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Paul Anka - A Powerful Performance

By Daniel Michaels, May 20th 2005
Paul Anka is celebrating his fifth decade as a singer/songwriter and shows no signs of slowing down any time soon. The Gambler Magazine had an opportunity to interview him recently and also caught his show at Casino Rama. He gave a sensational performance to the sold-out audience who were treated to such Anka classics as “Diana,” “Lonely Boy,” and “Puppy Love.” He also belted out great tunes like “My Way,” which he originally wrote for Frank Sinatra, and “I’m Not Alone,” (one of my favorites) which he wrote for Sammy Davis Jr. and which in this performance was accompanied by an impressive video collaboration. The Ottawa-born Anka entertained and interacted with the crowd for two hours, and was very gracious to the onslaught of women vying for his affection.

Anka’s remarkable career was launched at the tender age of 16 with his number one hit “Diana” which sold 20 million copies. Anka has also released 125 albums and written more then 900 songs, which have been performed some 90 million times worldwide. He is a member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame and was recently honored with the American Gaming Association’s 2001 Entertainer Award. Early this year he’ll be featured on the A & E Biography channel. Through all the success he’s enjoyed, family remains central to Anka who has five daughters and is a grandfather of two. We’re very pleased to learn that Paul Anka is booking concert shows into the year 2003, giving his adoring fans more opportunities to be treated like family, which Anka does at each and every one of his performances.

Peter Szecsodi: What was it like growing up in Ottawa and at what age did you develop an interest in music?

Paul Anka: Well, Ottawa for me was a day of innocence. It was a small town, a government town, somewhat conservative, which is probably why I eventually left. However, it was a wonderful town to grow up in. I went to school at Fisher Park high school. I was smitten with music probably around the age of 13 or 14, even though I was pursing a career in journalism. I worked at The Ottawa Citizen, wrote some short stories, and won some awards. I took typing, shorthand and English literature, but I was thrown out of shorthand class and put in music. It was with that music class that I started to get into writing music to my poems and develop a greater interest in music. I sang with the choir, worked at the school, and still pursed my journalism. Then one day I borrowed $100 and went to New York, recorded “Diana,” and that flipped me over to the music side.

PS: Which performers influenced you early on?

PA: It was kind of an eclectic array. I was into rhythm and blues groups that did songs like “Fever” and “Little Willie John.” I was also into country music and pop. But I didn’t really find my niche until I started writing for myself, which gave me a focus as to what I wanted to do. However, before that I liked it all. I was working at local clubs doing impressions of people like Johnny Ray, Elvis Presley, and Frankie Lane.

PS: What was it like being an international teen idol at the age of 16 after you recorded “Diana,” which became a number one hit worldwide?

PA: It was a total dream come true. There was no preparation, nor had society been conditioned as it is today with respect to pop music and rock ‘n’ roll. Today, the music industry hones their kids into stars, which wasn’t the case back then. So for me it was this total dream that had come true very quickly. Granted, back then it was a different kind of business. Maybe I earned $300 or $500 a week, and that was fine. But I enjoyed it so much because we were pioneers developing the music. I think we had a better chance of surviving then because we realized what it was to fail. We knew it was good to fail at times and to learn your craft.

PS: You made the adjustment from teen sensation to become one of the most prominent singer/songwriters of all time. How were you able to stay so focused?

PA: Well, it was exactly that—keeping your eye on the ball. David Foster (a prominent composer-producer in Canada) spent the weekend with me in Vegas a few weeks ago, and we were talking about that. I said to him: “You know, David, because of our Canadian upbringing we were able to stay grounded and focused on our industry and what we were about.” I really attribute that to my Canadian upbringing. Also, I wasn’t merchandised as one of the pretty boys. I was just a hard working producer, songwriter and publisher working at my material. Plus, I realized at a young age that to keep this (type of career) going you had to really be legitimate, you had to hold onto your integrity, and not go off the deep end like a lot of people I traveled with did.

PS: So many performers have sung your songs. Which is your favorite and are you particularly proud of any one performer doing a cover of one of the more than 900 songs you have to your credit?

PA: My favorite songs through the years are “Put Your Head on My Shoulder” from the 50s, “It Doesn’t Matter Any More” that I wrote for Buddy Holly back then, and a song called “Do I Love You” from the 70s, and certainly “My Way” from the 60s, and “Hold Me Til Morning Comes” from the 80s. In terms of other performers, certainly “My Way” and Sinatra, Barbara Streisand on a song called “Jubilation,” and Sammy Davis on “I’m Not Anyone.”

PS: After doing so many live performances, how do you get ready night after night, and what does it feel like today?

PA: Well, it’s actually easier today. Years ago it was a lot more nervousness; it was a lot more of a growing experience. Because of the longevity I’ve experienced in the business, my demographics have grown up with me, and the environment they create for me when I perform is one of love, respect, caring and involvement. So it’s really a pleasure to go to work today. Our orchestra travels with me everywhere I go. We are a huge company; we have trucks and planes and equipment. Everybody does their part to the top of their form, so everything is very much in gear. Therefore it’s easy when I walk into that environment at night. The only adjustments I make are for location—where I am, if I’ve been there before, what they want to hear. I never retire songs. I’m very sensitive to the audience and what I think they want to hear. With all of that said, you put the entire infrastructure of those around me and we have a very focused, high-end, full of energy type of show.

