A Conversation With Paul Anka
For more than 60 years, legendary singer and songwriter Paul Anka has performed and produced music that has transcended generations and left an indelible mark that will live on for years to come. Ahead of his May 5 performance at the Golden Nugget in Atlantic City, Paul Anka was kind enough to speak with me about his impressive body of work.
You started off as a teen idol. How did you overcome this label to become an enduring artist with a substantial career?
Being a writer separated me from the pack, if you will. Then I made the decision to really learn my craft and become a performer. A lot of things hit you in the face when you get success. My goals were to be very professional, to not make a lot of mistakes, and I learned from the Rat Pack what not to do. I got to perform and hang with those guys. I pride myself on being a writer and performer, and to not be the smartest guy in the room and learn from others. None of us are born sophisticated. When you’re given success, you just stay with it. After a while, the demographics of your audience support you. Then I had an international career that kept going and that I fed. I went to Italy, South America, Japan, and France. That stuff gets around, and you just keep on keeping on.
It was recently revealed that David Bowie was the first person to put English lyrics to the song that would eventually become “My Way.” But then you bought the rights to the song and crafted the version made famous by Frank Sinatra. How did that all play out? Were you aware of David Bowie’s version?
No, I wasn’t aware of David Bowie’s version. News about David’s version came out years later. I assume he heard it and tried to reach someone. It worked really quickly for me. I had a business in France and a publishing company with French partners. I would take my children there every summer, and I was sitting around and I heard this song on the radio. When you’re a writer, you listen to songs differently than other people. You think about what you like, what you don’t like, if you’d change anything. I heard it on the radio and I found out who had it in France. I flew up on my way home and I met him. It was done in 10 minutes and it was a two-page contract. It was just a local hit, it wasn’t a huge hit, thus was the market. It was domestically in the top 20 or something. Then I had dinner with Sinatra later in the 1960s and he told me he was retiring. That’s what prompted me to finish it for him, and I finished it in five hours. There was no bargaining against anyone, and they were happy to give it to me.
You wrote “This Is It” and “Love Never Felt So Good” with Michael Jackson. Are there any other unreleased songs you wrote with Michael Jackson?
It’s funny you should mention that. I’m working with Drake right now, he’s a fellow Canadian. And one of the songs we’re working on is one of the Michael Jackson songs. More details will be revealed soon. It’s going to be great!
What was it like working with Michael Jackson?
It was great. I’ve got an eclectic list of artists I’ve written and he was the most different. He wasn’t really a musician in the sense of Michael McDonald, Burt Bacharach, Kenny Loggins, or people like that. They’d play along with me in terms of back-and-forth, instrumentally. With Michael, everything was in his brain. Everything came out in sounds and he’d sing them out, and that would guide me on the piano, to know which direction to go. I wanted to move him into something a little different than what he had done. When they found those tracks we did together people said, “Wow, that’s very different.” Michael came to my guest house for a couple weeks. I had known him and his family since way back. They’d come to Caesar’s Palace and see my show in Vegas. So, he was obviously very talented. Jackson impressed me because he had the potential to be as important as he eventually got. He was shy, he wasn’t very pushy, and he knew what he wanted. Michael didn’t come off as a seasoned, professional writer. Michael was good for Michael, and I respected that. He just followed through, no problem. However, he did steal the tapes from our two weeks working together. When they eventually turned up, “This Is It” and “Love Never Felt So Good” saw the light of day.
There was a 15-year gap between your 1983 album Walk A Fine Line and your 1998 album A Body Of Work. Why was there such a long break for you between studio albums?
In the 1970s I had my run with United Artists, and that went until 1974 or 1975. Then I jumped to Sony and did Walk A Fine Line. After that album, I didn’t want to do as many as I used to do. So, I went to Europe and developed my following in that market. I also released Amigos during that time period too, and that took me some time to make. It did very well when it came out in 1996, and I got to work with Ricky Martin and other Spanish artists. I believe I’ve charted albums on Billboard in every decade for seven decades.
Barry Manilow is my all-time favorite musician. What are your thoughts on Barry Manilow and his music?
