Coming of Age

An Exclusive Interview with Paul Anka

Legendary singer and songwriter, Paul Anka was born in 1941, in Ottawa, Canada. Anka knew from a young age that he wanted a life in music. As a boy, he sung in the choir, studied piano and started his own vocal group at the age of 13. From there, Anka honed his talent in amateur shows, eventually winning a Campbell’s soup contest that included a trip to New York City. That trip solidified his passion for music and at 15 he headed to Los Angeles where he released his first single,“Blau-Wile Deveest Fontaine,” with Modern Records. The song wasn’t a hit, but Anka plugged away, sneaking into the dressing rooms of artists like Fats Domino and Chuck Berry and immersing himself in the Los Angeles music scene.

In 1957, he returned to New York City and managed to book a meeting with Don Costa at ABC-Paramount Records. There, he played Costa a handful of songs, including “Diana,” which became his first number one hit and made him a teen heartthrob at the age of 15.

From there, Anka’s star skyrocketed. He went on to pen and perform countless hits for himself and others. He wrote the theme song for The Tonight Show at the request of Johnny Carson. He wrote Frank Sinatra’s signature hit, “My Way” specifically for the crooner he idolized and befriended as the youngest singer in the Vegas circuit in the 60s. Anka has written for, and collaborated with, a parade of stars, both young and old, including Connie Francis, Leslie Gore, Buddy Holly, Peter Cetera and Michael Jackson.

Anka turns 80 this year and he is celebrating with a new album called Making Memories and a world tour. The album features new songs written in quarantine as well as a couple of old favorites including “Put Your Head On My Shoulder” with Olivia Newton and the “My Way” with Michael Bublé and Andrea Bocelli. Coming of Age had the distinct pleasure of speaking with Paul Anka about his life and career.

COA: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me. You have this amazing new album called Making Memories coming out in August. I got to listen to some of it and it’s fantastic. What inspired you to make this album?

PA: I just finished with Michael Bublé on the “My Way” track, and we’re all so excited to get it out—Michael, Andrea Bocelli and myself. As far as inspiration, quite simply, like all of us, we were dealing with COVID. We’re all confined to our homes. There’s an upside and a downside to it. The upside for me was that here I was at home, thankfully, even though I was out of work for about a year and a half, which I still am. But, I was able to spend time with family and my girlfriend. I sat down and said, “What is it that you’ve done all your life that you never have time to do every day?” And there we go—write songs and record. I expressed my ideas to my record company, Primary Wave. They said, “Go do it.” I sat down and wrote about 20 songs. I was enjoying the success in the midst of that TikTok. “Put Your Head on my Shoulder” had gone through the roof on TikTok, and I got this whole new fan base of 16 to 20-year-olds. I said, “Well, we’ll start with that.” I wanted to sing it with Olivia Newton-John. She’s done amazing things. She’s a great woman. So, I started with that. Then I wrote and wrote and wrote. The only other exception is “My Way.” I wanted to do that song because the anniversary is coming up with that and I’m turning 80. I also spent quite a bit of time with Andrea Bocelli’s family over in Italy last year. I’ve known them for quite a few years, and I had the idea of let’s get Bocelli to sing “My Way” with me. I thought about who the other person could be on that song, and I thought about Michael Bublé. Michael is an old and dear friend. I was part of his career in the beginning, and we continue to talk and get together. I approached Michael and here we are—the three of us on “My Way.” The rest of the songs are me writing about my feelings on life and what I’m observing and just writing as I do. And that was pretty much the motivation for doing that. On the periphery of that, we’re meeting with producers to do a documentary. So, all the time off gave me some clarity to focus on those two things—the documentary and the album. Here I am with the finished album, and I’m in the prefacing stages of the documentary.

COA: Do you have a favorite track on the new album?

PA: All these years I’ve told people that my songs are like my children. It’s tough to like one over another. But, “My Way”— because of that song and the participants—that’s probably my favorite track. I think “Put Your Head on my Shoulder” comes after that. And then “A Fool for Love” would come in third. All the others, I embrace them because they’re also very different, you know.

COA: I love the video with Olivia Newton-John for “Put Your Head on My Shoulder.” Where did the idea of an animated video come from?

PA: That came from Primal Wave. They are the ones that put it all together. They have a really good team of people over there, and they sent me a rough idea of what their concept was. I stated in the beginning that I wanted to do a video, and understanding that we were all on lockdown, they came up with this. I think it was a great idea.

COA: How surprised were you when you became a viral TikTok sensation, and how did you find that out?

