The singer-songwriter—still going strong nearly 60 years after his first hit—discusses his craft, explains why he’ll never retire and recalls how a bizjet helped him fill a concert request from Vladimir Putin.
Singer/songwriter Paul Anka admits that he may have been the unlikeliest of pop stars when he burst onto the musical stage in the 1950s. “I was short, stocky, had a big nose and was far from the mold of the matinee-idol type,” says the artist, who turned 74 in July. But what he may have lacked in looks, he made up in talent.
He was a musical wunderkind, just 15 years old when he proclaimed, “I’m so young and you’re so old,” in his international blockbuster, “Diana,” about his crush on a woman four years his senior. His talent transported him from his native Canada to the U.S. and then the rest of the world as he followed up his first hit with a string of self-penned winners such as “Put Your Head on My Shoulder,” “Puppy Love” and “Lonely Boy.”
Unlike many teen idols of the late 1950s and early 1960s, Anka didn’t fade from the scene when pop-music tastes changed after the Beatles ushered in the British Invasion. Besides continuing to turn out hits for himself, he penned “She’s a Lady,” a big 1971 hit for Tom Jones; the theme for Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show; and, most famously, the lyrics for Frank Sinatra’s “My Way.” He also carved out a career as a Las Vegas headliner.
In his six-decade career, he has released more than 120 albums and sold more than 60 million records. His searingly honest recent autobiography, My Way, was a bestseller.
A shrewd businessman, Anka has been involved in many ventures throughout his career, including ownership of a private jet leasing company in the 1970s and part ownership of the Ottawa Senators hockey team in the 1990s. But he has never lost his love for performing and, thanks to his legions of fans around the world, plays about 75 public and private concerts each year.
“Not a day goes by that I don’t thank the Lord that I have an audience that still wants to hear me,” he says. “I’m blessed.”
You’ve had a long history with private jets. How did that get started?
I had always wanted my own jet. I was living in Las Vegas in the 1970s when I bought a Lear 24 and it made my life so much easier. It didn’t take me long to realize there was a need among the hotels and artists in Vegas for private jet travel. So in the mid 1970s, I started a jet-leasing company, Jet Associates, and we were soon flying everyone from business executives to high rollers to stars like Helen Reddy, Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor to appointments and concert gigs. We had a fleet of Hawkers and Lears. Some we bought, others we leased. Business was good.
What happened to Jet Associates?
We were doing well servicing the Las Vegas Strip but after more and more competitors entered the field and the tax laws changed, the business got less attractive financially. We eventually dissolved the company. Today, to travel to my performances, I happily lease from firms like NetJets and Apollo Jets and others all around the world.
You’re on the go a lot. How does flying privately help?
Flying privately enables you to accept performing dates that you’d have to turn down if you had to deal with airline routings and connections. I’ll give you an example. I got a last-minute request to do a private show for Vladimir Putin and about 20 of his guests on New Year’s Eve in Moscow in 2013. I had another show booked in Bucharest the next day. We had the orchestra, our tech staff and my team on four planes. There’s no way we would have been able to do those back-to-back gigs, both of which paid well, without flying privately. This way we’re able to get in, do our thing, and get out. It’s incredibly efficient. Three years ago, Goldman Sachs asked if I could do a private concert for some of their clients in Mongolia. Mongolia! That’s not exactly on my bucket list. And it was to take place in February when it was 40 degrees below. But I was able to fly into Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific with 19 orchestra and staff, jump on a Global Jet leased plane, do the concert and get out the next morning. In the old days, flying commercially, I’d have never accepted the gig.
You’ve lasted much longer than most in the music field. To what do you attribute your endurance?
I think a large part of my longevity is due to the fact that I still put a lot of effort into performing. I don’t ever take the money and run. We invest a lot of money, time and effort into rehearsals with highly professional people to get the best show that we can. It’s 90 percent work and 10 percent genius, if you will.
Did you always have this drive and attitude?
Absolutely. When you start as young as I did, you don’t know any other way. It is not in my genes to just walk through a show. It is impossible to sing songs like “My Way” or “the Longest Day” and not feel emotional. With the lyrics, the music and the orchestra, it’s impossible for me to fake a show.
Have you ever seen an entertainer “fake” a show?
Many times. It goes on every day, especially with a lot of these young acts that may be lip-syncing or just going through the motions. They are not that talented. It is often form over content; lots of action and lights, dresses flying off and pizzazz and not enough raw talent. What is often missing is the emotion. And you know what? The audience gets it.
You once said that you feel you are “in an altered state” when you’re performing. Tell me more about that.
The moment you get onstage you leave the dynamic of your day-to-day life behind. You are there to focus and create a cathartic experience. You have to entertain the thousands of people in front of you. And there’s the orchestra behind you that you have to be in time with. There is no margin for error, and your focus is so intense. You are so locked into the infrastructure of the words, the mathematics of music, your communication with the audience and their reaction. You have to control all these elements. You are wrapped up in this cocoon. Nothing can fall through the cracks. Performing is both physical and mental. The looser you are, the more in control and confident you are, the more you relish it all. The high you get from performing is just amazing!
You’ve long been as famous for your songwriting as your performing. How important is your writing to you?
I love writing. That’s what got me into this business. My first hit, “Diana,” was a poem I set to music. When my records started selling, I was scared that success might not last and I felt I could always fall back on my writing. So I promised myself that I would write, and if a song wasn’t good for me I’d offer it to another performer. Writing’s been very good to me. The royalties on the theme for The Tonight Show put my kids through college.
What makes a hit song?
Simplicity, for one thing. You should be able to play the melody of any song with just one finger. I’ve known great arrangers who could never sit down and write a hit because they were too locked into the mechanics and the technical aspects of arranging. You need to be very simple. “Da da dee, da dee...” Simple. After all, there are only eight notes that you play with.
You’ve had so many hits. Are you still hoping for another?
Always. It’s funny, isn’t it? I used to talk to Frank Sinatra about this and he said the same thing. No matter how successful you’ve been, you’re always looking for that next hit.
You must have sung your hits thousands of times. Do you ever get tired of them?
I don’t get rid of songs because I am sick of singing them or I am older. All over the world, these songs mean something special to my audiences. I have to respect the audience. I don’t retire a song but I often change the arrangement to keep it fresh. But when a crowd is applauding, yelling and singing the lyrics, you can’t help getting right into it.
You hit it big while you were a teenager. What’s your advice to young entertainers?
Learn to be an accountant! [laughs] Stay focused. Be careful of who’s around you. Be wary of enablers. Know that you have to grow and change. Find out who the hell you are so you can not just be good but be great. You have to be great to make it in today’s world.
You’ve been a business success as well as a musical success. What’s the best business advice you’ve ever gotten?
Admit your limitations and surround yourself with smart people. You don’t want to be the smartest guy in the room all the time.
As a junior member of the Rat Pack you had an inside seat. Would you offer a few one-line descriptions of some of those icons?
Frank Sinatra: the best all-around entertainer ever, with great charisma. Sammy Davis: the most talented entertainer in the dynamics of what he was able to do. Dean Martin: a loveable guy who was a better singer than anyone ever gave him credit for. But Sinatra was, without a doubt, the guy.
What about Paul Anka?
Oooooo…let me think. A hard-working guy who believed in everything he did and had a great respect for his audience.
What are you working on over the next few months?
I’m writing, working on several recording projects here and in Europe and touring throughout Canada and the U.S. I’m also involved in some business ventures such as ARHT Media, a Canada-based high-tech company that designs human holograms.
So retirement isn’t in the cards?
It scares me to do nothing. Look at the great achievers who work and work. They love what they do and they are continuing to accomplish and to grow. I can’t ever retire. When someone says to me, “I am thinking of retiring,” I look at them and say, “You know what? You already have.” During the time I wrote “My Way” for Frank Sinatra, I saw him playing with his [model] trains, working on his garden. But he then went back to work, to do what he loved. It made him feel alive. I’ve seen too many guys retire. Their brains go. Their bodies go. They die. So for me, it is not in the cards. I want to stay active. I have grandchildren and a great 9-year-old son who keeps me active. He travels a lot with me. There’s so much more I want to do. I’ve always said, “If you stand still, they will throw dirt on you.”
NAME: Paul Albert Anka
BORN: July 30, 1941 (age 74) in Ottawa, Canada
OCCUPATION: Pop singer who has sold more than 60 million records since 1957. Composer of more than 900 songs.
PERSONAL: Became naturalized U.S. citizen in 1990. Lives in Thousand Oaks, California. Married from 1963 to 2001 to former Ford model Anne de Zogheb; five daughters. Married from 2008 to 2010 to Anna Aberg; one son.
ANKA’S BIGGEST HITS
The following songs reached the Top 20 on Billboard’s U.S. Hot 100. Numbers in parentheses indicate peak chart position.
1957—“Diana” (2), “You Are My Destiny” (7), “Crazy Love” (15), “Let the Bells Keep Ringing” (16)
1958—“(All of a Sudden) My Heart Sings” (15)
1959—“Lonely Boy” (1), “Put Your Head on My Shoulder” (2), “It’s Time to Cry” (4)
1960—“Puppy Love” (2), “My Home Town” (8), “Summer’s Gone” (11)
1961—“The Story of My Love” (16), “Tonight My Love, Tonight” (13), “Dance On Little Girl” (10)
1962—“Love Me Warm and Tender” (12), “A Steel Guitar and a Glass of Wine” (13), “Eso Beso (That Kiss)” (19)
1974—“(You’re) Having My Baby” (1), “One Man Woman/One Woman Man” (7)
1975—“I Don’t Like to Sleep Alone” (8), “(I Believe) There’s Nothing Stronger Than Our Love” (15), “Times of Your Life” (7)
Robert Kiener is a freelance writer who has contributed to such publications as The Washington Post and Reader’s Digest.