The singer-songwriter reflects on his remarkable longevity in show business, as detailed in his recently released memoir, My Way.
Singer-songwriter Paul Anka
Tavis: Paul Anka had his first pop hit, “Diana,” when he was just 15, turning him into an instant teen idol. Hit after hit followed as he reinvented himself to remain relevant and in demand.
He’s now written a memoir about those 60 years, titled “My Way: An Autobiography.” “My Way” is, of course, the title of one of one of his most iconic songs. Paul also has a new CD coming out titled “Duets,” in which he shares the mic with the likes of Celine Dion, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, and even Frank Sinatra and Michael Jackson. The clip you’re about to see is from just a few years ago.
[Clip of Paul Anka performing “My Way”]
Tavis: I’m a lyric guy, and it’s hard to think of a song with a lyric better than that. I was just leaning over to Paul Anka during the clip running and said to him that I literally was just the other day listening to Aretha Franklin and her cover of this.
Paul Anka: Great record, mm-hmm.
Tavis: She souled that thing up – S-O-U-L-E-D – she souled it up, put a Hammond B3 behind her –
Anka: Yes, she did.
Tavis: – as Aretha does, out of that Black church experience. Her version is amazing, and you suggested I listen to another one.
Anka: Brook Benton.
Tavis: Brook Benton.
Anka: That’s a record. I love Aretha, because she called and said she was going to do it, and we’re old friends. But listen to the Brook Benton record. That’s one of my favorites. If you say what do you like of all the “My Ways” besides Sinatra, Nina Simone, and the Gipsy Kings.
Anka: And Aretha.
Tavis: Yeah. Since we’re on it already, just give me a sense of how that lyric came to be.
Anka: Well, the back story to that is when I started in Vegas as a kid and I got to know Sinatra at a very young age and became a part of that whole milieu in Vegas, he always teased me – “Kid, when are you going to write me a song?” So what, 21, I wasn’t going to give him “Puppy Love” or “Lonely Boy;” he would have thrown me out the window (laughter) or put a horse’s head in my bed.
So I mulled around with it, but I realized he hated pop music. Hated it, didn’t like what I was doing, what Presley was doing. But because I worked there and the mob controlled everything, they were decent with me.
So the years go by and I was down in Miami working the Fontainebleau Hotel, which is the hang back then, and he was doing a movie, a Tony Rome film, one of those detective films.
He called me up, he said, “Kid, we’re going to dinner.” When Sinatra calls and says we’re going to dinner, you go to dinner, and take your passport, because you never know where you’re wind up with this guy. (Laughter)
So we go to dinner and he’s with my producer, Don Costa, who started me as a kid, and I introduced him to Frank and he was doing his last album. Sinatra said, “I’m done, I’m through, the Rat Pack’s over. I’m fed up with all of this. I’m doing one more album and I’m retiring,” and that really hit me.
I go back to New York, where I was living at the time. Everything had manifested itself, and subliminally it started to work in that Sinatra’s done, one more album. I couldn’t believe it.
I sat down and I started typing, “And now,” metaphorically, “the end is near, and so I face the final curtain.” Finished it at 5:00 in the morning. I called him in Vegas with Don and I said, “I’ve got something very interesting, Mr. Sinatra. I’m bringing it out to you.”
Flew out about a week later, played it to him at Caesar’s. He said, “Kid, I love it. I’m doing it.” Two months later he called me up. He said, “Kid, listen to this,” and he put the phone up to the speaker, and I’m in New York, and he played it to me. I heard it for the first time. I started crying. Changed my life.
So it was all about him. It was all about what I observed of what was going on at the time. We were in the me, me, me generation, but it was primarily all about Frank. My record company at the time just said, “Why aren’t you doing it?” I said, “I’m old enough at 27 to write it, but I’m not the guy to record it and get it out there.” It was all about him.
Tavis: Yeah. See, I’m so moved by that, because the presence of mind and the authenticity and the honesty and the humility, quite frankly, to know that this wasn’t for you – you don’t hear those stories too often.
Anka: Well, you wear two hats and you’ve got to check the ego at the door in our business, which is tough for a lot of us.
Tavis: Right, right, of course.
Anka: But when you’re the writer, and that was ingrained in me – I started as a writer. I worked at a local newspaper, et cetera. I only started doing my own stuff because nobody would write for me. I was the first doing all of that stuff.