PA: I have a 15-year-old in the house, Kelly. I got an education on TikTok. As you know, they live on that on the phone. So with all the kids that have come through my house over the last few years, they would come to me. “Oh, Mr. Anka, did you know, did you know?’ I said, “No, what is it? I never heard of it.” Then, kids in the neighborhood started to come to the front door singing “Put Your Head on My Shoulder.” So, I got educated very quickly. Was I intellectually wrapped around it from inception? No, I didn’t quite get it. But, once I got a taste of it and got educated, I got the sense of how powerful it was. I was close to tears but also emotionally involved with the power of music—what it has been and hopefully what it will mean. Just randomly, young people pick up a song and they use it in all those forms and I get discovered with it. Now, I realize that music lives on—it affects people, as it did with this. So, it was all of that with a smile on my face all the time. I go to the grocery store because I love to do my own groceries. Little girls would come up with their parents. “Oh, can I have your autograph?” I’m sitting there signing autographs like I did in Lonely Boy. You’ve got to be grateful. It’s all about timing and luck plays a role in a lot of things. I always say we could have been born into different circumstances. People out there are suffering, so it’s something that I’m grateful for.

COA: How fun was your role on The Masked Singer? Did your family know you were doing that?

PA: No. We were all sworn to secrecy. I wanted to surprise them because it was a hot show. I didn’t want to tell them because, you know, they talk and I wanted to play by the rules. So, here I am locked up in the middle of the album, which is really compounding my brain even more–even though I love the isolation when I’m being creative. So they called about doing it, and I know the show because of the kids in the family and it was a popular show. I thought, “Wow, what a way to get out of the house. How fun would that be?” Now, when they put all that costuming over me, I couldn’t breathe. I must have sweat five gallons. It was a good experience, though. I loved it. It was good getting out. It was also about getting back in action and testing my voice. I start my tour on October 23, and I’m ready and excited.

COA: You mentioned your upcoming birthday. You’re going to be 80 and you’re going strong. You just put out an album, you sound great and you look great. Do you have a secret to aging gracefully? What is your routine?

PA: I think one of the words you just said is important—gracefully. I’ve always told people who have complained to me about the inevitable. Don’t think about getting old, just think about getting older. And keep in mind the cliché—it’s only a number. I don’t live within what a supposed age is. I’ve been very active all my life. When you are out in Vegas with the Rat Pack and you are watching them drinking and smoking and coughing and going to the doctor, you look at yourself and think, “Don’t do that. Do this instead.” I was a kid around those guys and I realized that I didn’t want to lose what I’ve been given. I’ve never been a smoker or a heavy drinker. My girlfriend and I might have some wine, but we’re really careful with that choice. I believe in the fruits of plant-based food, and I live with a very strict diet. At some point a few years ago, I just looked at everything and I said, “You know what, Paul? You’ve eaten enough.” I also read a lot and I always have. People have said that growing up, those were simpler times. I say, no, we were simple. The times were what they were. Today there are a lot of smart people. You know we’re exposed to all this data. Today they’re able to dig deeper, give us more information about food and nutrition. When you study what’s called the Blue Zones, it’s pretty logical, when you look at how they eat. For a while, I would get up in the morning, and I would drink a little bowl of olive oil with a little lemon. I’d do that at night, too. When you look at those diets, olive oil is always on the ticket. So, I believe in that. My girlfriend’s totally straight with it because she’s a health nut, and she looks 25, so there’s something to it all. I’m a big believer in berries—especially blueberries. I drink a lot of green tea. I look at the aspect of exercise. I’ve fallen short recently only because I hurt my knee when I went snowboarding. I don’t walk as much as I used to, but I swim and I play tennis with my girlfriend and with Ethan. My son is 15 and they’re all saying, “Oh he’s got to go pro. He’s so good.” So, I’m out there playing with him as a proud father. That’s what I do. You’ve got to look after your body.

COA: Is there anything besides music that you are passionate about? Do you have specific hobbies or charities that you like to support?

PA: I support charities. I’ve sung for them and raised money countless times. My passion is my work. I’ve had it since I was 14 years old. I left home at 15 and I got lucky. That passion still prevails. It’s just who I am. It’s in my DNA as a musician. So that’s my passion. To say there are others, I mean, I like hockey. I played hockey as a kid. I was part of getting the Ottawa Senators to Canada. I watch hockey. My sons are hockey players. I don’t know if that’s a passion even though I’ve played it. What comes first is your family. That’s what I focus on, but my passion is making music. You know, I took Frankie Avalon to dinner the other night. We were just talking about where we all wound up. We talked about the differential of how I’ve lived in my life and conducted it and wrote the music. There’s a difference when you’re recognized not only for singing, but also for creating. It becomes a passion and you really want to keep going. All the excitement I get back, the receptive dynamic of all of that is still alive for me. That’s my passion.

