more conventional mode are such choices as ”It’s My Life,” (Bon Jovi) “Hello,” (Lionel Richie) “The Way You Make Me Feel” (Michael Jackson), “Eye of the Tiger” and a moving rendition of Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven.” Among the more unpredictable choices are “Jump” (Van Halen), “Wonderwall” (Oasis), “Blackhole Sun” (Soundgarden), “Smells Like Teen Spirit (Nirvana), “True”(Spandau Ballet), “Everybody Hurts” (R.E.M.) “It’s A Sin,” (Pet Shop Boys), “Lovecats” (The Cure), and “Eyes Without a Face” (Billy Idol).
If Anka is meticulous, if he is marvelously disciplined, those qualities have stood him in good stead throughout his professional life. What he achieves in “Rock Swings” came from digging, digging and evaluating these contemporary songs on their own terms, rather against pop classics from previous eras.
“These are great songs that are meaningful to a generation of music fans,” he says. “Let’s not pin them up against Cole Porter. The times are different.”
In essence, Anka used a songwriter’s approach to interpretate the songs.
“When you are a musician or a songwriter you dissect everything you hear,” he says. “A good song is a good song. And they usually can be done several ways.”
Anka was equally meticulous in recording. He insisted on working at Capitol Tower Studios in Los Angeles-where Nat “King” Cole, Frank Sinatra, and Bobby Darin had recorded in the ’50s. He also insisted on using legendary, German-made Telefunken tube microphones, and recording with A-list players, and with engineer Al Schmitt, one of the most important recordists of this half-century.
Still, Anka struggled to find the proper approach to some tracks, including ‘Wonderwall” “Blackhole Sun,” and that anthem of the slacker generation, “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
“I struggled with ‘Black Hole Sun’ because of the nature of the song and the lyrics,” he recalls. The chords are great. I settled on doing it as a ballad.
That and ‘Wonderwall’ are my two favourites on the album. I listened to different versions of ‘Wonderwall’ by several artists. They all did it slower (than Oasis) but when you look at the song’s structure, it swings very easily.
‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ was the toughest to do because it’s an anthem for so many people. There’s also a lot of angst there.”
While “Jump” might have crossed over into parody, Anka says that “It was the easiest to do. I heard it right away.” “Tears in Heaven,” he adds, also fell into place quickly. “There’s not many places to take that song,” he says quietly. “I’m close to tears every night when I sing it onstage. It is just so moving. Musicians cried at the date when we played it down.”
In conversation, Anka exudes an old world charm. He is a remarkably at ease relating stories of his near five decade musical past. It is a career in which he transformed himself from being a ’50s teen idol into a superb vocal musician recognized around the world, and one of most successful pop songwriters in history.
Anka has recorded 125 albums to date including over 10 albums in Japanese, German, Spanish, French, and Italian, composing songs culturally tailored to each country. He has sold close to 15 million albums worldwide. Among his Billboard chart stats in the U.S. are three #1 songs, “Diana,” “Lonely Boy,” and “You’re Having My Baby,” as well as 22 Top 20 hits.
Anka also has a staggering 900 songs to his credit–130 recorded by other artists including Elvis Presley, Barbra Streisand, Linda Ronstadt, and Robbie Williams. He is particularly well-known for penning signature songs for others, notably “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore” (Buddy Holly), ”She’s a Lady” (Tom Jones), “Puppy Love” (Donny Osmond) and, of course, “My Way” (Frank Sinatra).
Anka has also been the discoverer of an enormous number of talented artists, including U.S. singer/songwriters John Prine, and Steve Goodman; and Canadians Michael Bublé, Corey Hart, and David Clayton-Thomas.
At, 67 Anka shows no sign of slowing down. He works not for fun, not to eat, but because one must. However, these days he works when he wants to work, where he wants to work. “I perform because I still need to,” he says. “It’s one of those things that’s in your blood. Because, in the beginning, people didn’t come to see me because I was a performer. They came to see me because I had a hit song. Now they come because they know I’ll give them a performance like no one else.”
In the Spring of 2005, Anka was awarded the prestigious Order of Canada, and received a star on Canada’s Walk of Fame in Toronto.
His latest CD is Classic Songs, My Way features lush treatments of songs by Joni Mitchell, Billy Joel, and Bryan Adams, a swinging take on the Killers’ “Mr. Brightside” and surprising new renditions of two classics from Paul’s own formidable canon. The recipient of valuable support from Anka earlier in his career, Michael Bublé returns the favor by joining his swing mentor on his 1958 Top 10 hit “You Are My Destiny” – the remarkable new version replaces the original’s teenage ardour with a temperament that’s older and wiser. For the album’s grand finale, Jon Bon Jovi joins Anka on a soaring performance of “My Way,” which Paul famously turned from a little-known French song into a perennial showstopper for his late friend Frank Sinatra.