So when I got to that point of feeling secure as a writer, you have to cast the music. It’s like Tom Jones was the only guy to do “She’s a Lady,” not me. So when Frank was finished, in my mind, it was all about writing it for him.
So I knew I was not going to be the first guy to do it. You need to typecast as you would a motion picture for who you’re writing for. I would never say “ate it up and spit it out,” that wasn’t an Anka lyric back then. But if you write it for them and you know them, then it works.
Tavis: Yeah. When I was a kid growing up in the cornfields of Indiana, I was really too young to get the humor, to get the jokes, and I wasn’t always turned on by the guests that Carson had, but I tuned in to Johnny Carson every night for one reason.
Anka: So did I. (Laughter) To make sure I got paid.
Tavis: I just wanted to hear the first two minutes of the show. That “Tonight Show” theme will live forever in my heart because again, as a kid, I’m in Indiana and it was through watching Carson and turning on that show that allowed me to know that there was a world beyond the world that I was living in.
Of course the kinds of guests that he had on, there were certain people I did want to see. But that music.
Anka: I kept it simple. I call it my school song, because it put all my kids through school. (Laughter) He didn’t know and I didn’t know that it was going to be on the air that long, because I’d hired him to go to England with me because I was doing a TV special and I wanted some comedy relief.
So I loved the kinescope. They sent me one of Johnny Carson as this young comic. He drank all night, he was blitzed, but he had to go at 8:00 in the morning and do a kiddie program. Right there you know how fun it was, right? (Laughter)
So now I said I love it. The guy comes over, I pay him, we keep in touch when I get back to New York, and he said, “I’m doing this ‘Tonight Show’ thing,” blah, blah, blah, blah, and I’m changing this, changing this, and I want a new song.
Well, hey, here I am. So I went into the studio and I knocked off (singing notes), knowing it wasn’t going to last much longer, and I sent it to him. The back story of that is Skitch Henderson, who was three times my age, was the orchestra leader and scorer of the television show.
He said, “I don’t want that kid cutting in on me. What do you mean? I’ll write the music.” So Johnny called with the news. I said, “Johnny, I didn’t tell you, but I’m giving you half the song. We’ll share half the profits, half the writers.” Fade in, fade out, there was no more Skitch. (Laughter) The song went on, and he and I made a bunch of money.
Tavis: Did you ever regret giving Johnny half of it, though?
Anka: Not at all, not with that song.
Tavis: It ain’t like Johnny needed it.
Anka: Listen, I’ll take half of something –
Tavis: Yeah, than all of nothing.
Anka: That’s right. (Laughter) Exactly.
Tavis: All right. You mentioned something a moment ago which comes through so clear in this book, and I was actually – I’m trying to find the right word – impressed by the candor and by the honesty of your admission here.
In this conversation you’ve already referenced that the mob was running Vegas, and as you said, I’m paraphrasing, you were cool with them, they were cool with you.
Tavis: That comes through in this book. There are a lot of people, Sinatra included, who spent their lives running away from any connect or contact with the mob, and you never played the mob game, but you’re pretty honest about the fact that you knew these guys.
Anka: Well, yeah, and so did Frank, and so did Sammy, so did Dean. We all knew them because they were our bosses. You didn’t work unless you worked for them. New York, the Copa, we know who ran it. We know who ran the record companies.
We knew who controlled everything, and you worked for them. It doesn’t mean you were a part of it or that Frank was a part of it, and they were great guys to work for. They were cool if you didn’t get out of line, if you behaved yourself. They were always well mannered, well dressed, shook their hand you had a deal, there was no 80 pages of a contract.
I floated right through without any incidents. I kept my nose clean. So I sat with Jimmy Roselli, who came and said, “We’re proud of what you’re doing, and thank you for the money you’re making for us,” and four years later he wound up in a drum floating off of Florida. (Laughter) I had nothing to do with it.
So what I’m saying is what are you going to do? A guy calls you up who’s paying your check. I was there the night – I took Frank in when Carl Cohen punched his teeth out.
Those things happened with those guys that were natural incidents, but I can’t tell you that I knew Frank was connected or Sammy was connected or Dean was connected. They were guys that you worked for, and when you peel the roof off of the United States, let’s be careful who’s throwing rocks.
Because that was part of what this country was about, and frankly, when I moved to Italy it was the same thing. You worked for a certain group of people, and that was it.