COA: When I watched Lonely Boy, I was struck by how kind you were to the girls that were practically passing out and going into shock at seeing you. Why was being kind to them so important to you?

PA: So, Kelly, what I realize is it all goes back to my childhood. I had a real good family. I lost my mother at the age of 18. That affected me. They always taught me that you have to be nice. When you come from a small town in Canada, and it hits you–your life changes. So, within all of that and earning $300 a week, you say, “Wow, this is amazing, you better be nice. You don’t want to lose it.” You make choices. I’m probably one of the first teenage idols, along with the guys out of Philly. We sincerely felt that way, and we were taught to be nice. It’s a different scene today with a different group of folks. The arrogance and being cruel to fans, we couldn’t even think of that. You know, we realized that they had other choices. You realize through your life that some of us were going to come and some of us were going to go. Being good to those fans is part of you remaining a good person. The sincerity in their faces that you saw on the documentary, you wanted to do everything that you could to deliver to them what they wanted to feel beyond listening to a record, you know?

All those kids have grown up with me now, and when I go on tour, those are the same kids today at my shows. I go to these places all over the country and they come up to me with old pictures and I sit with them outside the dressing room and remember with them. When you’re nice to them, they’ll support you to the end. I go to Israel, Italy, China—all over the world and it’s the same thing. They grow up and they still come to see you.

COA: Do you mind if I ask you a little bit about your friendship with Frank Sinatra? What he was like as a person?

PA: Sinatra was an idol of mine. Frankie Avalon, Bobby Rydell and Bobby Darin, that was it. Let’s remember, before the mid-60s, music was all nice and clean. Then, all of a sudden, these kids come along—Elvis Presley, the devil’s music—and these parents didn’t know what the hell to make of it. Right? To us, trying to grow into the 60s, who did we look at? Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack— tuxedos, Las Vegas, you know. Wow, we wanted to be like them. Keep in mind, there are no Beatles yet. There’s no technology yet. Electric guitars were just starting to wind their way in, right? And there’s this little cult of guys saying, “God, are we gonna last when so many haven’t? What are we gonna do from here? So my whole goal was to sing with Frank Sinatra at the Sands Hotel—and I became the youngest singer in Vegas. My relationship with him, and the rest of them—Sammy Davis, who was amazing—started in the early 60s when I worked there. What was it like? I was scared to death around them. I’d try to be cool, but he didn’t like any of this music, and I probably don’t blame him when he could sing the phone book and every great American Standard, right? So, after we became friends— after a year or two—he would always tease me about when I was going to write him a song. What was I going to give him? Puppy Love? So, as I got to know him, he treated me like a gentleman. He was always very gracious. I cannot say enough about Frank Sinatra. He was probably the greatest American artist ever. The way he did his homework—there was so much I learned from him in his preparations of The Great American Songbook. He was just the best in my book. Now, ultimately, because of our friendship, when he told me he was quitting show business, it was a shock to me. He had told me in Florida, so I went home to New York and I sat down and wrote “My Way” in five hours. I brought it out to him in Las Vegas, and he just said, “This is very cool, kid. I’m going to do it.” Which he did, and we know the rest of that story. In the interim of it all, every time being around him was an experience. They were so cool—Dean Martin, Sammy Davis. They were very much a part of his life, and they were great artists. But, Sinatra right to the end—I remember visiting him maybe two or three months before he passed and realizing the loss of some of his faculties and just loving this guy. I’ve never met anybody like him since. He was a real man’s man. He’d take a song and study it upside down. When he walked into a studio, everyone in the studio would be watching him. He got “My Way” in one take. Everyone else takes 15, 20, 30— whatever it was. And he just got it. He was the guy. I have nothing but admiration for Frank Sinatra.

COA: What a life you’ve lived. Do you have any contemporary singers or songwriters that you think are excellent that you admire?

PA: Oh, I think there are some fine writers and singers out there today. The list is longer than short, you know. I’m very proud of Michael Bublé. He’s writing songs, he’s singing, he’s producing—the whole spectrum. He’s a great artist. Adele—amazing voice. Beyonce— great singer. Bruno Mars—great singer. The Weeknd. There are a lot of very talented young people. The question is who’s going to last? When it hits you—when this gift comes to fruition you’re on this road of success trying to figure out and evaluate what to do, who to trust and how to stay alive. You grind your way on this journey. One day, hopefully, you’re wiser and older, and you can look at it all and go, “Wow, now I get it.”

COA: I often interview people of your generation and I’m always struck by how they got their start. It often seems like something that just couldn’t happen now. Do you think that you would be a success, starting as a 15-year-old, now?

PA: If I had the same energy, there’s no reason why I wouldn’t. If my DNA was the same, there’s no question about it. But the industry is totally different from what it was. Back then there were three or four major record companies. They supported artists. They were there for you. They helped you grow. Today, they’re the enemy. The record company, they’re not helping a great deal of us. The record companies today—without offending friends—is nowhere near what it was like years ago. So years ago, it was easier, but it wasn’t. You have to remember the equation to today is the public. They’re more knowledgeable because they are watching—every TV show is nothing but music and talent. In the 50s, it was all new. The television was on at five o’clock and finished at 11 pm. You had Ed Sullivan and then American Bandstand. No one knew what this stuff was unless you spawned from that era. These great artists were putting mileage in for everybody. You just don’t spawn someone like that. It’s taken a lot of mileage. Look at the Beatles and look at the musicians and what they went through–where they moved, what they did. Look at Elton John. He put all those hours in. So, it looked so easy back then. The magic of the Everly Brothers—those harmonies. The magic of Buddy Holly. The magic of Chuck Berry and what he did. We were just a bunch of pioneers singing with our hearts with believability and sincerity. It’s a different ballgame today. Would I have made it today? I would like to think, yeah. But would I be singing, “Puppy Love” or “Lonely Boy?” “I’m so young and you’re so old, Diana?” I don’t think so. It’d be more like “I’m so old and you’re so young.” I don’t kid myself. I’m happy about when it happened because I’ve learned so much—experienced so much. And let me tell you, confidence and experience got me through a lot. It’s like I say to my son: “I want you to learn tennis or anything else that you do for the experience of it, but you need to be confident. Set everything else aside and be confident.” I was a confident kid. Nobody would listen to me. I had to believe in myself. People would leave the room or lock me in a closet. Chuck Berry, when I broke into a rock and roll show—he’s my idol. I went backstage and I sang, and he says, “That’s the worst song ever heard. Go back to school.” It’s in his book. I reminded him of that when I did my first rock and roll show with him, I said, “Hey Mr. Berry, remember me?” He was with Fats Domino and Fats gave me an autograph that night. Fats became my buddy. He looked after me on tour. He was such a sweetheart.

COA: Now, at almost 80, with an incredible career and an incredible life, what is your idea of a perfect day? What brings you happiness?

PA: Well, my number one job this year has been health. If I’m working late creatively at night, I’m getting up a little later, but I’m up in time to go with my other half to play tennis with my son. We do a lot at home because I have built the whole year around being conducive to kids. All the kids show up at my house. We haven’t really left the house. We’ve gone to our ranch in Lake Tahoe and things like that. Other than that, I’m being grateful for what I’ve got, hanging with the family and trying to get my kids out of Europe. I’ve got three daughters and nine grandchildren in Europe. I haven’t seen them in close to two years. I have two here and we try to see each other. My other daughter is very busy because she’s married to Jason Bateman. She’s involved with the business, they go back and forth to Atlanta a lot.

COA: How is it being Jason Bateman’s father-in-law?

PA: He’s so funny. He’s such a great guy. He’s as sweet as you see. He’s as talented as you see, and there are no airs with him. He is what he is. My daughter, I’m very proud of her. She’s working with Jennifer Aniston and they’re all very good friends. But what is it like? I’m very proud of him. I’m sure he has his own take on what it’s like to be Paul Anka’s son-in-law.

COA: I know you were friends with Donald Trump for many years. Are you still friendly or has that changed?

PA: It’s okay. It’s a tough response for obvious reasons, right? He used “My Way.” He wanted me there to do it in the middle of something that I couldn’t get away from. Way before he ran for President, Donald Trump paid me to entertain at his place. I saw a side of Donald Trump who was always very good to me. I have to tell it like it is. I have to go on how he treated me. I haven’t seen him since he became President.

COA: Are you excited about your upcoming tour?

PA: You know, I am so longing to get back in front of my fans. This tour starts in October. We’re doing Florida, the West Coast, the East Coast and Europe—next year, Asia. I’m coming back out there. The band and I are so looking forward to it. It’s a love fest, you know. It’s just grown into that for me. We’re ready for you. And we want you there. That’s really what I want to convey to people. If it’s all safe and good, we’re ready and looking forward to it.