Classic Songs, My Way encapsulates nearly every era of hit-making for Anka. Never one to rest on his laurels, he has had a song on Billboard’s charts in every decade since 1957, when the Ottawa-born Anka was only 17. Since then, he’s recorded over 120 albums in a wide variety of languages, selling close to 15 million albums worldwide and landing three No. 1 singles on the Billboard Hot 100 – “Diana,” “Lonely Boy” and “(You’re) Having My Baby.” (The first of those hits reportedly sold 10 million copies worldwide – only “White Christmas” topped it.)
Anka was born July 30, 1941 in Ottawa, Canada’s capitol. His family-parents Andy and Camelia Anka, and younger siblings Mariam and Andy, Jr.—was very close, much like Ottawa’s nascent but tight-knit Lebanese community to which they belonged. One of the community’s meeting spots in the ’50s was the family’s two-storey restaurant and lounge, the Locanda downtown. At 13, Anka, who wanted to be a singer, and a songwriter, would promise visiting pop acts, free meals at the restaurant.
“I knew what I wanted, and I was very cocky,” he recalls. “I wasn’t talking about the same things as the kids I grew up with. I talked about singing, being in show business, and leaving Ottawa.”
His formal music studies were brief: piano with Winnifred Rees and theory with Frederick Karam in whose St. Elijah Syrian Orthodox Church choir he sang. “I got into music after being forced to take shorthand at high school,” he recalls. “After the first period, I knew that was out. So I asked to be put in the music class. There I played drums, trumpet and piano and started to get a knowledge of music.”
At 13, Anka sang anywhere he had an audience. He put together a vocal group called the Bobbysoxers that performed locally, including at a local topless nightclub. “I was too young to be in the club,” he laughs. “They made me stay in the dressing room when I wasn’t singing.”
He’d also borrow his mother’s car–without her permission and before he had a license–to drive to nearby nightclubs that had amateur nights which he usually won. His parents discovered his nocturnal sojourns after the vehicle, an Austin Healy, broke down on the city’s Champlain Bridge. “I kept going in first gear, and I put the piston rod through the hood,” laughs Anka
Despite his antics, his parents were supportive of his showbiz goals. “They were great parents,” says Anka. “They gave me stability in an industry where I needed it. My mother was my ally. She cleared the way when it was rough with my dad. He wanted me in a legitimate business. Show business then wasn’t legitimate.”
When Anka heard that Campbell’s soup was giving away a trip to New York to the person who could collect the most soup can labels, he collected labels for three months, and won the contest. He was so taken by New York he vowed to return.
In the summer of 1956, his parents allowed him to travel by himself to Los Angeles to visit his Uncle Maurice. Anka began working at the Civic Playhouse selling candy bars during intermission.
Each day he would leaf through the telephone book and call record companies seeking an audition. One day at Wallich’s Music City at the corner of Sunset and Vine, Anka was listening to “Stranded in the Jungle” by the Cadets. He noticed on the record label that Modern Records had offices in nearby Culver City.
He convinced his uncle to drive him to Modern. The label’s A&R head Ernie Freeman, a veteran of Los Angeles’ jazz scene, then listened to his song “Blau-Wile Deveest Fontaine,” inspired by the African village in John Buchan’s novel “PrestorJohn, and signed him, making Anka the only white act in the company.
Modern, and its subsidiary label RPM, were operated Saul Bihari, and his brothers Jules and Joe. Their roster included such blues performers as B.B. King, Roscoe Gordon, Elmore James, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and John Lee Hooker; and the R&B vocal groups the Cadets, Marvin and Johnny, the Jacks, and the Teen Queens.
“Blau-Wile Deveest Fontaine” was released on RPM in 1956. “The back-up singers were the Cadets,” Anka recalls. “I could not believe what was happening to me.”
Anka returned to Ottawa, confident that stardom was imminent. It wasn’t.
Despite pioneering R&B disc jockey George “Hound Dog” Lorenz trying to break it in Buffalo, the record stiffed. However, Anka did get to appear nationally on CBC-TV’s “Pick the Stars” and “Cross-Canada Hit Parade”
Back home, Anka was still determined to make it in the record business.
While he kept writing songs, his parents insisted he consider a more practical career. He took journalism courses, and worked briefly at the Ottawa Citizen.
Whenever a rock and roll show came through Ottawa, Anka was there, trying to get backstage to meet his idols. This included a rock n’ roll revue at the Ottawa Coliseum featuring Fats Domino, the Platters, Chuck Berry (who was inspired to write “Sweet Little Sixteen” after watching an Ottawa fan) and Clyde McPhatter. Anka snuck into Domino’s dressing room and had him autograph a white-sleeved jacket. New York-based manager/booker Irving Feld, however, told him to scram. Anka left but insisted that Feld take down his name “to hire him for one of his shows one day.”
