In conversation with Paul Anka

On Frank Sinatra, Dodi Al-Fayed, Canadians...and ’The Ottawa Citizen’
13-7-2007 Rotterdam, North Sea Jazz Festival Paul Anka Copyright Paul Bergen
In Rotterdam at the North Sea Jazz Festival on July 13,13-7-2007. (Copyright Paul Bergen)

Paul Anka enters the ranks of the great celebrity storytellers with his new book, My Way, in which he recounts how he kept his head while many around him lost theirs. From the early years of rock ‘n’ roll through the heyday of the Rat Pack through the ‘70s and ‘80s with Tom Jones and Michael Jackson to the present, Anka–one of the rare artists whose teen stardom translated to significant adult success–seems to have been everywhere and hung out with everyone. In the current issue of Maclean’s, Nicholas Köhler discusses some of the book’s more startling anecdotes – about Frank Sinatra’s wild mood swings, Sammy Davis, Jr.’s outrageous love life, and Dodi Al-Fayed’s financial crisis. Here, the Ottawa native tells Mike Doherty, on the phone from his Hollywood office, about the book, his new album, Duets, and money, integrity, and truth.

Q: You’ve been working on this memoir for years now, although at first, you had insisted it wasn’t going to be called My Way.

A: That’s right. I got forced into it [laughs]. Everything about the book was my way except the title.

Q: It seems as though in writing the book, you haven’t really held back.

A: It’s like being with a great woman that you’ve always wanted to be with in bed – would one hold back? I saw no need to sit there and calculate every word on every page, because then you’d have people going, “Come on – you were there and this happened, and how come you didn’t see it?” So it’s all the truth, and it’s all what I observed, and certainly there are no confidences broken in any way. It’s what I experienced as a kid growing up in this business, and that’s what books are for: to inform, to give people a real look at the backdrop of this crazy business. I guess the whole message is there: don’t put all of us up on these pedestals like we’re idols and perfect human beings.

Q: You’ve mentioned how when you were in Vegas around the mob, people didn’t bother you because you were a kid. Do people feel comfortable with you, in general? 

A: I played it very straight. I had a good upbringing; I came from a good town, good family, and I just presented myself the way I was taught. You got a young kid or a young man in an older persons’ world, and you’re making money for them, and you’re not in any way belligerent; you don’t have bad habits. What are they going to do to you? Money is everything in today’s world – whenever anybody says to you, “It’s not about the money; it’s the principle,” it’s all about the money. So you’re making money for them; they sense the kind of person you are – these are good people too. So somebody steps out of line within their own milieu and they kill him? Maybe they cheated them out of a million bucks and they didn’t keep the rap intact and Louie the Neck went … None of my business! I can’t control the world. I do my job, and I watch, and that’s it. But that doesn’t [mean that] in my eyes they weren’t gentlemen, or they didn’t treat me properly because I behaved myself. You could shake a hand back in those days; you had a contract. In Vegas, you never locked a door. There was no crime. Everybody was running around and happy and doing nice things … that’s what it was in the ‘50s and ‘60s. The times are different today.

Q: In your book, Frank Sinatra comes across as a three-dimensional character: on one hand he’s fighting for civil rights, and on the other hand he could be standing on a table in a casino, ranting about how bad the place is. Could that sense of wanting to have things his way make him tyrannical?

A: No, I don’t look at it that way. I’m just talking about my experience with probably the greatest artist of all time. He wasn’t a tyrant in everything; he was being Frank, and like of all of us in life, before you throw stones, when you’re under the microscope, like he is, and a great artist, and you’re provoked in a certain way – and some drink more than others – I can’t stand in judgment of that. I thought he was a man’s man; I was always on his side through all of it, and [his outbursts] didn’t do him any harm. The more that happened, the more popular he was, the more people loved him, because that’s who he was. I can never say anything bad about Frank Sinatra; I’ll never be judgmental of him, and I loved him as an artist and as a human being and how he was with me.

Q: The situation with Dodi Al-Fayed that you describe in the book seems to still haunt you – the fact that he came back from the U.S. to England, where he died shortly thereafter, in part because he owed you money and you had mentioned his dire financial situation to his parents.

A: Well, it’s not overbearingly haunting. It’s reflective, but it’s not something that I carry heavily, day-to-day. As they said, I did him a big favour, getting him home and saving him. He was on a destructive path, living over here. I wasn’t the only one that felt the brunt of that. Unfortunately there were many people – a litany of people, from renters, girls, doctors, et cetera. His doctor called me and said, “Thank you for doing this for this family – helping this boy out.”

Q: You give details about Sammy Davis, Jr.’s private life. Do you think that it would be possible, given the media scrutiny that people are under, and the pervasiveness of cameras, for a star in his situation to live as he did, and as openly as he did in certain circles, now?

A: No, not today. You’d have to say to yourself, “Before I leave this room and commit whatever it is and do what I’m doing, I’m going to realize now that it’s going to be out there tomorrow morning.” I know, having lived in the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, that there wasn’t that constant awareness, or fear, for some, that no matter what action that you took, you’d better be ready to live by it the next day. Today, it’s absolutely brutal. It’s all about integrity and reputation.

