By Mike Zwerin
Paul Anka, about whom people sometimes say, “is he still around," has been hopping between European capitals to promote his album “Rock Swings" (Mercury). “I want to show everybody I’m still alive," he explained. “You stand still, they throw dirt on you."
After seeing Frankie Lyman shoot heroin in the band bus, and after watching his friends Sammy Davis Jr, Frank Sinatra, and Elvis Presley destroy their health with alcohol and drugs, Anka decided to be a survivor. “I’m 64 and I’m singing better than ever," he said. “Life is good." His motto is: “Everything in moderation, including moderation."
“You make choices," he said. “Stay focused. Keep your eye on the ball. I watch what I eat. A lot of fish, one or two glasses of wine. Exercise. Everywhere I go they deliver weights." A valet delivered shopping bags from Cartier and Armani and so on to his suite in the Ritz Hotel. Anka spoke French to him. “Rock Swings" sold 50,000 copies the first week it was out in the US, and it is about to chart in France. He has “a strong affinity" for France, going back to “My Way."
“Here’s the story." Anka bounced around the room, adjusting the lighting, laughing, pouring tea, speaking in staccato shorthand: “Came over to France every year, spent a lot of time here, starred here at the Olympia. Got married here. Had a house in Moujins. Listened to the radio. Sitting there and hearing this record, ‘Comme d’habitude.’ It went like: ‘I get up in the morning, I see the beautiful hair in your armpit.’ I heard something better in that song. It was in rotation several times a day for weeks. Some kid, Claude Francois.
“So I called a friend of mine in the record business, and I said, ‘there’s a song on the radio.’ He said it wasn’t doing all that well. I said I wanted to buy the rights to it. I went to see the publisher. Two pages. I wasn’t buying the pyramids. No big negotiation. ‘Here, take it.’"
Frank Sinatra, who needed a hit, asked Anka to write a song for him. Anka started working on the lyrics of “Comme d’habitude" at 3 AM one rainy morning in New York in 1968, and he came away with “My Way." “‘And now the end is near…’ I knew Frank would go for that."
He was born in Ottowa, Ontario, Canada, of Lebanese descent, and, at the age of 15, he “started to drive my mother’s Austen Healy over to Quebec, sing in those clubs, win contests, check out the action." He considers himself French-Canadian: “Didn’t have a driver’s license. Got in a lot of trouble for that. But I met all the acts, and the jazz guys. That’s where I got my chops."
One of the first white singers to sing his own songs, he had hits with “Diana," “Put Your Head on My Shoulder," and “It doesn’t Matter Any More." He wrote the Tonight Show theme, and the theme song for the film “The Longest Day." He has sold a total of over 100 million records.
Not long ago, he executive-produced a big band swing album for the young Canadian crooner Michael Bublé, and it was a hit. “It seemed that swing music was not going out of fashion after all," Anka said. “Twenty-three year old kids were picking up on songs of the forties that had nothing to do with their lives. I don’t know what they’re relating to, but so be it."
It gave him the idea to make a swing record based on 1980s and 1990s rock songs by the likes of Van Halen, Bon Jovi, and The Cure. He wanted to “put recent rock songs in a different form, so that different people can understand them." He tweaked their structure, changed the chords, left out words that were not believable to him. “Today’s songs have a different lyrical approach," he said. “They are being made by young people who have a different relationship with their instrument than we did in the old days. They have their own form and point of view. They mirror the times differently."
The often frenetic faux-Basie big band and the laid-back crooner can add up to a bit too much kitsch for comfort, particularly on Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit." Dave Grohl of Nirvana called him to say it “sounded like a completely different song." Elton John told him “Rock Swings" was his favorite record.
It’s all about sincerity. Anka loved the intensity of the Sid Vicious version of “My Way." He wanted nothing tentative on “Rock Swings." “All the songs had to be on the money," he said. “Good is the enemy of great."
The album will be released in Asia, which he calls “black market territory," early next year. He will tour from Hong Kong to Beijing in May. He said that he plans to ask Chinese audiences to please stop bootlegging his product.
The record company wants him to do a sequel. “Let me finish promoting this one first,’ he told them. “Let me stay out there. See what’s going on."