Well, justifiably so, in terms of your judgement. He’s a great artist. Clive Davis is a friend and he knows what he’s doing. When he jumped into that, he knew what he had. Barry is certainly a good piano player. None of us are great piano players or profess to be, but he knows his way around a piano. I respect him as an artist a lot. I like the way he’s kept the integrity of his tone and style. Like me, he’s getting up there in age. A lot of guys I knew are having health issues. I hope he continues doing what he’s doing because we need artists like Barry, who are so distinctly committed to their sound and frame it with integrity.
You were referenced many times in the TV show Gilmore Girls, so much so that they named a dog after you in the show, and you even made an appearance in a dream sequence. What are your thoughts on Gilmore Girls?
Any recognition, to a point, is flattering. I know them. They’re really talented people, and I knew what was going to happen with it. It helped me reach a totally different demographic because the show was so popular. It was a good thing, and fun. And I’m honored, in a way, that, in that show, man’s best friend was named after me. (laughs)
A backstage rant featuring you and your band went viral a few years ago. It’s become a part of pop culture, getting referenced regularly, and has garnered you new fans. What are your thoughts on this recording and people’s reaction to it?
The guys get shirts! The guys get shirts! (laughs) Oh, yeah. Howard Stern loved it, and every time I was on there he talked about it. Howard said he’d do the same thing I did, and the popularity of that is what motivated me to do my book. It was cool, and it also highlighted how much of a perfectionist I am. Unfortunately, it was recorded by somebody in my production team that we fired. We know who did it. And when you do something like that to somebody, recording them and leaking it, is terrible. But the effect of it, as you said, worked in my favor. I don’t like that the guy did it that way. I think it’s an indecent act. On top of that, there are thousands of these kinds of recordings out there of other famous people. This particular recording took place in a dressing room back in 1980, I believe. What was good about it was that people knew they couldn’t fuck with me after that. They knew I was taking my business very seriously. I wasn’t walking around faking it, wanting everybody to love me. I can’t really do that. When people come to see me, they know I leave it all up there on that stage. They see my commitment, and my energy. I’m not the kind of person to simply take their money, do a 50-minute show and say, “Adios!” That’s not what I’m about. I’m not wired that way. I don’t deviate from the perfectionism and professionalism that I want.
Your album Rock Swings features fantastic swing interpretations of classic rock songs. What was the inspiration for this album?
I wanted to do something different. The record label wanted a straight swing album. I said, “No, I’ve got an idea. I want to take some great rock songs that I love and do them in a different way.” They said, “Shit, you’re gonna get killed.” I said, “Well, let’s put the money into making sure we have quality arrangements. If it doesn’t work, we won’t put it out.” Well, I, frankly, wrote it for critics because I knew if it would get past them then the word would get out, and that’s what happened. I went Gold all over the world with it.
I think Rock Swings and Classic Songs, My Way are both brilliant. Really well done.
Oh, thank you. Thank you.
Speaking of Classic Songs, My Way, which featured a new batch of pop and rock songs set to swing arrangements, how did you approach this album differently than Rock Swings?
It wasn’t an obvious Rock Swings 2. It was taking other songs that weren’t really in a rock sense and changing them up, which I did. It was simply that. There was demand in other countries to keep doing what I did with Rock Swings, but I didn’t want to do Rock Swings 2. Yet, I still took popular songs for this album and applied a swing style – that was my approach.
Around the same time you released your autobiography, My Way. What inspired you to sit down and write your life’s story at that point in your career?
It was cathartic, certainly. I had people asking me to write it in the 1970s, but I wanted to wait until a few people died, quite frankly. (laughs) But after the Howard Stern show and the response that I got, it was very different. It was a lot of work, going into storage and digging up the last 50 years or so. It was a different experience than writing songs. A lot of hours. A lot of hard work. A lot of deciding how far I was willing to go, what I wanted to say, and what have you. It was a very heavy commitment. Once it hit The New York Times’ Best Sellers list, I couldn’t believe it. And there’s talk now of a Broadway show because that’s wide open with singers. We’re talking to Netflix about maybe doing something there. I’m weighing my options and I run a lot of this by my son-in-law, Jason Bateman, because he’s in that business, so we talk about it a lot. I haven’t really made a decision yet because that’s going to take a lot of time also.