Paul Anka is in a reflective mood as he curls himself up in the corner of a sofa in Ottawa's Westin Hotel, one arm draped over the cushioned back, legs drawn up near his chest, his body as compact and relaxed as a cat's. Short at 5-foot-6 and slender, he wears black leather pants, a short-sleeved blue T-shirt, black running shoes, white Nike socks and ageless Hollywood-style otherworldliness. His dark hair is free of grey. He has those stage teeth -- impeccably white, incandescent really, guaranteed to dazzle a crowd. He is 60, but the only sign of age is a few wrinkles on his smooth face and loose, crepe-like skin on his toned biceps.
But beneath his buffed exterior beats the heart of a shrewd businessman who isn't afraid to speak his mind. Anka has recently been named one of Billboard Magazine's most successful artists in history alongside Elvis Presley and the Beatles. It's said his songs have been performed 90-million times worldwide. Diana, the hit song he wrote at age 15 about a crush he had on an older Ottawa teenager, Diana Ayoub, made him an overnight sensation. Within six years, the sweet, yearning song was covered by 300 artists in 15 countries and went on to sell nearly 10 million copies. He is equally well-known for the songs he wrote for others, most notably My Way for Frank Sinatra, She's a Lady for Tom Jones, and It Doesn't Matter Any More for Buddy Holly. He also penned the famous theme from The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, reported to have been played 1,400,000 times. Anka is the king of royalties.
Asked if he is as sentimental as some of his songs would suggest -- You Are My Destiny (1958), Lonely Boy (1959), Put Your Head on My Shoulder (1959), Puppy Love (1960), Tonight My Love Tonight (1961), I Don't Like to Sleep Alone (1974), (You're) Having My Baby (1974) among many others -- he replies offhandedly, "I'm a romantic and a sentimentalist, sure." Then, he narrows his blue eyes. "I am tough, too," he adds, before unleashing a big, sharp laugh.
Tough, opinionated and often difficult. Anka rarely gives interviews. He has not given a public performance in his hometown of Ottawa since 1981. Returning has "always been a traumatic experience," he confesses. He is still bitter about a negative review of his 1981 concert at the Central Canada Exhibition. "I believe in criticism," he says in response to whether he is too touchy. "[But]I've always had great reviews. Still do. And when I came here I realized, 'Wait a minute. Everybody gets what I'm doing all over the world. Why is it so different here?' And I thought, 'Why do I want to put myself in harm's way? Why do I want to come back here?' "
He also felt misunderstood when his investment deal with Terrace Corp., owners of the Ottawa Senators National Hockey League franchise, soured in the early nineties. In 2000, Anka agreed to give a private concert for Tim Hortons convention delegates. "I gave them a high price and they took it," he explains with a shrug. "It could have been anywhere. But it happened to be in Ottawa. It was private; it was closed. I wasn't exposed to Ottawa. And that makes a big difference."
Now, because "it feels [like]it's the right time," he is back in his home town where he grew up the eldest of three children, born to Andy and Camelia Anka, immigrants from Lebanon who owned a restaurant called The Locanda. Tonight, he performs at a sold-out gala, A Night To Remember, at the Ottawa Congress Centre in support of the Canadian Liver Foundation.
Anka came in memory of his mother, who died in 1961 at age 37 of liver complications from diabetes. "She was my ally," he explains. "She made the difference. My father was straight. He wanted me in a legitimate business, and back then, show business wasn't legitimate."
But Anka was as unstoppable then as he is now. Influenced by the great rhythm and blues performers of the day, including Chuck Berry and Fats Domino, Anka hung out in theatres and nightclubs, watching professional singers and learning to imitate those he admired. At 13, he was a regular act at nightclubs in the Gatineau region across the Ottawa River in Quebec. He entered talent contests. "The turning point came when I started winning those contests, realizing there was something different about me. I wasn't talking about the same things as the kids I grew up with. I was talking about singing, being in show business, leaving Ottawa, going to the ballpark where the action was."