Q: Is that something that you’re able to communicate to some of the younger stars who are in an analogous situation to what you were in before, except now having to deal with media scrutiny?

A: I can tell you that Michael Bublé has learned well. I was there from the beginning. The way he conducts himself with the s–t that’s coming at him left and right with the media and everything, he deserves his success. He took his hits in the beginning. The guy’s on his feet; his mind is clear; he’s got his priorities; he’s raising a family; he knows what to do professionally. We all try to stay on the straight and narrow, and Canadians have a better shot, because of the education, the environment that we’re brought up in – there’s something subliminally that works in most Canadians, that just keeps them a little bit straighter than the rest.

Q: Your song with Michael Jackson, This Is It, appears for the first time as a duet between you and him on Duets, although you had to fight to get the original tapes back when his people stole them from your studio. You also fought to get your money back from Dodi, so you must have a degree of steel to have gotten as far as you have.

A: When it comes to your livelihood and what you do and what you believe in, you absolutely have to fight for it. You just can’t have people coming in and stealing or taking things because it cross-collateralizes into everything that you do in life and how you behave and function and succeed. Once you subscribe to, “That’s good enough” – Good is the enemy of great, and you’ve got to be great today to realize any kind of success. You’ve got to do what you feel the right thing is. Maybe it’s those days in Vegas where I realized you can’t get pushed around, and you’ve gotta act to what you believe in.

Q: Do you think that some people may feel a little bit taken aback by what you’ve written?

A: First of all, opinions are like assholes: everybody’s gotta have one. And I can’t sit and be asked to write a book and hand out a pamphlet with every book explaining what I meant. In life, you’re never going to make everybody happy. I’m writing this for people who really understand me, critics and people out there who have a brain and look at it and go, “The guy’s being straightforward and honest.” I did Howard Stern, and that’s how this book came about. I went in there with people saying, “Don’t go near him; he’s going to kill you.” I said, “This guy will be fascinated with all of that stuff before he was born, because everybody is.” I went in there, and we hit it off so well. Everyone called in: “You should write a book. That’s fascinating. We’re learning something.” He went on Larry King and said “The greatest interview I’ve ever done was with Paul Anka.” Because I told the truth!

Q: You did pull back with regards to Brigitte Bardot, mentioning you met her and “let’s leave it at that.”

A: Yeah, I’m not going to tell everything. Frankly, they pushed me on all of that stuff. There comes a point to be a gentleman, and that’s where I refuse to talk. There’s no way that I’m going to sit and write a tell-all book. There’s nothing more boring to me than that. But the other stuff? No big deal. It’s just what I lived, what I experienced. [Writing about] everybody else, it’s all been public knowledge. I went to the same ball game that [other people are] writing about, but I happened to be sitting on the 50-yard line and in the locker room, and the rest of them haven’t.

Q: You’re also releasing a new album, Duets, on the same day as My Way. When you’re collaborating with another singer, how does the dynamic work in the studio? Do you take a leading role in shaping the way a duet evolves?

A: It depends. Certainly the full universal overview of it is mine, but I don’t in every instance walk in and lead Willie Nelson or Dolly Parton – these are established people. The real criteria was, unlike other duets albums which will go unnamed, you don’t walk in and say, “Here’s a swing album, and here’s 10 tracks, and Bono, you do this one” – and you put them in a forum and a milieu that they have no idea about; they’re only there because it’s a great commercial venture. If you like Dolly Parton, you create a song that has all of the right vibes for her, and you talk about it; you send it to her; you map out, “Here’s where you can sing; do what you want.” And they come through. Same with Willie, same with most of it. With Michael Bublé, [who sings Pennies from Heaven with Anka], there was some dialogue. “We’ve gotta get down to the song. Where do you hear me coming in?” At some point, because he knows what he’s doing, you send a road map of what to do with it.

Q: Getting a book and an album done at the same time is –

A: A lot of work. I’ll never do it again. That’s how I started: I loved writing; it’s all I knew. I used to sit at the Ottawa Citizen [before his music career began, Anka aspired to write] with editor Finn and absorb what I could. Back then, you couldn’t go to school to be a journalist, but I loved writing. But to sit and write a book – Jesus, it’s mind-boggling! And to try and produce an album and do everything right. So you just have to keep your nose on it and don’t let anybody push you around as to delivering it. It’s going to be a curious journey, because it’s the first time I’ve done this. And it’s going to be interesting to see where the flow of interest goes: I can just see it now, where all the sizzle and sexiness is, but a lot of the other stuff–to me–is a lot more interesting. Unfortunately, celebrity and its price are so high today that that’s what people will gravitate to, right?

Q: But if people gravitate to that and buy the book, then they will surely read the other stuff.

A: Well, exactly. If I hadn’t gone there with the truth and the openness, nobody gets to read or do anything [laughs], because I have no faith in the music business today, as to the course that it’s on, unfortunately. As for the book business, we will see.

Q: But good writing, I like to think, will never be obsolete.

A: No question about it. It’s always going to take a human being. There may be less, but good writing, good music and all of that – those that really know what they’re doing, that craft will remain.