Canada’s first teen idol was born in Ottawa in 1941 to Lebanese immigrant parents, and began singing with the St. Elias Antiochian Orthodox Church choir under the direction of Frederick Karam. He also studied music theory under Karam, as well as piano under the tutilage of Winnifred Rees. He was performing in front of crowds for pennies, and sometimes less, around the region in both Ottawa and on the Quebec side of the border before he was 12, a regular around the coffee shops of Hull and Gatineau.
At 14 and a student at Fisher Park High School, he formed his first vocal group, The Bobby Soxers. Shortly after, on the urging of his uncle who was in the music business and convinced he had something special, he travelled to Los Angeles, and while there convinced Ernie Freeman to sign him to his Modern Records. Anka became the only white act on his label, when “Blau-Wile Deveest Fontaine” b/w “I Confess” was released as a single in 1956 on RPM Records. Although the songs were met with little indifference, he’d caught the bug and continued writing while still in school and taking in all the acts that came to town, including Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, The Platters, The Diamonds. and Four Lads.
A year later, he convinced his parents to let him go to New York City to woo music publishers and show off his works to record companies. With only $100, it was pre-arranged he’d stay with the Rover Boys (one of the Toronto doo-wop groups whose shows he regularly took in back home). It was through them he met Don Costa, a producer from ABC/Paramount. Costa was impressed with the young star to be, though initially more so with the number of songs he had with him than with his singing ability. Anka’s father was called to New York and a contract was signed soon after. Costa then took it upon himself to send the teenager to study with voice coaches and received training in song composition.
Weeks later, “Diana,” which he based the music on the calypso craze sweeping the music industry, was released on Sparton Records. It eventually sold over 10 million copies worldwide, topped the charts in the US and Canada, and reached #2 in West Germany, making Paul Anka an instant teen sensation, partially due to his stark contrast to the ‘bad boys’ of rock of the day – Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis. In only six years, “Diana” was recorded over 300 times in 16 countries. In a 2005 interview, he stated it was about a girl at his church who he barely knew, not about a babysitter he had a crush on, as had been believed for nearly half a century.
Ironically, it was Irvin Feld, a promoter who’d kicked Anka out of a club in Ottawa months earlier, that became his manager, putting him on his Cavalcade of Stars tour across North America. Those shows led to even more shows for the rest of the decade, where he played virtually across the planet with Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers, among others. He was the first North American pop star to play behind the Iron Curtain, and his three concert dates at The Olympia in Paris and his British and Australian dates with Buddy Holly broke all attendance records.
Costa teamed Anka up with Johnny Nash and George Hamilton IV in 1958, releasing the album THE TEEN COMMANDMENTS, where each of the three artists on the Sparton roster sang a few tunes. Twelve other singles were released before the decade was over that cracked the top 40, including some of rock’s biggest and most memorable to date. Some crossed from the pop chart into the adult contemporary and R&B realms, and the international charts, including the #1 hits “Lonely Boy,” “You Are My Destiny,” and “Put Your Head On My Shoulder,” “It’s Time to Cry”, which made it to #4 and “(All Of A Sudden) My Heart Sings”, which reached #15.
1959 was a life-changing year for Anka, literally. He was a mainstay on Feld’s rock ‘n roll tours, and began the year on the biggest bill to date – with Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, Ritchie Valens, and Dion & the Belmonts. As fate would have it, he wasn’t on the ill-fated plane flight on February 3 that year that killed Holly, The Big Bopper and Valens. Costa had initially told Anka he couldn’t go on that leg of the tour because he’d promised his parents he’d look after him, who were worried about the rigors of the touring life. By this time Anka was already becoming a respected and highly sought-out writer for other artists even though he was still a teen, and wrote “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore,” Buddy Holly’s last hit. Anka later gave all royalties from the song to Holly’s widow.
Not wanting to miss a chance to make a buck, management also landed him in the 1959 movies “Girl’s Town” (in which he sang “Lonely Boy” for the first time) with Mamie Van Dorn and “The Private Lives of Adam and Eve” with Mickey Rooney, exposing him to an even larger audience and making him a young darling of the big screen. He also was a concert smash overseas, the first Canadian pop star to make that claim, selling out shows in Stockholm, London, Madrid, and in the Orient.
The ’60s started off good for Anka. By the age of 20, he was the youngest performer to ever take the stage at the Copacabana in June of 1960, and had already made several stops in Las Vegas, playing to sold-out crowds and trying to makeover his career, having the forsight he couldn’t tailor to a teeny bopper audience anymore. That same year, he scored a #2 hit in the US and top 10 overseas with “Puppy Love,” written for his sweetheart at the time, former Mousketeer Annette Funicello. The same year, he appeared twice as himself on NBC’s short-lived crime drama “Dan Raven.”
