Skip to main content

Do you remember that wonderful scene in When Harry Met Sally? An older woman (Estelle Reiner) who's sitting in a diner watches Meg Ryan simulate a two-minute orgasm, then turns to the waitress and says, deadpan, "I'll have what she's having."

Change the pronoun, and that's more or less what I wanted to say the other night after watching Paul Anka perform at Fallsview Casino in Niagara Falls.

There he was, sleek and tanned, a bright-toothed puma bounding down the aisles, jumping up on chairs to sing, grabbing women for a brief two-step, and generally expending the kind of energy he did when teenage girls in Paris, Tokyo and New York swooned at his feet five decades ago. The largely middle-aged audience seemed ready to swoon as well, constrained only by a sense of mature decorum.

Story continues below advertisement

He's 66, a father and a grandfather several times. And a new father again, with two-year-old Ethan, his first son, with his new partner Anna Yeager, a Swedish-born blonde, his former personal trainer. So his personal life has been a little complicated, and he's known in the biz as a complete perfectionist, hard on himself and very hard on others.

It doesn't matter.

A few evocative bars of You Are My Destiny, Diana, Lonely Boy, Put Your Head on My Shoulder or any of those lush romantic ballads Anka penned while still learning to shave, and it's as if the entire 1,500-seat theatre has been transported back in time, to the bare basements and living rooms of our not-so-innocent youth, where we turned off the lights and danced close, Anka's voice magically emanating through a tiny needle on a vinyl album.

Anka doesn't much love those teenage songs any more - can you blame him? - but he'll be damned if he's going to turn off the nostalgia taps and disappoint his fans. "And here's another one," he says, ripping off his tie and launching into Puppy Love.

Later, he sits down at the piano to reconstruct Diana as a contemporary tune, changing the last line of the lyric to "Oh, please, Viagra." The audience roars and then, sotto voce, Anka whispers, "But not yet."

Thank you. I'll have what he's having.

By this point in their careers, Frank Sinatra's voice was thin and shaky, Bing Crosby and Dean Martin had turned into self-caricatures, and Bobby Darin was dead, much too young. Anka - in Toronto next week to be inducted into yet another Hall of Fame, the Canadian Songwriters (he has, after all, 900 songs to his credit, many of them recorded by other top artists) - is as robust as ever.

Story continues below advertisement

His voice is huskier than it was when, just out of high school, he left his Lebanese family in Ottawa and plunged into show business, a handsome, cocky, effervescent kid. "My parents knew I had this thing in my gut," he says. "It's all about that." But he's lost nothing at the margins of his range and, when he wants to rev the engine, he can still sustain notes that last.

The mystery, perhaps, is not how well he's managed to maintain himself, carefully avoiding the myriad recreational and pharmaceutical snares that claimed the careers if not the lives of so many performers he knew. Anka himself, relaxing a few hours before the show in an upstairs suite, dressed in a black sweater and slacks, attributes it to his parents, and to simple, level-headed Canadian values.

But it wasn't just the miasma of drugs and alcohol he dodged. He had his own bathrobe (labelled "The Kid") in the steam room at the Sands, hanging beside Sammy Davis Jr.'s (his was labelled "Smokey the Bear"). But Anka never surrendered himself to that artificial universe constructed by Sinatra and the Rat Pack in Las Vegas, when they'd smoke and drink and gamble until dawn, and Peter Lawford would line up eight showgirls at a time to service the voracious appetite of his brother-in-law, Jack Kennedy, a rising politician visiting for the day. "I kept my nose clean," Anka says.

Anka was always more grounded. He got married at 23, at Paris's Orly Airport, to fashion model Anne de Zogheb, daughter of a Lebanese diplomat, and quite soon became father to the first of five daughters - Amelia, Anthea, Alicia, Amanda (now the wife of actor Jason Bateman) and Alexandra. The marriage lasted 37 years.

Though younger than some of his entertainment industry pals, Anka was, in a way, more sophisticated. He had lived in Rome and in France. He read books. He collected art. And he knew how easily it could all unravel. He'd seen ill-fated star Frankie Lymon shoot himself up before concerts, sensed the demons in Elvis, watched a lung operation in New York just to see the damage two packs a day inflicted. He wasn't going there.

He did not indulge, but he was in that crowd. He was there the night in 1967 when Sinatra, as he had routinely done, asked for credit at the Sands Casino and was denied. The hotel had just been taken over by Howard Hughes, whose lawyers and accountants changed the house rules virtually overnight. Incensed, a drunken Sinatra stood on the craps table swearing, until they finally called the casino manager, a soft-spoken gentleman named Carl Cohen.