PS: David Wild of Rolling Stone has said that “Body Of Work” is possibly your greatest effort. How do you feel about this album?

PA: I respect David. I think it’s the most current and the greatest effort because we pulled so many artists together to do it. It’s certainly the most different because of technology—it has all the bells and whistles in it. It was not a difficult project, but it needed a lot of attention because of the logistics and the people involved. Is it my best work? I don’t know. I think I like The Painter album, which I did in the ’70s. I certainly had a great experience recording it as I did the Amigos album (a Spanish album of duets), which was released before this whole Spanish trend happened with Ricky Martin and all those people. That’s another favorite of mine. Right now, we’re in the middle of a box set, which is coming out in December that encompasses the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s in a new album. That has taken a lot of work and time, and I’m very proud of it.

PS: What do you feel is your greatest achievement professionally?

PA: Tough question. I would say it was lasting this long (in the music business) because there were many hurdles and because you depend on the public. I can’t really isolate one experience—it’s all the efforts involved in trying to get past a certain point to be able to last this long.

PS: Which groups or individual performers do you listen to and what do you think of the changing face of music today?

PA: Change and evolution in society, including music and the arts, is inevitable. Certainly, music has evolved into a very high tech form. There are a lot of talented people around. I don’t like all of rap music—most of it is just not for me. I’m not one to knock fellow artists and musicians so I let people do what they want. I can put it to you metaphorically. Music and all these new forms is like a freight train—when that freight train comes down the track, you have to step aside and let it through; there’s nothing you can do about it. I think that a lot of technology has taken over. I don’t think there are any bands today that are like the bands of yesterday. There are more groups that are manufactured but can dance and show navels and do all of that kind of stuff. I’m from the era where I really appreciate good bands, like Aerosmith, and bands driven by musicians like U2. Having said that I understand where’s it’s coming from sociologically and how it’s rooted. I think there are still some good songs being written from some good artists. I think we have some very talented people around. I listen to a wide range of music: Stevie Wonder, Billy Joel, Elton John, Whitney Houston, Bocelli, all the current stuff, and a lot of classical music.

PS: The American Gaming Association recently bestowed on you their 2001 Entertainer of the Year award. What does this award mean to you?

PA: I’m very indigenous to the casino/gambling world because I’ve been doing it since 1958. I have major contracts with MGM/Mirage, Hilton, and Foxwoods, and major Indian casinos around the country as well as casinos around the world. Like other awards it represents recognition from your peers. It represents recognition from business people who’ve felt that my contribution to their industry has been huge. They’ve certainly played a part as a venue for what I do and getting to the people and playing the reputable places. The gaming situation has been very much a part of the cloth here for me, now that I have my own slot machine. (He laughs) We’re in negotiations with that. So the gaming industry is what it is. I like the people I work with; they’ve been supportive to me. And I’m very honored because these are very substantial people. The other person who received an award that evening was Senator Harry Reid (of Nevada) along with two casino companies—the Boyd Gaming Corporation and Park Place Entertainment Corp.

PS: Do you gamble and what table might we find you at?

PA: I gambled much more in the ’70s. Today I gamble very intelligently. You’ll find me at Baccarat and 21 and less at craps.

PS: What charitable causes do you support and how do you choose which ones to back with the Paul Anka name?

PA: I’ve raised money for The Rape Foundation. Being the father of five girls I’m sensitive to the feminine standing in life. I’ve raised a lot for this foundation as well as for Cerebral Palsy and Diabetes. Additionally, I’m planning on doing a big concert in Ottawa, Canada next year for the Liver Foundation and the Heart Association.

PS: The events of September 11 have left all of us devastated. How were you personally affected?

PA: I lost some friends. Certainly it was an event that unilaterally across the world elicited shock. (After the event) I think that there was a great unification and an emotional environment that took place at my concerts. I have a song called “Freedom for the World” that I rewrote and it’s very emotional when I sing it at my shows. I’m still a Canadian but I’m also an American, so September 11 affected me just as a citizen. I’ve been very vigilant and very motivating to those who need help in terms of going on and realizing we can achieve some kind of security and sense of ongoingness in an environment that won’t go away for the next two or three years, depending on the events that take place.

PS: What new projects are in the works for you?

PA: The box set, as I mentioned earlier. I’m also doing an A & E biography, which will be out in the New Year. And I’m doing another biography with the CBC of Canada. They started shooting in Rama, and it’ll pick up where the documentary “Lonely Boy” that I did back in the ‘60s left off. Additionally, we’re booking concerts into 2003 and I’ve got some film projects that I’m going to continue to work on. The one big project I’m in the middle of is with David Foster. There’s a young man that we just discovered in Vancouver—his name is Michael Buble—David and I are going to do an album and help launch this boy because we think he’s very talented.

If you’re a fan of Paul Anka or would like to know where his next performance may be, log on to his Web site at .

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