At 16, Anka returned to New York City, carrying with him “Diana,” a song written about his crush on an older high school friend. He stayed with the Rover Boys-sleeping in the bathtub of their suite at the President Hotel–and eventually met with Don Costa, then handling A&R at ABC-Paramount Records.
“A disc jockey in Toronto sent ABC a lead sheet on ‘Diana,'” recalled Costa in 1975. “There wasn’t even a demo with it. I read it over-and it looked interesting. So we sent for a demo. Paul was so crazy that when we sent for the demo, he came down from Ottawa. He floated around the city waiting for an appointment, and one day we sat down and played a bunch of his songs.”
Anka played his songs on piano for Costa, including “Diana.” Costa was so impressed that he called in other label executives. They all agreed Anka had talent. Within the week, Andy Anka arrived to sign a recording contract on his son’s behalf.
That fateful New York meeting changed Anka’s life forever. “Diana” became his first single for ABC- Paramount. Released in 1957, it sold over 10 million copies, and launched Anka’s career as an international teen idol.
“Don Costa was responsible for my life evolving into the life I have today,”
says Anka. “He was a true genius, and my musical mentor.”
Anka soon established himself as a successful artist and songwriter, penning his Top 10 U.S. hits “You Are My Destiny,” “Lonely Boy,” “Put Your Head On My Shoulder,” “Puppy Love,” “My Home Town,” and “Dance on Little Girl.” “He just couldn’t write a bad song,” Costa recalled in 1975.
“I had this talent for writing teenage songs,” Anka explains. “I was a lonely boy, and I’d see these lonely boys at all these record hops. Do you know how many lonely boys are out there, sitting in their bedrooms at night, thinking about the girl who would not go to the prom with them? Put your head on my shoulder–that was your objective that weekend. To get her to get the head on the shoulder, maybe get a kiss. All that I understood.”
During the ’50s, Anka appeared frequently on Dick Clark’s ABC-TV “American Bandstand” show; and toured in talent package shows throughout North America promoted by Feld (who now managed him) with Chuck Berry, the Drifters, Frankie Lymon, Laverne Baker, Clyde McPhatter, the Spaniels, the Everly Brothers, Eddie Cochran, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Buddy Holly and The Crickets.
“I have a strong feeling for those years because we were really pioneers,” says Anka. “We had to fight for everything we could get. The attitude then was what we were doing wasn’t going to last. The media had not embraced rock and roll. Madison Avenue had not embraced it.”
In 1959, Anka was part of the ill-fated “Winter Dance Party” tour along with Buddy Holly, J. P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, Ritchie Valens, Dion and the Belmonts, and others. On February 3, shortly after a performance at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa. Holly, Richardson and Valens boarded a small aircraft chartered to take them to their next performance. Soon after take-off, the plane crashed killing all aboard.
A few months earlier, on Oct. 21, 1958, Anka had been at the New York session in which Holly had recorded his song “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore.”
“The success of ‘It Doesn’t Matter Anymore’ gave me a broader parameter of credibility as a writer,” recalls Anka. “Buddy wanted to do something like I did with ‘You Are My Destiny’ with the violins. So I wrote ‘It Doesn’t Matter Anymore’.”
By this time, Anka had already begun to change his style and image to appeal to nightclub audiences. In 1959, he debuted at the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas.
A year later, at 20, he became the youngest performer to headline the Copacabana in New York.
In 1962, Anka left ABC-Paramount, a departure that sent shock waves through the music industry. In leaving ABC-Paramount, Anka purchased his masters and publishing-an unheard of feat in those days. It set him back $250, 000. He signed a landmark deal with RCA Victor whereby he produced his own finished masters through his own Camy Productions for release on RCA.
“That was all I had in the bank,” says Anka. “I felt strongly about my future.”
Anka also set up his publishing company Spanka Music Corp., originally run by his father, which became heavily involved in the international licensing of hit songs from France, Italy and other countries. “I was in business. I had a shingle out there. I even had the James Brown catalog in Europe.”
At RCA, he attempted to become a mainstream pop singer but only had handful of mid-chart hits including “Love Me Warm And Tender,” “A Steel Guitar And A Glass of Wine,” and “Eso Beso.”
However, he appeared in several films, most notably in the 1962 war drama “The Longest Day” in which he wrote the theme song for and received an Oscar nomination. In 1962, when Johnny Carson made his debut as host of NBC-TV’s “The Tonight Show,” Anka’s contributed one of most recognized theme songs in television history.
