Anka serves as a Herald for the Friars Club
One of the most accomplished entertainers of the late 20th century, Paul Anka began his career as a teen idol with the top-selling "Diana" in 1957 before charting repeatedly over the next five decades as both a singer and a songwriter whose compositions included the theme to "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" (NBC, 1962-1992) and Frank Sinatra's signature song, "My Way." Noted as much for his knack for crafting memorable pop songs and his business acumen as for his breezy vocal delivery, Anka successfully rode out the industry's shift from traditional pop to rock in the early 1960s by refashioning himself as a nightclub singer while writing blockbuster hits for Buddy Holly, Tom Jones and Sinatra. He rebounded in the early 1970s with a string of easy listening hits, including "(You're) Having My Baby," and remained a staple of Las Vegas and the international nightclub scene. His vast body of work kept him in the public eye well into the new millennium, and continued to yield hits with covers of early work and newer material, like "This Is It" (2009), which he penned with Michael Jackson. A tenacious and iconic figure in the music industry, Anka served as an exemplary model for singers and other musicians who hoped to take control of their careers and truly do it their way.
Born Paul Albert Anka on July 30, 1941 in Ottawa, Canada's capital city, he was the son of Andy and Camelia Anka, Lebanese restaurateurs whose establishment, the Locanda, provided their son with his first exposure to an audience. A precocious and supremely self-confident child, Anka could often be found chatting with the music journalists who frequented the restaurant, or on stage, where he made his debut at age 12 as an impressionist. When not at the Locanda, Anka sang with his church choir and studied music theory and piano. By the time he was 14, Anka was writing songs and performing them at local singing competitions. He recorded his first single, "I Confess," for the label RPM. He soon bought a plane ticket to Los Angeles, where he tried to break into show business. After facing a stalemate there, he convinced his father to let him to go to New York City for one last shot. Once there, he brokered a meeting with ABC/Paramount Records executive Don Costa, who offered the teenager a contract after hearing one of his compositions, a swooning love ballad to a schoolmate of Anka's called "Diana." ABC released the single in 1957, and it promptly shot to the No. 1 spot on the Billboard charts. Only 16 at the time, Anka became an overnight pop sensation.
A slew of Top 20 hits followed in 1958, all in the emotional vein of "Diana," including "You Are My Destiny" and "Crazy Love." By his 17th birthday, Anka was touring the world, often in support of Buddy Holly, and appearing in teen-oriented features like "Girls Town" (1959), which generated one of his biggest hits, "Lonely Boy." The year turned out to be Anka's biggest, with such songs as "Put Your Head on My Shoulder" and "Puppy Love" all reaching the upper levels of the charts. He also scored a considerable hit as a songwriter for Holly with "It Doesn't Matter Any More," which tragically found its greatest success as a posthumous release following the rocker's death in February of 1959 in a plane crash.
By the time he reached 20, Anka was one of the most successful figures in the music business. A millionaire several times over thanks to "Diana" - at the time, it was only bested in record sales by "White Christmas" - and other hits, he presided over an entertainment empire than included a vast library of his own compositions, and his own record label, Spanka. But as the 1960s progressed, Anka saw that his brand of romantic balladry was being surpassed by rock-and-roll acts like The Beach Boys and The Beatles. Ever the shrewd businessman, he paid $250,000 for the rights to his catalog of songs, and revamped his image in the vein of traditional pop singers like Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. He also scored one of his most enduring numbers as a songwriter with the brassy theme to "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson," a song that reportedly earned him an estimated $800,000 in annual royalties at the height of Carson's decades-long popularity. He also branched quite successfully into dramatic acting, giving an impressive turn as a jittery G.I. in "The Longest Yard" (1962). Though the chart hits cooled down after 1963, he maintained a steady schedule of appearances in Las Vegas and on television variety shows throughout the 1960s, which were capped by his second greatest song as a lyricist: "My Way," which was a hit in France before Anka wrote entirely new lyrics for Frank Sinatra. It enjoyed a lengthy tenure on both the U.S. and U.K. charts, and became not only the singer's theme song, but also one of the most covered song in popular music history.
The 1970s saw Anka roar back onto the charts with "(You're) Having My Baby" (1974), a duet with relative unknown Odia Coates that reached the No. 1 position on the Billboard Hot 100 despite considerable protest from feminist organizations over perceived chauvinistic overtones. Three more Top 10 hits followed, including two additional collaborations with Coates ("I Don't Like to Sleep Alone" and "One Man Woman/One Woman Man") and "Times Of Your Life" (1976), which began life as a jingle Anka had penned for Kodak. Another composition, "She's a Lady" (1974), was a major hit for Tom Jones. Between 1977 and 1983, Anka landed consistent chart hits, though none with the firepower of his early 1970s efforts. His final visit to the Top 40 was "Hold Me 'Til The Morning Comes" in 1983, which featured Chicago frontman Peter Cetera on vocals. That same year, he co-wrote two singles with Michael Jackson, including "I Never Heard," which the pop icon initially shelved before handing it over to singer Sa-Fire for her 1991 album, I Wasn't Born Yesterday. The song would later resurface almost two decades later in the tumult following Jackson's 2009 death.
For the next decade, Anka remained a fixture on the global casino and nightclub circuits while reaping the gains of his songwriting catalog. He earned brief infamy during the late '80s and early '90s for a secret recording of a bombastic rant at his crew and band members that traded hands throughout the bootleg and Internet worlds. He also found time to become a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1990. Almost a decade later, Anka returned to recording with A Body of Work (1998), a collection of standards, including re-recorded versions of previous hits, in collaboration with the likes of Celine Dion and Kenny G. Another near-decade would pass before its follow-up, Rock Swings, saw release in 2005. The album featured Anka's jazz-inflected takes on rock and alternative songs by Van Halen, R.E.M., Soundgarden and Nirvana, and reached No. 2 on the jazz charts. Its release preceded Anka's star on Canada's Walk of Fame that same year, and inspired another similar CD, Classic Songs: My Way, in 2007. The tributes to Anka's lengthy and stratospheric career continued the following year with his induction in the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame.
In 2009, Anka found himself in the media uproar that followed the death of Michael Jackson when he threatened the singer's estate with legal action after a demo version of his song "I Never Heard," recorded by Jackson in 1983, was released with additional voices and instrumentation and a new title, "This is It," on the 2009 posthumous album of the same name. Jackson's estate agreed to give Anka 50 percent of the song's publishing rights, which generated respectable royalties as well as a Grammy nomination.
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Anka serves as a Herald for the Friars Club