Paul Anka hits Strathmore for ‘Anka Sings Sinatra: His Songs, My Songs, My Way’

Hear our full conversation on my podcast “Beyond the Fame.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews Paul Anka at Strathmore (Part 1)

Happy Throwback Thursday! It’s time to crank some golden oldies from Paul Anka.

Strathmore presents “Anka Sings Sinatra: His Songs, My Songs, My Way” on June 21.

“I can’t forget my core base, my ‘American Bandstand’ friends,” Anka told WTOP. “We’re doing a combination of both [me and Sinatra], a bunch of hits, stuff I’ve written for other people, Michael Jackson, Tom Jones. … I’ve got a tribute to Sammy Davis, but I’m anxious to get back to that theater because last time I was there we had a wild, sold-out crowd.”

Born in Ottawa, Canada in 1941, Anka grew up loving music at an early age.

“I wanted to be a journalist, but that went by the wayside after they threw shorthand at me, so I took music,” Anka said. “I had a band at 13 or 14 … just playing at parties. Ultimately, I talked my dad into letting me go to New York on Easter break. I had a paper route and I was a caddy, saved up some money … and took my songs up to ABC Paramount.”

Anka found his breakthrough hit with “Diana,” which reached No. 2 in 1957.

“I saw a girl I had a crush on, her name was Diana, but she was older and wanted nothing to do with me,” Anka said. “I was 15 with ‘Diana’ and that changed my life. I started touring with all of my friends, The Everly Brothers, Frankie Avalon, Fabian, Chuck Berry, The Platters, that whole group. It was a launching pad when pop music was in its infancy.”

He recorded his favorite “Put Your Head On My Shoulder,” which hit No. 2 in 1959. He was living an isolated life due to his newfound fame, but during a so-called “DJ record hop” at a radio station for 400 teens, he noticed the way they would rest their heads on each other.

“I saw them all holding each other and putting their heads on each other’s shoulders, which was the big challenge back then! If you got that far, you really scored,” Anka said. “I went back to my room and said, ‘I’m not enjoying any of that, but wow that’s inspiring.’ … I was living an isolated life, thousands of fans running after you, and you’re locked away.”

Bobby Darin’s “Mack the Knife” prevented “Put Your Head On My Shoulder” from reaching No. 1. However, Anka got his revenge when “Puppy Love” topped Darin’s “Beyond the Sea” in 1960. In fact, Anka initially wrote “Puppy Love” as a subversive diss at Disney.

“I was dating [Annette Funicello] and [Disney] was very concerned because back in the ’50s there was a whole different approach to sexuality,” Anka said. “They got concerned because of imaging, she was America’s sweetheart and here I was a frisky teenager. The tried breaking us up, hitting us with the line, ‘It’s not meaningful, it’s just puppy love.'”

While touring these hits abroad, Anka helped discover British Beatlemania.

“I spent a lot of time in Europe, I met The Beatles, I came home and told my agent about them, so I was kind of responsible for them coming to this country and changing the whole landscape,” Anka said. “It evolved from there. My first experience writing for others was Buddy Holly. … I wrote ‘It Doesn’t Matter Anymore,’ the last song he ever recorded.”

He was also hired to write Frank Sinatra’s retirement song “My Way” (1969).

“Hanging out with The Rat Pack all those years, it culminated when he called me to dinner in Florida,” Anka said. “I was 25 or 26 years old, but I’d already done a few years for those guys in Vegas. … He said to me at dinner, ‘I’m quitting show business. I’m going to retire. … I’m doing one more album, kid.’ … He teased me, ‘You never wrote me a song.'”

So, Anka went home to New York City and wrote the iconic lyrics to “My Way.”

“It was around midnight, a big thunderstorm outside, just sitting there with this melody,” Anka said. “I started writing it as if Sinatra were writing it: ‘And now the end is near,’ saying things that I would never approach: ‘I ate it up and spit out,’ I knew his jargon, I knew his way, his swagger, and I finished it about five hours later and I called him in Las Vegas.”

Anka flew out and played it to Sinatra in his dressing room at Caesar’s Palace.

“I could tell his vibe, his body language, that he liked it,” Anka said. “Fade out, fade in, two or three months later, I’m in New York, I get a call from Los Angeles, operator says, ‘Frank Sinatra calling,’ he gets on and says, ‘Kid, listen to this.’ He took the phone and stuck it up to a speaker. … I started crying. I knew right then that my life had changed.”

Anka also wrote “Teddy” for Connie Francis and “She’s a Lady” for Tom Jones.

“He’s a great singer,” Anka said. “I did his TV show in England, we were partying, having a good time. I studied his whole vibe, all sexuality and that great voice. On the way home from London, I wrote it on the back of a menu, I think it was TWA, I wrote the words and sent him the demo and it was his first No. 1 record in the United States, ‘She’s a Lady.'”

He even wrote the iconic TV theme for “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson.

“I’d hired Johnny to come to England to be a comic on my TV show,” Anka said. “I ran into him in New York and said, ‘What are you up to?’ He said, ‘I’m gonna do this ‘Tonight Show’ thing for a year or two. … I want a new theme on there.’ I said, ‘You talked to the right guy. … I’ll give you half the royalties,’ and 24 hours later I got a call that said, ‘You got it!'”

He also starred in and wrote the score for the World War II film “The Longest Day” (1962).

“I talked [producer Darryl] Zanuck into it because there was no music,” Anka said.

Years later, Anka also wrote the last three Michael Jackson singles: “Love Never Felt So Good” featuring Justin Timberlake, “It Don’t Matter to Me” featuring Drake, and “This Is It,” which became the title of Jackson’s farewell tour preempted by his death in 2009.

“They found ‘This Is It’ in his drawer, thought it was his, originally it was called ‘I Never Heard,'” Anka said. “They found [my demos], sweetened the tracks up that I made and somebody got wind of it, I think Harvey Levin of TMZ. … That was a big surprise to me and to them. I called with my lawyers and said, ‘Now we’re getting even, 50% of everything.'”

More recently, Doja Cat sampled “Put Your Head on My Shoulder” in “Freak” (2020).

“It’s got like 40 million [downloads],” Anka said. “We’ve got teenagers at the show coming up for autographs, they’ve got albums. Who knew? Who knew TikTok was coming at us? … All the action it’s getting now and the new fan base is amazing. … To all of a sudden see this new demographic embracing that song … I’m getting a huge kick out of it.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews Paul Anka at Strathmore (Part 2)

Hear our full conversation on my podcast “Beyond the Fame.”

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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