Paul Anka Did It His Way, And Still Does

Paul Anka
GETTY IMAGES/Vince Bucci
When Paul Anka sings the song that made him famous in the '50s, a crowd of women in their 50s (and beyond) become teenagers again.

Anka was just 16 when he became one of the biggest teen idols of the early days of rock 'n' roll.

"I was traveling with 20 of my friends," he told CBS News correspondent John Blackstone. "You know, from the Everly Brothers to Frankie Avalon to Chuck Berry, Fats Domino. We were all on one bus."

But long after most everyone else from that musical era has faded away, Paul Anka is going strong. At age 66, he's celebrating his 50th year in show business.

"When you have my demographic and the people who have grown up with me, I feel they're looking at me differently," he said. "That earlier music really sets off a different emotion in people. And you see it in their faces. If there's a woman close enough, up she gets and she'll dance with me, 'cause that's what she did when she was a kid."

Partly to prove he's much more than a nostalgia act, Anka is marking this anniversary with a new CD called "My Way." It's a collection of classic rock songs, like Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now," done in Anka's own style. Billy Joel's "I Go to Extremes" gets the Anka treatment, too.

Anka says he may be getting older, but he feels like he's in the prime of his life.

"I think right now, I'm in a very good place," he said. "I feel I'm on top of my game."

In fact, Anka seems to have been on top of his game almost continuously since the very beginning - always determined to build a career. Growing up in Ottawa, the capital of Canada, he wrote songs, performed at every opportunity, and pestered his parents to let him go to New York.

"My mother gave me money and I went down and got a contract at ABC Paramount," he said.

A recording session was set, but "Diana" wasn't finished yet.

"I was stuck in one line," Anka said. "And I finally filled it in at the session. Went 'uh-oh, uh-oh,' which became - why it was a hit, I think."

Virtually overnight, girls were screaming for this new teen sensation. He wrote and recorded a string of hits and appeared on the top music show of the day, Dick Clark's "American Bandstand." But even with screaming girls around him, he found inspiration to pen "Lonely Boy."

"You're locked in a room, no place to go," he said. "You're lonely. You're dating Annette, Mouseketeer. Walt Disney doesn't want this romance. 'Break those kids up. It's just a puppy love.' Bing, you go home. You write it."

He also wrote "Puppy Love," based on his own life. With the money he was making, he moved his parents and his younger brother and sister from Canada to a house near New York - a close family remained close. That's reflected in "Destiny," also on his new CD.

"Because I wrote it for my mother originally who was a big supporter of mine and who died when I was 18," he said.

Before he was 20, Anka was traveling the world. He played to big crowds in Europe and Asia and had hit records. He sold 1 million copies in Italy and got a gold record. He also got a gold record in Japan.

But in the 1960s, teenage musical tastes suddenly changed. The Beatles and the rest of the bands from the British invasion took over the music scene, and Anka's record company no longer wanted him or his music.

"When they started not to believe and they sensed that things were changing, I said, 'OK, give me back my life. Give me back my music,'" he said.

Anka paid $250,000 to buy back the rights to all his music - music he's been making money on ever since. Then he took his act to Las Vegas, where he made the transition from teen idol to sophisticated crooner.

"When I started really focusing, on the nightclubs and really working at being a performer and getting that solid foundation, I got a lot more secure to where I said, 'Well, I can always perform and do this, and write.'"

All along he was writing music for others. "She's A Lady" went to No. 1 for Tom Jones. When Johnny Carson took over the "Tonight Show," Anka offered to write the theme song. But Carson's bandleader wanted different music.

"I said, 'Well, you know what, Johnny? I'm giving you half the song,'" Anka said.

Splitting the royalties with Carson turned out to be good business. Anka collected checks on the "Tonight Show" theme for 30 years.

Producer Darryl Zanuck cast him in the 1962 war epic "The Longest Day," and Anka wrote the theme music.

"I was very proud of 'The Longest Day,'" he said. "You know, I was proud to be in the film, and hearing that music was a kick for me."

Anka says he has written more than 900 songs, the biggest of all in 1968 for Frank Sinatra.

"When we had dinner, he said, 'I'm quitting. I'm getting out of here,'" Anka said. "And that really hit me. He was retiring. And I just started typing, at 1 o'clock in the morning. 'And now, the end is near. And so, I face the final curtain.' A few months later, I got a phone call. He said, 'Kid, listen to this.' And he put the phone up to the speaker. And I heard 'My Way' for the first time. I started crying."

Music industry figures show "My Way" has now been performed more than 4 million times. In the 1970s, his third decade in the business, Anka came back with his own hit record, one that brought him both controversy and derision: "You're Havin' My Baby." Feminists criticized it as the clear work of a male chauvinist.

"They came right at me," Anka said. "And the curious thing was, they took the record right to No. 1!"

Anka had written the song for his wife Anne, mother of their five daughters. Their marriage of 37 years ended in 2001. Now Anka has another family: girlfriend Anna, her daughter and their 2-year-old son.

"It's very different to have a son," he said. "And it's very different to have a child at mid-'60s. But having this child - Ethan, my boy, has just made me a new person."

Still, after 50 years, he has no intention of facing that final curtain - at least not as long as his fans keep showing up. Looking back on his long career, Anka says he's sometimes amazed with what he accomplished as a teenager.

"I'm moved by what I've done," he said. "And you know, when you're doing it, you're so focused and busy, it doesn't really hit you till you reflect on it. I say 'Wow, it's gone so quickly,' and 'How did I get it all in?'"