Canadian singer and songwriter Paul Anka, who wrote hits for Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson, discusses the songwriting process and performs some of his tracks, including “Diana” and “My Way.”
Paul Anka is a bulldog. You’d be forgiven for not knowing this, for presuming to know him from the many ballads that have made him famous over the last six-plus decades: “My Way,” “You Are My Destiny,” “Puppy Love,” etc. But trust me — his life shows us otherwise.
When Anka was growing up, the child of a Syrian dad and a Lebanese mom who raised a family in Ottawa, Canada, the rock ‘n’ roll show came to town. It was 1957. Anka was writing songs in his family basement and asked Chuck Berry what he thought of one after sneaking into his dressing room. Chuck told the 15-year-old “that’s the worst song I ever heard. Go back to school.” Then he tried Fats Domino, who at least was polite. Soon, Anka was asked to leave the backstage area. But here’s the thing. He didn’t go back to school. He took a bus to New York, buttonholed record producer Don Costa and got a record contract.
In less than a year, Anka had the No. 2 record in the country — with that same teen lament he sang for Berry, “Diana.” And he was singing it on the tour with Berry and Fats and Buddy Holly and the Crickets. Paul Anka comes on like a pussycat but he will not take “no” for an answer, at least not until he has taken your lunch. He suggests on this episode of “The Great Songwriters” that his success has something to do with the hard work ethic his immigrant parents imbued in him.
He tells the story of how he brought ‘My Way’ to Frank Sinatra; the Chairman of the Board wanted a big song from him.
It led him, a few years after establishing himself as a teen rocker, to establish himself anew in Las Vegas, where he became part of the Rat Pack’s junior varsity. He tells the story of how he brought “My Way” to Frank Sinatra; the Chairman of the Board wanted a big song from him, and Anka jokingly offered him “Puppy Love.” Sinatra threw “a plate of pasta” at him, Anka says. Anka worked on it until he found the right, defiant, plodding, undeniable ballad that all but defined Sinatra late in his career.
Anka outlasted the rockers, then the Rat Packers. And at some point, he realized, “the gravitas I had was as a writer.” Sitting down at his room-filling piano, Anka plays some of the songs he has made famous: “Diana,” “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore,” written for Buddy Holly, and “Do I Love You,” a smash for Donna Fargo.
About that piano: It is covered with color-coded stickies, clustered in the middle of the keyboard. Middle-of-the-road tunes, mid-tempo ballads, the middle has always been Anka’s hang zone. His songs are sentimental, ultra-emotional; they don’t show a ton of subtlety, sophistication, word play.
Anka wrote “She’s a Lady” for Tom Jones, and the theme song for “The Tonight Show” for Johnny Carson. No one else can say that. About “(You’re) Having My Baby” we shall say nothing, except he doesn’t sing it here. Everything doesn’t have to be great art: These songs are loved by people who have grown old hearing them crooned by Anka’s professionally polished voice. He has more than earned the right to talk about the art of writing hits.
RJ Smith is a Los Angeles-based journalist who has written for The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Los Angeles, Vibe, Spin and Maggot Brain. He is the author of “The One: The Life and Music of James Brown” (Gotham Books, 2012) and is currently writing “You Never Can Tell: The America Chuck Berry Made” (Da Capo Press, 2022).