A break happened when he won a trip to New York. "I entered this contest for IGA food stores," Anka recalls. "Whoever collected the most soup wrappers won the trip. I took a job at IGA, collected the most soup wrappers, won the contest, went down to New York. All feeding this passion." Don Costa, the late producer at ABC-Paramount, listened to his demo of Diana and immediately signed him. "He saw something in this raw kid," Anka says wistfully. "I've really believed that along with hard work and dedication, there's some luck involved." That fateful New York meeting changed his life. "My life as a teenager ended at 16. I went into another sphere."
He never stayed in touch with the subject of his breakthrough hit Diana, who went on to marry, have two sons, divorce and work in Ottawa, managing a dress shop. "I have no reason to be in touch with her. Whatever rejection I had from her, I wrote a song about it."
Anka may be aggressive and scathing about what he calls "Canada's provincial attitude" but he is not egotistical, not in the way you might expect a pop icon worth millions to be. In fact, he credits his Canadian upbringing with keeping him level-headed. "As a Canadian, there's a special rooting you got. It allows you to deal with this business and the success of it."
Throughout the interview, he pulls no punches and is even slightly derogatory about the nature of his own talent. "I had this talent for these stupid little teenage songs," he says. "I was a lonely boy and I'd see these lonely boys at all these hops. Put your head on my shoulder -- that was your objective that weekend. To get her to get the head on the shoulder, maybe get a kiss and get your hand in her blouse. All that I understood."
The songwriting was paramount, more acute than the desire to perform. "I was the writer first. I just couldn't get anyone to sing my songs, so I had to sing my own tunes." He also knew he wasn't always the best vehicle for his songs. "Paul Anka was limited as a kid," he admits. "A squeaky little voice. Just sang from the heart. It wasn't a well-trained voice. Within my own soul, I knew that what I was about then wasn't going to last long."
Anka is unflinchingly honest. It's a no-apologies, confident kind of honesty which he can easily afford as one of a rare breed of entertainers who has survived 45 years of success, and it extends to his private life. After 37 years of marriage, he recently divorced his wife, former fashion model Anne de Zogheb, mother of their five grown daughters. "It's the hardest thing you do. It was my choice, not hers," he says pointedly. "We talk every day. I love this woman. Still do. It's just something I have to do for myself. Your kids are gone. The house changes. And I can't honestly be in something, whether it's a marriage or whatever, and be dishonest to a threshold that I don't like." Has he met someone new? "Not yet," he says with a wide megawatt grin.
One secret of his long-running career is what he calls "living a preventative lifestyle" in his Mulholland Drive mansion in Beverly Hills, Calif. He eats well. He drinks "a little wine and maybe a glass of brandy if I'm in Europe." He exercises regularly, mostly cardiovascular workouts, weights and the occasional yoga routine. "People aren't aware of the vast business I run. You have to be aware. You gotta be sharp. I've been around guys that shoot up heroin. I hung out with the Rat Pack and saw what too much drink does to you. I saw Sammy Davis Jr. die." He travels on a private jet with a staff of four. Maintaining his success is simply a matter of choices, he explains. "I don't want negative people around me. I have precautionary boundaries. I don't want to be in negative situations."
He has never wavered from his lifestyle discipline? Never despaired? "No, no, no," he trills. "Life is a line that we're all on. We may go a little to the left, but you never go off of it." He is currently working on a slew of projects, including the promotion of a television show in Japan, based on his romantic ballads; a re-engineering of some of his hits for a German recording company interested in using them to attract a younger, club-going demographic; and a collaboration with legendary hit producer David Foster, also a Canadian, on an album for Michael Buble, a young singing sensation in Vancouver.
Anka is a rare combination of businessman and artist. He can be ruthless. He is known to be litigious, once suing his dentist after a crown flew off during a performance, forcing him to stop singing. He is tough. At an early age, he made sure he owned the rights to all his songs. He is sensitive. He tells me that it was Frank Sinatra's threat to retire that "destabilized me," forcing him to write My Way, a song that revitalized Sinatra's career and changed Anka's, catapulting him to "a second evolution" after the Beatles had wiped him temporarily from the airwaves. He is humble -- "I never lose sight of being grateful," he says -- yet a shameless self-promoter.
As I leave his suite, he offers gifts -- five CDs of compilations of his hits and a special commemorative key chain that has his name on one side and the phrase "My Way" on the other. He has done it all his way, and he has no plans to stop. "I've always believed that if you don't stay moving, they will throw dirt on you."