He continued to branch out into films, and in 1961 played a peeping tom in “Look in Any Window.” His theme song for “The Longest Day” earned him an Academy Award nomination, tho he didn’t win. While on tour in Puerto Rico in 1962 after switching to RCA Victor, he met fashion model Anne de Zogheb, the daughter of Lebanese diplomat Charles de Zogheb, and they were married the next year. The early part of the decade also saw him break into the Italian market with the single “Summer’s Gone”, released as “Dove Sei?” with translated lyrics. The record got immediate success charting #4 on the Italian charts and opened up new possibilities that he was quick to capitalize on. He was also the subject of a critically acclaimed National Film Board of Canada documentary called “Lonely Boy” in ’62, chronicling the life and times of the artist.
He spent a great deal of time working with Italian musicians, including composer/director Ennio Morricone, singer/songwriter Lucio Battisti and lyricist Mogol. RCA released over a dozen singles in Italy that he either recorded or translated, including “Ogni Giorno,” which topped the Italian pop chart in 1962. This was followed by “Piangero per te” which reached #2 a year later. In ’64, Anka sang “Ogni volta” (“Every Time”) during the Festival di San Remo and then sold over a million copies of it in Italy alone, reaching #3 on the chart.
But as the decade trudged on, he was victim to the British Invasion, as was almost everyone else at the time. Able to adapt tho, he primarily concentrated for the next few years on writing for other artists, including Connie Francis and Mitch Miller among others, and finding other projects to keep himself busy. He wrote the theme song for Johnny Carson’s new late night phenom – “The Tonight Show” in 1962, having taken over the late night slot from Jack Parr. That song was actually a rehashing of a song he’d written years earlier earlier called “Toot Sweet,” which had been rewritten with lyrics and recorded by Funicello in 1959 as “It’s Really Love.” Carson and Anka shared credit for the song, and each got $100 in royalties every time the show aired… five nights a week for 32 years.
In 1966, Frank Sinatra approached him, and the end result was one of the Chairman of the Board’s signature tunes – “My Way,” which was a reworking of a French song he’d bought the rights to, Claude Francois’ “Homme d’habitude”. Although his sweet innocent teen act was gone and hopelessly out of style by this point, Anka continued to adapt and score top 10 hits, releasing 37 singles during the decade, including top 40 hits in “Hello Young Lovers” (covered by Nat King Cole, Johnny Mathis, Frank Sinatra, Rosemary Clooney), “My Home Town,” “Summer’s Gone,” and “Dance On Little Girl.”
By the time the ’70s rolled in Anka had become one of the most sought after writers, having scored mega hits for Tom Jones (“She’s A Lady”), Wayne Newton, Dionne Warwick, Sammy Davis Jr, and Engelbert Humperdinck, among others. He switched to upstart Buddah Records in ’71, hoping to find a more upscale audience. He wasn’t topping the charts, but was still cracking Billboard’s Hot 100 list over the next couple of years with “Do I Love You” (# 53), “Jubilation” (# 65) and “Let Me Get To Know You” (# 80). He continued to work the Vegas strip and find audiences in supper clubs overseas during this time.
Sensing another change was in order, he signed with United Artists in ’74. When he returned to the studio that year, the Vegas crooner was replaced by someone women’s rights groups had a bullseye on, when he recorded the duet “You’re Having My Baby” with Odia Coates. To appease the feminist groups, he sang it as “You’re Having OUR Baby.” Still, it was his first number one hit in a decade, and he teamed up with Oates again for two more top 10 hits – “I Don’t Like To Sleep Alone” (#8), and “One Man Woman/One Woman Man” (#7), as well as “Make It Up To Me In Love,” which failed to dent the top 40.
By now Anka Decaf was a mainstay on the Vegas strip, and his shows were captured in the PAUL ANKA LIVE album, recorded at The Sands in ’75. Later that year he recorded a jingle written by Bill Lane and Roger Nichols for Kodak’s advertising campaign called “Times of Your Life.” It became so popular that Anka recorded it as a full song, which peaked at #7 in the US pop charts a year later.
More chart success kept coming with “Anytime, I’ll Be There” in ’76 (#33), “Everybody Ought To Be In Love” (#75 a year later), and “This Is Love,” which peaked at #35 in 1978. 1979 saw a pair of songs crack Billboard’s top 100 – “As Long As We Keep Believing” (#45) and his duet with Mireille Mathieu, “You and I” (#50).
The 1980s started off rather rough for Anka. After receiving a negative review from a newspaper for a 1981 performance in Ottawa, he swore he’d never perform in his hometown again, and didn’t until over 20 years later when he agreed to appear at a health gala fundraiser at the OttawaCongress Centre. His biggest hit that year was “I’ve Been Waiting For You All Of My Life,” which stalled at #48.
