Richard Nisley

Paul Anka Then and Now
Pop Culture Released - Jul 11, 2013

He was not exactly Teen Idol material. At 5’4”, he was more Sinatra Ring-A-Ding-Ding than Elvis-All-Shook-Up. He was Canadian, and didn’t play guitar. But in 1957, when “Diana” topped the charts, Paul Anka was the latest Teen Sensation, with the requisite black-lacquered pompadour and girls swooning at his feet. He was 17.

Paul Anka was a child prodigy. At age nine he could sing like Caruso. He studied musical theory, took piano lessons, and wrote songs of considerable sophistication. In 1957, his parents sent him to New York to audition for ABC Records. Don Costa, who would later write arrangements for Frank Sinatra, recognized at once Anka’s sizable talent. The first song they recorded was about an older girl Anka barely knew but had a huge crush on--Diana.

For the next two years, Anka penned a string of top-ten hits--”Lonely Boy,” “You Are My Destiny,” “Puppy Love,” and “Put Your Head On My Shoulder” -- all ballads. Costa surrounded Anka’s plaintive singing not with guitar-bass-drums but with strings and choir (as he would later do for Sinatra). It was not Rock-N-Roll but it was where Pop Music was headed for a host of boy singers who all shared the same first name--Bobby Darin, Bobby Vee, Bobby Rydell, and Bobby Vinton.

In 1960, before he turned 20, the hits stopped coming. It was the fickle nature of being a Teen Idol. There’s always some new trend and some new singer waiting in the wings. No matter. Anka had a new gig acting in movies and running with the Rat Pack in Vegas. In 1962, he wrote the Tonight Show theme song. He wrote songs for other artists, such as “She’s a Lady” which went number-one for Tom Jones. In 1968, he wrote “My Way” for Sinatra (“America’s National Anthem” Old Blue Eyes called it). In the 1970s the fickle pop music scene smiled on Anka yet again, with a string of new hits including “(You’re) Having My Baby” and “Times of your Life” which he wrote for Kodak and scored big on Top-Forty radio.

I saw Paul Anka at L.A.‘s Greek Theater one summer night in 1975. By then, his performing style was somewhere between Sammy Davis Jr. high-energy and Frank Sinatra-cool. Gone was the pompadour. He was wearing a tux with tie loosened, doing his Vegas thing. Playing to an adoring audience, Anka was a study in contrasts, sweetly singing to a child in the audience one minute, and throwing out a string of expletives the next over some small annoyance. Anka, it seemed, had some demons.

A lot has changed since then. Top Forty radio no longer matters. The Rat Pack has passed into showbiz legend. Anka too has changed. He did a world tour recently. In his early 70s now, he doesn’t look a day older than when I saw him at the Greek. You can catch some of his current act on You-Tube. Among the songs he’s doing is Kurt Cobain’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” with intelligible lyrics and big-band arrangement. He pulls it off quite nicely. Gone are the mood swings. Anka seems more at peace with himself than that night at the Greek.
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