But the mob ran it, they ran it well. They came in when Hughes took it over because there was a lot of heat on them and they were very clever. They laid it off to Hughes and to that group, who came in and took the heat off them.
But at the bottom of it all, they were still running it. They were still running the business.
Tavis: Since you’ve mentioned them by name now, let me just throw these names at you, because you obviously – one of the best parts of the book for me is just your sharings about your friends in the Rat Pack.
We’ve talked a little bit about Frank so far, but just tell me about your relationship with Frank and then I’ll move to Dean and Sammy.
Anka: Sure. Well, Frank, it was – you have to remember, you’re a young kid. Bobby Darin and I were very close. But we realized in the middle of our careers, our young careers, where were we going to go from here? This stuff’s going to end.
The voice is going to change, the kids are going to go, someone else is going to move in. All we had to look at were the Rat Pack. Rock hadn’t hit, I didn’t discover the Beatles until a couple of years later, when I went over there and had my agent go over and bring them in ’64.
So when you first meet Sinatra and I started playing the circuit, you’re in total awe, because he was one of the great artists. He was one of the best friends you could ever, ever have. When he liked you, he liked you, and you learned so much from him.
I learned a lot about what I do with my craft, how I present my music. A lot of things about him were very much an influence on me and everybody else. Once you get in that fold and you’re around it, you get to experience something that I don’t think we’ll ever see again. There will never be anybody like Frank Sinatra. Ever.
Tavis: Dean Martin.
Anka: Dean was a lovable guy. Dean was not the drinker that everybody thought. He played that to the hilt. It was apple juice. Dean was the kind of guy that would just show up in the steam room where we used to all hang. We’d all be walking around nude in front of each other.
So now and then he’d peel off and he’d sing “Little Things Mean a Lot,” hello. (Laughter) But he loved his golf. He liked to go to bed early. He’d sit there and watch Westerns, he’d have his pasta, and he was just a gentleman, a fun-loving guy.
Frank adored him, he absolutely adored him, and easy to get along with. Knew him less than I knew Frank and Sammy.
Tavis: Yeah. So Sammy?
Anka: Sammy to this day is the most talented performer I’ve ever seen in my life. They’ve all copied him. He was closer to me in a different sense than Frank, because when we would hang together, we would talk about everything and he’d be very loose about it.
Frank was always being the boss, the guy, and gracious, but Sammy, you would learn a lot of shtick from him on what to do on the stage, how to work an audience, and you would share the kind of laughs with him that you would remember and remember and remember.
I met him as a young kid when I lived in Canada. I used to sit up in the light booth and watch these guys when they’d come through town, and I met him with his, when he had the Will Mastin Trio. He was always very kind to me back then.
Then I came out to L.A. and he was a people’s person. He was unilaterally gracious to a lot of people, and deep down he wanted to be Frank. Because he was as cool as Frank and he was as hip as Frank, and it was one of the – I do a big tribute to him in my show now.
I sing with him, because I wrote one of his last songs, called “I’m Not Anyone,” which was very poignant, and I do it every night on stage, and people are crying and I’m crying. It’s a very memorable moment of the greatest talent. People are not aware how talented this guy was.
Tavis: Quickly, because I want to move on, there’s so much in this book I want to cover. But how did you, as his friend and a white guy, obviously, how did you process the hell that Sammy, although embraced by this Rat Pack, I think you’re right, probably the greatest entertainer ever in terms of the multifaceted nature of his gifts.
But how did you as his friend process the way that Sammy was maltreated in his career because of his skin color?
Anka: We were very supportive, from Frank, all of us. When we started in Vegas, it started earlier for me when I was on a bus doing rock and roll shows through the South, and I was the only one allowed off to go in and get food and bring it back to the bus to my friends.
So coming from Canada, I wasn’t educated on it, so I got in the middle of it, and totally a disgrace for me. I’d go home to my parents and say, “What is this?”
Well, with Sammy, when they wouldn’t allow them in the hotels, Lena, wouldn’t allow Sammy in, wouldn’t allow Lena in, we just started a movement, Frank and everyone said “They’re in the hotels, or we’re out of here.”
We’d sit and kibbitz about it. He had more humor about it, and Frank used to tease him a lot about it, but we were totally supportive in getting it done, that they were with us or we weren’t going to be there.
Tavis: Speaking of your family in Canada, fascinating story, I think, was it Shakespeare who asked “What’s in a name?” This name, “Anka,” actually means something.
Anka: Yes, it does.