His final top 40 hit in the US was “Hold Me ‘Til The Mornin’ Comes” in the summer of 1983, which included backing vocals from then-Chicago frontman Peter Cetera, and production assistance from David Foster. That same year, he co-wrote with Michael Jackson the gloved-one’s song “I Never Heard”, which was retitled and released in 2009 under the name “This Is It.” Those same sessions produced “Love Never Felt So Good.” Although Jackson intended on releasing it, he never did, but Johnny Mathis covered it in 1984.
Looking for something different to occupy his time, Anka wrote and performed songs in a Canadian children’s Christmas cartoon, “George and the Christmas Star” in 1985, and then all but disappeared from the recording studios, concentrating instead on writing for others, outside projects, his family life, and occasional performances. He also wrote the theme and title song for the film, “No Way Out,” and the theme for Louis Malle’s “Atlantic City,” which won top honors at the Venice Film Festival. His body of work continued for other artists, penning hits for the likes of Barbara Streisand and The Doobie Brothers, among others.
Anka had performed regularly Stateside for nearly 40 years, and spent the majority of his off-time there, but finally became a naturalized US citizen in late 1990. Less than two years later, he got to do what he said was the lifelong dream of every Canadian, to own an NHL franchise, when he became part owner of the Ottawa Senators. Before the end of the season, he turned around and sued the club for $41 million for breech of contract, the details of which were never disclosed.
Anka continued his work in films during the ’90s, starring in “Ganesh”, his first Canadian movie role, and for which he also wrote and performed on the soundtrack, and “Captain Ron,” in which he played a yacht broker. He also made a cameo on “The Gilmore Girls” in an episode where a character has named her dog Paul Anka.
After being inducted into the Songwriter Hall of Fame in 1993, he was immortalized two years later when he appeared in The Simpsons’ Hallowe’en special. He also made a guest appearance as himself in episode ‘Red’s Last Day’ in the sitcom That ’70s Show later that year.
1996 saw him crack the Spanish market, when he released the album AMIGOS. Later that year, Anka sued his dentist after a tooth fell out and and landed in someone’s lap while he was singing in Las Vegas while performing “Diana”.
Anka ended nearly 15 years of English recording silence in ’98, releasing A BODY OF WORK, which featured a who’s who of cameos, including his daughter Anthea, Kenny G, Patti LaBelle, Tom Jones, and Frank Sinatra. He also recorded “It’s Hard To Say Goodbye” on that album, a duet with Celine Dion that he’d actually done five years earlier with Phillipine singer Regine Velasquez. The decade also saw Anka try his hand on the Japanese and French markets, scoring top 40 hits in both countries.
Always looking for a new way to entertain his fans, the new millenium saw the release of ROCK SWINGS and then CLASSIC SONGS – MY WAY, albums where he took rock and pop favourites and did them ‘his way’, including Bon Jovi’s “It’s My Life,” “Hello” by Lionel Ritchie, Survivor’s “Eye of The Tiger,” and Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” among others. In 2003, Anka came back with an exclusive concert in Bologna, organized by Italian company Mapei during the CERSAIE exhibition. During that show he performed “My Way” with alternate Italian lyrics dedicated to the sponsor of the evening. That same year he recorded the new version of the song, which became a top 20 hit on the Italiancontemporary chart.
In 2006, Anka recorded a duet with 1960’s Italian hitmaker Adriano Celentano when they re-did “Diana”, with Italian lyrics by Celentano-Mogol and with singer/songwriter Alex Britti on the guitar. The song immediately reached #3 on the charts.
2005 can be called the ‘Year of Accolades’ for Paul Anka. He was inducted into the Hit Parade Hall of Fame, and received a star on Canada’s Walk of Fame during a ceremony in Toronto, shortly after he’d been named an Officer of the Order of Canada, the highest honour a Canadian civilian can receive. He also joined Anne Murray, Joni Mitchell, and Gordon Lightfoot in being imortalized on Canadian postage stamps.
He made a guest appearance on “American Idol” in ’07, singing an adapted version of “My Way,” where he mocked the show, the participants, judges and the host. The episode became a favourite of the show’s faithful, as well as the guests.
The new decade also saw Anka’s music make it to other mediums in less than conventional ways. “You’re Having My Baby” was featured on an episode of “Glee,” where a character sings the song to his pregnant girlfriend, and “Put Your Head On My Shoulder” was used for the video game “Hitman: Contracts.”
Always known to be a perfectionist, his tirades were unleashed on the public in the late ’90s, when his berating less than professional hired musicians who he felt had blown a show a decade earlier became an Internet sensation. At least two of those quotes, ‘Don’t make a maniac out of me!’ and ‘Slice like a f*cking hammer!’ (whatever that means) were used by Al Pacino’s character in the 2007 film “Ocean’s Thirteen.”