Singer-songwriter Paul Anka remembers the first check he received after his recording of "Diana" soared to the top of the pop charts. The amount was $300, modest even by 1957 standards, but "it seemed like a lot of money to a kid coming off a paper route in Canada," says Anka, who was 16 at the time. Unlike many one-hit wonders whose success was short-lived in the early days of rock and roll, Anka had the savvy and talent to stay ahead of the trends. The music he wrote soon evolved from sock-hop ballads like "Puppy Love" to big-band standards like "My Way," created for his mentor and close pal Frank Sinatra.
"Frank and Sammy [Davis, Jr.] looked after me, watched over me, and allowed me into their circle," he says of the legendary entertainers. The "circle" was Sinatra's famed Rat Pack, and members included Dean Martin, Peter Lawford, and Joey Bishop. Sinatra gave them all nicknames, which were embroidered on the robes they wore when they lounged around the saunas and pools at the Las Vegas hotels where they performed. Anka, decades younger than the rest of the Pack, emerged as The Kid. The name stuck, although "as I got older and after I wrote 'My Way,' the mentoring thing became more of a friendship," he says.
With an active concert schedule and a new CD in the works, Anka doesn't dwell on nostalgia, although a couple of current projects have him rummaging through his files and pulling out photos, clippings, and programs from the past. If everything goes according to plan, 2009 is going to be a big year. His autobiography, still untitled, is scheduled for an autumn release, and he's in preliminary talks about a Broadway show based on his 50-year career.
At age 67, The Kid is on a sentimental journey, recalling the times he traveled with Elvis, hung out with Buddy Holly, popped up on American Bandrtand, and wrote a theme song for Johnny Carson. And then there was Ole Blue Eyes....
We'll begin there.
SEP: The Post has uncovered an interesting photo of you, Frank Sinatra, and a monkey. Is there a story behind the picture?
Anka: Actually, it was an orangutan. We were in Vegas, and Frank's friends were throwing a birthday party for him. I remember thinking, What do you give to a guy who has everything? So I went to the circus that was playing at a nearby hotel, and I said, 'Let me borrow the orangutan.' It was fitting because back then the atmosphere in Las Vegas was all about the prank. I marched into the party with the orangutan and gave it to Frank. Little did I know that in those days he was wearing a very bad toupee, and [in photos taken that night] the monkey's hair looks better than Frank's.
SEP: Of the more than 900 songs that you've created, "My Way" may be most memorable. What motivated you to write the words that became Sinatra's signature signoff?
Anka: We were at a dinner in Florida when he announced his plan to retire. The Rat Pack had dissipated and he was tired. He said he would make one more album, and then he wanted out. That moved me to go home, imagine myself in his place, and write what would be the retiring song for someone who was the premier artist of all time. I used to do everything on the typewriter--I could type 60 to 65 words a minute--and so I just rattled away from one a.m. until I finished it around five. The song became a turning point for both of us. I remember I was in New York when he called me from the studio in Los Angeles and played it for me for the first time over the phone.
SEP: Let's talk about the early days, the '50s and '60s, when you toured with some of the pioneers of rock and roll. What was it like to travel with these great artists--many of them African-American-at a time when some venues didn't welcome people of color?
Anka: I remember that period in great detail. …