Tavis: Tell me.
Anka: Well, it’s a Middle Eastern name, which I later came to find out. My grandfather came over from the Middle East, and somewhere in the interim of it all I looked and said, “What is it? I don’t see it anywhere. What is it derivative of?”
My family told me that when he lived in this small village over in the Middle East, a young girl was raped very badly. Well, of course there’s many tribes over there, so there’s not much justice. He and his friend took it upon themselves to find the guy.
They took him and they hung him. The noose itself in Arabic is called an “anka.” They hung him and they left, and they migrated to Canada. When they got to the border, when they were going through and they were asked what is your name, symbolically, my grandfather said “Anka.”
Tavis: And it stuck.
Anka: It really stuck. It certainly stuck on the guy that’s still hanging in the tree over there, (laughter) but it stuck.
Tavis: Yeah. You talk about in the book how your mother was your muse. She was the one you ran everything past. I know something of that, because my mother and I are just as close, and I don’t do anything – my mother and I have a relationship where anything that I do in my career, we sit together and have prayer together.
I just pray over everything and ask for guidance on any decision I’m making in my life. My mother and I have prayer about that. Every season when we start this TV show, my entire crew gets together, my mother joins us, we hold hands in a big, huge circle of 30 people, and we pray for the blessings to fall on this show every season, 10 years now.
So I know what it’s like to have your mother be that close to you and run things past her. What shocked me was when I got to the point of how young your mother was when she died.
Tavis: I’m like here’s a guy who’s this close to his mother, nothing happens without his mother being consulted about it, you run all your lyrics, all your songs past your mother, but she’s dead at 37.
Anka: Yeah, yeah – tough. Emotional for me then and even now. I found out as my career started how severe her diabetes was. I knew as a kid I’d sit at the door and watch her give herself shots. It computed as a different way as a kid because I was told she was okay.
As my success began and a big, big part of it because of her, equatable to your story, how close I was with her, I started to realize that she was failing. I was in denial for a while and I still was very close to her. My first check I bought her a home, because we came from a very modest background.
It got down to where she was going blind and I was juggling being on the road, I was juggling trying to exist and trying to realize that this wasn’t going to work out, as much as I did for her, and she died, practically in my arms.
I didn’t forget it for a long time. I haven’t forgotten it till now. But what was taken from me, with everything that was given to me, it was kind of just diffused, because I all I wanted was my mother, and not the success anymore.
Because it was my dad that was the disciplinarian, and so it should have been, because in those days who knew of a 16-year-old, there was none of these “Idol” programs.
Your parents and my parents and I, we lived by radio. What was television? It was three hours a day. But my mom was the one that would – I stole her car and I went to a talent contest. I couldn’t get out of first and the cops picked me up.
At midnight I come back and there’s a snowstorm, and they knock on the door and there’s my mom, thinking I’m in bed. But she stuck by me and she (laughter) gave my dad hell, “Don’t get mad at him.”
So she was the one that your mom understood you. Moms know. Dad’s out there doing it. So it was a big blow to me, a big, big blow. I couldn’t cry at the funeral, and I reached in and took her ring off her finger, and I look at it every month.
Tavis: When you say you couldn’t cry, what does that mean, you couldn’t cry?
Anka: I had to be strong. It was the strangest thing. I cried in silence, I cried away from it, but in front of all those people that showed up, because of my celebrity, I was just so focused on her I didn’t cry until later, until I was alone with my family.
Tavis: So where your music is concerned, who did you go to, what did you do -?
Anka: My mom.
Tavis: After she’s gone, though.
Tavis: What do you do?
Anka: Tough adjustment, tough adjustment. It was me, it was my manager that I acquired, it was never the same. Because “You Are My Destiny” I wrote for her, which was a big hit, and it was never the same after that, just never the same.
The last thing she said to me was, “Never date a Lebanese girl.” How many Lebanese girls were there in Canada? That’s how I married the first time with my wife, who I met in Puerto Rico accidentally, who I found out was Lebanese. It was like my mother talking to me. I got married at 21, to a great woman.
Tavis: You referenced earlier how over the course of your career, particularly given the time that you became a star and because you started so young, at 15, you were able to, to your phrase, “keep your nose clean.” How did you do that when so many others had some major ups and downs?
Anka: It takes you back –
Tavis: Some of your friends, in fact.
