If you’re like me, your impression of singer and songwriter Paul Anka (b. 1941) went something like this: “Couple of hits in the fifties, couple of hits in the seventies, then nostalgia act”. But it truly ain’t like that. Not just in terms of volume (he had LOTS of hits) but because he was connected with several major pieces of pop music you probably had no idea he had a hand in.
Like Danny Thomas (who later had him as a guest on his show), Anka is of Lebanese Christian ancestry. He grew up in Ottawa, Canada where his folks had a restaurant. He began singing in high school, and proved to be a wunderkind. He had his first #1 U.S. hit at the age of 17, “Diana” (1957). This tune has all of Anka’s signature traits: melodrama, teen angst, unashamed gimmickry, and a lack of pretention. It really clicked with kids, and it gave him a comet like initial success streak that lasted six years. HIs follow up hits included You Are My Destiny (#7). “Crazy Love” (#15), “Let the Bells Keep Ringing” (#16), “(All of a Sudden) My Heart Sings” (#16), “Put Your Head on My Shoulder” (#2), “It’s Time to Cry” (#4), “Puppy Love” (#2), and others through 1962. Anka also wrote “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore” for Buddy Holly in 1958. Naturally, along the way he did TV variety shows like Perry Como’s Kraft Music Hall, The Ed Sullivan Show, The Arthur Murray Party, The Dick Clark Show, and The Dinah Shore Chevy Show.
Less well remembered is that during the time, much like Elvis Presley, Anka was also on movie screens. He performed songs in Let’s Rock (1958) and Verboten (1959), played a role in Girls Town with Mamie Van Doren (1960) where he introduced his song “Lonely Boy” which went to #1, and was in The Private Lives of Adam and Eve (1960) . He was actually the star of the movie Look in Any Window (1961) with Ruth Roman and Jack Cassidy, in which his character is a teenage Peeping Tom. He was also one of the cast of thousands in The Longest Day (1962), which he also wrote the theme for.
That same year (1962) Anka also wrote the theme music for The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson! That may just be his most-heard composition ever!
Anka’s trajectory at this point must have seemed unstoppable. But you know what happens next. The Beatles, the British Invasion, folk rock, and a whole host of new sounds in pop music through the 1960s. Like so many, Anka’s career languished during this time. Ironically he was younger than two of the Beatles!
By the end of the decade Anka remerged with a new approach, a more mature, Las Vegas persona and sound. And then came yet another six year hot streak. It started around 1969 when Frank Sinatra, and then Elvis sang “My Way” a French tune for which Anka wrote new lyrics. In 1970, Tom Jones had a smash hit with Anka’s tune “She’s a Lady”. In 1972, Donny Osmond covered “Puppy Love” and had a major hit with it. This paved the way for Anka to return to the charts as a popular singer. Several duets he performed with Odia Coates enjoyed much airplay. In 1974 “(You’re) Having My Baby”. (which I wrote about here) went to #1, followed by “One Man Woman/One Woman Man” (1974) #7, and the 1975 hits “I Don’t Like to Sleep Alone” #8 “(I Believe) There’s Nothing Stronger Than Our Love” #15. In 1975 he recorded a jingle for Kodak called “Times of Your Life” . When he released it as a single it went to #7 in 1976. I associate Anka’s ’70s hot streak very much with the ’50’s nostalgia boom I wrote about here.
Anka continued to release records, tour, appear in television and in films throughout the ensuing decades. In 1983 he collaborated on some songs with Michael Jackson. One of them became “This Is It”, the title track of Jackson’s 2009 album. The other, “Love Never Felt So Goo” was included on the posthumous Jackson album Xscape (2014).
To learn more about entertainment history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,