Story continues below advertisement

"They woke him up," Anka says of the manager. "It was four a.m. He drove over to the back door of the coffee shop, the Garden Room, in his bathrobe, in a golf cart. He sits down. He calmly explains why he can't extend credit to Frank. 'We don't own the place any more, Frank. I can't give you the money.'

"Sinatra starts swearing, 'You fat, fucking little Jew,' etc. Carl - I'd never heard him raise his voice, ever - gets up and punches Frank right in the mouth. He goes down. His teeth are now on the coffee shop floor. I'm sitting there in disbelief. They take him to a Lear jet and fly him out for dental surgery."

Sinatra signed at Caesars Palace soon after.

Anka promises that all of those recollections and more will be part of his ghost-written autobiography, to be published by St. Martin's Press, "now that enough people have died." He's hired researchers to gather material and plans to start working on it this year. "But it won't be called My Way," he insists with a laugh, referencing the classic ballad he wrote for Sinatra. "I'll leave some stuff out, out of respect for friends, but it's not going to be pap. No one is left who saw what I saw. But I never had a problem with them, never was leaned on."

The real mystery with Anka is why, after five remarkable decades, 130 albums, more than 40 million records sold, the only artist on Billboard's Top 50 charts for five consecutive decades, why he still feels the need every three days to spend an hour and 45 minutes on stage swinging to an 18-piece orchestra.

The answer is that, in many ways, nothing in him has changed. The same impetus that made him get up on stage at 13 to sing in Gatineau talent contests also made him, at 15, approach producer Irvin Feld at a Fats Domino concert in Ottawa and tell him, "You're going to hear about me, Mr. Feld." A year later Feld signed him.

Story continues below advertisement

It's the same ambition that took him in 1957 with his unfinished song Diana (about his unrequited love of high school friend Diana Ayoub) to meet legendary producer Don Costa in New York, where Anka slept on a mattress in a bathtub in a friends' room at the President Hotel. It's why, three years ago, he released Rock Swings, an album of covers of more contemporary pop songs, and devoted half of Classic Songs, My Way, his last album, to the same kind of tunes.

"Paul is a perfectionist," says music journalist Larry LeBlanc, who wrote the biographical notes for Anka's last album. "He can be charming. He can be difficult. Certainly his intensity can be unsettling. He expects a person to be as professional as he is. In this world, that doesn't happen much."

And there's another dimension to Anka that's often overlooked: his business acumen. He was only 21 when, in 1962, he parted company with ABC-Paramount and committed his entire savings - $250,000, a fortune in those days - to buy back the masters of his own songs. He started his own publishing company, Spanka Music, and began licensing the it songs of artists from France, Italy and elsewhere, as well as the rights to the James Brown catalogue in Europe.

He was an astute judge of talent as well. He nurtured the early careers of singer/songwriters John Prine and Steve Goodman, as well as Canadians Corey Hart and David Clayton-Thomas. And it was only after Anka lined up $500,000 with a single phone call to finance crooner Michael Buble's first album with David Foster that Warner Bros. decided it might be willing to bankroll the CD. (In the end, Foster used his own money.)

It was also Paul Albert Anka who, in 1963, told his managers, the Feld brothers, about a long-haired British group called the Beatles that he'd seen perform in Paris. He suggested they bring the band to America, and they did.

In April, he's off to Europe for a six-city tour. He watches what he eats, lifts weights - he has a set of barbells in the hotel suite's living room, and does short sessions of intense aerobic activity. Last year, Anka sold his 5,700-square-foot mansion above Beverly Hills for $5.8-million (U.S.), and then bought a similar sized home a little farther north of Los Angeles, in Thousand Oaks' Lake Sherwood district, to house Anna, Ethan and Emily, Anna's daughter from her previous marriage. He and Anna aren't married yet, Anka says, "but we're talking about it."

Story continues below advertisement

How long will he keep going as a performer? "Until I can't continue any more. There's something about performing, I can't give it up. I'm at the top of my game. There's a large black hole," he says, "between the creative process of writing a song and performing it."

Anka could easily live on the royalties of a few songs alone. It isn't enough. "When you get out there and you see the tears, that's the payoff," he says. "Why would you give it up when it's easier to travel?"

"And there are things I still haven't accomplished," he continues. "What am I going to do? Retire at 50 and sit home and do what - become angry? No. I haven't put my flag in the ground yet."

Report an error
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies