“It’s a calling card, to let them know you’re active,” says the pop-music legend who still sings. “To let everyone know I’ve still got quality, and that I’ve still got my chops.”
Paul Anka is talking about his latest record, Songs of December, a hushed, lush and languid collection of seasonal favourites. The topic was one of many touched upon during a sprawling hour-long chat in the corner booth at Sassafraz Restaurant in Yorkville. The staff and maitre d’ treat him with a sort of dignified fawning as we talk; in return, the 70-year-old Diana singer is polite and familiar with them. Will we be having dinner? “Just a cappuccino, please, Eric, and a bottle of distilled water,” he says to the waiter. He’s in town for a few days, performing concerts in the area, and he knows the Sassafraz staff by name.
A few years ago, a New York writer interviewed Anka, asking him a series of questions that ranged from his iPod shuffle list – “I have everything from Maroon 5 to the Killers to Yo-Yo Ma...” – to the final query, on his legacy. Anka’s response? “Respect.”
He gives it, and by and large, he gets it. He gets a lot of things, actually, and he’s not afraid to voice his opinions. Anyone who has ever heard the tape of him lecturing one of his band members for tardiness and a sloppy appearance knows that he’s one of those “there’s a right way and there’s a wrong way” kind of guys.
And so, an interview with the forthcoming Anka is rather delightful – he’s crisp with thoughts, but charming too. A tape recorder soon fills with stances on such things as Michael Bublé’s own brashly suave Yuletide record (“It’s his first one. He’s a swinging crooner, so I would expect that from him. I don’t think he’s ready for a concept”) or today’s media-driven society (“It was different back in the sixties, with the steam rooms, Jack Kennedy and the Mob – it was a whole different era”).
The trim and well-tanned Anka laughed about the smokable soft-drug preferences of Tony Bennett and Neil Diamond; spoke sincerely of his dreams of white Christmases; and offered insight into the wild disparity within a young Michael Jackson. “We would sit in the hot tub for hours, and I’d be talking to this fragile, meek and childlike person. But he lived and breathed his business. He had an incredible business sense.”
We did not speak of Anka’s regrets, they being too few to mention, as we all know.
Asked about Bublé and a third Canadian star with a Christmas album out this season, the Ottawa-born Anka (a one-time Canadian teen idol) doesn’t hold back. “Whether it’s Michael Bublé or whether it’s Justin Bieber, we’ll see what happens when things aren’t so great for them,” he says, pausing to turn off his ringing iPhone. “That’s when you see what kind of man you are and what control you have in your life. That day is coming, for both of them. I went through it; everybody goes through it.”
At one point, Anka’s publicist pops over to our table, looking to cut the interview off after the allotted 20 minutes. The one-time quasi-Rat-Packer waves him off: “It’s okay, we’re into it,” he says. “He can have as much time as he wants.” We then talk about command performances and private concerts. As you can imagine, with Anka having written My Way, the crooner gets (and often accepts) offers. You want names? How about Vladimir Putin, or the Shah of Iran?
Recently Anka pocketed $400,000 to sing to 40 men in Russia. “Do you know what it’s like singing Puppy Love to a man?” he asks – rhetorically, I assume.
And then there was the time in Monaco when one of Prince Rainier’s people asked him to sing to five Arabs (who didn’t want to go to the club) in their villa. “You say ‘no’ long enough, and then a guy comes in with a suitcase of cash, and the answer is yes,” Anka says, grinning.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s one man or whether he wants one song or a full concert,” he continues. “He’s a customer, and he’s going to be made happy. What do I care? I sing for a living.”
It occurs to me that I’ve had Paul Anka all to myself for 60 minutes, and that it didn’t cost me a dime. Should I press my luck and ask him to sing Having My Baby? Of course not. That would be disrespectful.