Anka: Yeah. Well, you go back to your upbringing, your family, Canada. I always went back there. My father, my mother, and then my father was always on top of me – “Keep your nose clean. Do you love what you’re doing?” “Yes.” “Then be aware or you’re going to lose it.”
You made choices. You make a choice. Even around the Rat Pack, hanging out, the girls, all the stuff that we did, and being the youngest, they protected me. So you always had it drummed into you. There’s a line in life that we all walk, and we go a little left, we got a little right, but you’ve got to stay to that center and keep the integrity and stay focused.
I just did it. I just made the choices to say I didn’t want to lose what I’ve got that’s most important. The passion that I have for what I do, it wasn’t work, and I didn’t want to lose it because I was constantly evolving and feeling I was getting better.
It wasn’t teenage songs anymore, it was “The Tonight Show” theme and then it was “The Longest Day,” and then it’s Sinatra. So you’re constantly embraced by your profession, but in it, you’re growing. As long as you’re growing in your profession and you’re respected, you’re going to stay as clean as you can, because you’ve got something that you love that you don’t want to lose.
Tavis: It’s clear in this book and you referenced it earlier that you played a small role, were instrumental in getting the Beatles here for the first time –
Anka: Yes, mm-hmm.
Tavis: – when they came, but at one point in your career you and Presley were it. You and Elvis were, you guys were it.
Anka: Do I look like Elvis Presley? Go figure that out. (Laughter)
Tavis: Yeah. But what was that dichotomy or that relationship like?
Anka: Well, we were on RCA Victor together.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah.
Anka: He was Elvis Presley; I was nowhere an Elvis Presley. I was a kid writing his own songs, I wasn’t a good-looking kid. I was selling talent and I was selling music, but we knew each other.
We grew up together at RCA Victor. We got closer when he came out to Vegas. We were the two surviving guys, so he had a lot to talk to me about, I had a lot to talk to him, and ultimately he recorded “My Way” because it was one of his favorite songs.
I tried to talk him out of it. I said, “It’s not you, Elvis,” “Hey, Paulie, it means a lot to me, Paulie. I’m going to do that song.” He did it, he did it, because at the end we became very close.
But our careers were not similar, in a sense. We were both teen idols, but there was a big, big difference. But he was the survivor, like I was. There was no one else around.
Tavis: Earlier in your career, and maybe not even earlier, the expanse of your career, you’ve been doing this for 60 years. But back in the day, what do you define, what do you delineate, rather, as the defining moments of your career? Because there’s so many great stories in this book I can’t do justice to.
Tavis: What does Paul Anka say about those defining moments, what those moments were?
Anka: Well, defining moments was winding up on “Ed Sullivan,” which was the show we all watched, with Diana, and realizing that my life had changed. Seeing that whole segment as a teen idol, seeing a lull and surviving the Beatles, surviving by moving it Italy, moving to a lot of countries, recording in five languages, picking up that global influence.
Lull in the ’60s, where I got stronger and realized I can get over this. The next one was writing “My Way,” which changed, gave me the gravitas as a writer. Now I grew up all of a sudden, because here’s this kid that used to sing, “Uh-oh, uh-oh, Diana,” writing “My Way.”
So I think those were the crucial periods, and then after the ’70s, when I had my next hot run with “Having My Baby” and all of that, things really changed for me. People looked at you different, the audience makeup was different, the demographic support was different.
After that it became smooth sailing in the sense that I’d look at it and strategy, “You know what? I’ve really had a great journey here. Now I can be real loose and enjoy it and sit back and do what the hell I want. If it doesn’t last, it doesn’t last.”
Because nothing lasts in this business, and change is always going to happen. I look at these young kids today that blow it and waste their money and their time and get into the bad habits. That’s terrible, as a commentary from me.
Tavis: It’s been 60 years. You think it might last?
Anka: Another 60? (Laughter)
Tavis: Will it last? That is the open question. It’s only been 60 years. I’ve been waiting for 10 years of doing this show on PBS for this conversation. There’s some people on the list who have been so iconic with regard to their careers and their contributions that you wait for the moment when they come on the show.
So finally, the occasion is the new book by Paul Anka. It’s called “My Way,” no surprise there with the title, and I have delighted so much in this conversation. Thank you for stopping by to talk to us.
Anka: Good to see you.
Tavis: It’s my honor, thank you, sir.
Anka: Thank you, thank you.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. I’ll see you next time here on PBS. Good night from L.A., and as always, keep the faith.
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