By the mid ’60s, the pop culture tidal wave caused by the Beatles wiped Anka and other teen singers off the pop charts. Suddenly, everyone wanted British accents, long hair, groups. Most artists of the 1950s crashed and burned because they did not diversify.
“I first saw the Beatles at the Olympia Theatre in Paris (in 1964),” says Anka. “I brought their records back, and my agent Norm Weiss [at General Artists Corp.] then brought them to the U.S. Did I think they were going wipe everybody here off the charts? No. However, they wiped us all off.”
Anka, however, had enough credentials built up to survive. Okay, he wasn’t topping the charts anymore in the U.S. but he was working Las Vegas for three weeks at a time, and hanging out with Frank Sinatra and Rat Pack (that included Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Joey Bishop and Peter Lawford) while earning more money than when he had hits.
“Bobby Darin and I idolized Frank Sinatra and Rat Pack,” recalls Anka. “All we knew was to look up to them. There was nobody else to follow. Ultimately, others didn’t penetrate the nightclub scene as Bobby and I did. That where we got our (performing) chops.”
Anka also focused on his songwriting, and spent more time in Europe and Asia where his appeal never waned. He realized times would change. Despite tempting offers, he refused to mine the secure predictable lode of fame on the oldies’ circuit.
“My whole thing was that I was the writer and the producer,” he says. “I was constantly developing my craft. I had a sense of the business, of where to go, and what to do and I continued to challenge myself.”
In 1963, Anka spent considerable time in France, England and Italy. His song “Ogni Volta,” was a hit in Italy in 1964, selling four million copies, and winning the San Remo Song Festival. It was the first multi-million seller in Italian history.
What ultimately turned Anka’s career around in North America was penning “My Way” for Sinatra in 1969, as well as “She’s A Lady” for Tom Jones in 1971, the same year Anka sold Spanka Music to MAM, owned by Jones’ manager/producer Gordon Mills who also handled Engelbert Humperdinck. “I finished ‘She’s A Lady’ on a plane returning from London,” Anka recalls.
During a visit to Paris in 1968, Anka had heard Claude Francois’ “Come d’
Habitude” on the radio. After he secured rights to the song, co-written by Francois, Gillis Thibault, and Jacques Revaux, Anka rewrote it as “My Way,” a song so lyrically powerful that it was embraced by Frank Sinatra as his signature song, as well as by Elvis Presley, Tom Jones, Nina Simone, Brook Benton, Nina Hagen, the Sex Pistols’ Sid Vicious and hundreds of others.
A few weeks after returning from France, Anka began listening to a piano demo he’d made of the song in his New York apartment. After midnight, and during a thunder storm, he began to write lyrics on his Selectric typewriter. He recalls, “I thought, ‘What would Frank say if he was writing this?’ I kept playing it at the piano, and eventually went, ‘And now the end is near, and so I face the final curtain.’ As soon as I wrote the title, I knew I had it. I finished the song at 5 a.m. I called Don Costa (then Sinatra’s musical director) and said ‘Don, I think I’ve got something.'”
When Sinatra heard the song, he immediately wanted to record it. The track was recorded in two takes, and under a half-hour. “They called me in New York, and played the recording over the speakers,” recalls Anka. “I started crying. It was the turning point of my career.”
In the 70’s, Anka had another wave of chart-topping hits in the U.S. starting with “(You’re) Having My Baby,” the sentimental song about the impending joys of fatherhood which went to #1 on Billboard. It was followed by “One Man Woman, One Woman Man,” (with Odia Coates), “I Don’t Like to Sleep Alone,” “(I Believe) There’s Nothing Stronger than Our Love,” and “Times of Your Life.”
Anka’s chart success held through the ’80s with “Hold Me ‘Til The Morning Comes,” a duet with Peter Cetera in 1983. Among his later releases were the 1996 Spanish-language album “Amigos”; “Body of Work” in 1998, featuring duets with Celine Dion, Patti LaBelle, Tom Jones, Anthea Anka, and Frank Sinatra; and “Anka Live 2000,” recorded during a worldwide tour.
Beside Anka having five grown daughters, he is blessed with five young grandchildren.
Anka now resides in California with his wife Anna a former Miss Sweden and their son Ethan and his step daughter Elli. “This is the greatest thing that has happened to me, having gotten my first son.” They married on July 26, 2008 in an intimate ceremony in lovely Sardina, Italy. “Anna and I are soul mates and we are looking forward to a long, healthy journey together,” says Paul. His wife Anna is also a talented writer who is author of 30-Minute Pregnancy Workout. “They bring such joy into my life that it’s unbelievable. I can’t say enough about them.”
Paul Anka is available for corporate events, private shows, milestone celebrations (birthday, anniversary), fundraisers, festivals, and more.