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Paul Anka manages to be both a legend and also largely unknown.EXPAND
Paul Anka manages to be both a legend and also largely unknown.
Ian Gavan/Getty

Paul Anka Recalls the Time Chuck Berry Thought ‘Diana’ Was the Worst Song He Ever Heard

His songs have been performed more than 100 million times worldwide.

His LP and single sales number more than 90 million. He’s sold 10 million albums worldwide, and got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and the Canadian one, too. 

With more than 500 songs to his credit, he’s responsible for the theme song from The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Billboard named him the 21st most successful artist in its history, and he claims he’s the only artist to have a song in Billboard’s Top 100 for seven consecutive decades.

His name is Paul Anka. He was Canada’s original teen idol. But most of us have never heard of him.

Anka came up in a time when Frank Sinatra dominated the stage with his blue eyes and Italian light baritone with its two octave range.

Anka credits Sinatra for influencing his music career. He was a fan who got to write for him. They met at the Los Angeles restaurant Trader Vic’s. Sinatra was part of the rat pack in the 1960s, along with Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. As Anka points out in his email to the Observer, “The Rat Pack were IT back then,” he writes. “When I had the opportunity to become the youngest to work Vegas and wind up at the Sands Hotel with the Rat Pack at my stage, it was absolutely mind boggling. Incredible experience.”

Some of his hits include “Put Your Head on My Shoulder,” “Lonely Boy” and “Having My Baby,” all songs I’m still not quite lonely enough for. Probably his most famous song was Sinatra’s “My Way” from 1969. He wrote the lyrics, and will be performing the classic single as part of the Anka Sings Sinatra Tour on Tuesday at the Winspear Opera House.

The show starts at 7:30 p.m., and ticket prices range from $49.50 to $129.50, not a bad price if you’re a Sinatra fan.

“It’s a great band, very eclectic and good music,” Anka says. “My hits and Sinatra’s hits. It will be a great evening!”

Anka started playing music when he was a child in Ottawa. He formed his first vocal group, Bobbysoxers, when he was 13 and drove across the river into Quebec to perform at amateur nights. Winning a Campbell Soup song competition was his first trip, but certainly not last, trip to New York.

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In the 1950s, he visited an uncle in California and hitchhiked to Modern Records in Los Angeles to record his first single “Blau-Wile-Deveest-Fontaine.” Modern Records was known for releasing material by famous blues performers B.B. King, Lightin’ Hopkins and John Lee Hooker.

When Anka returned to Ottawa, he continued pursuing his passion and went so far as to sneak into Fats Domino’s dressing room. Anka claims Chuck Berry was there also chilling, so he sang to the two music giants, and they told him to stay in school.

“They were surprised,” Anka recalls. “Chuck Berry was surprised. I had a new winter jacket with white sleeves. Black and white. I wanted anyone I could to sign the sleeves. There were about 13 acts: Chuck Berry, The Platters, etc. Anyone who was top 10. It was one of those tours. I got into his room and he had his guitar on the table. I got his attention and sang him 'Diana.'  He said it was the worst song he ever heard. I left somewhat discouraged, but not enough to stop me.”

Anka stayed in school but returned to New York a couple of years later, recorded “Diana,” which became a No. 1 hit, and met an A&R representative for ABC-Paramount Records. Anka was only 15.

Flash-forward several decades later, and Anka’s life plays like a VH1 Behind the Music special. He wrote songs for Buddy Holly, became a “junior associate of the Rat Pack and moved to Italy where he claims he topped the charts. He’s done duets with Celine Dion and Tom Jones and co-written Michael Jackson’s posthumous “This Is It.”

Anka says Jackson came up to his house in Carmel, long before Thriller hit the charts, and they wrote a few songs together, including “This Is It” and “Love Never Felt So Good.” There was no inspiration behind the song, Anka points out. He just began singing at the piano.

“The song was called, ‘I Never Heard’ not ‘This Is It,’” he recalls. “The title was only changed after [Jackson’s] attorneys found it in his drawer and thought it was new material. But it wasn’t.”

Anka released My Way, a New York Times best-selling autobiography in 2013, followed by “Love Never Felt So Good,” the song he co-wrote with Jackson, a year later on Jackson’s Xscape album. He most recently released another collaboration with the late Jackson and Drake called “Don’t Matter to Me,” which Drake released on his album Scorpion.

Anka decided to kick-start the tour as "Anka Sings Sinatra: His Songs, My Songs, My Way" as a tribute to the late singer, whom he considered a friend.

“Frank Sinatra was a huge influence on my career,” Anka says. “I was a big fan and it was an honor to work with him and write for him.”

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