I have to admit, I was not exactly sprinting to the bookstore when I heard Paul Anka had just published an autobiography.
The singer/songwriter who wrote and performed such fluffy songs as “Puppy Love,” “Put Your Head on My Shoulder” and “Lonely Boy” is a guy who never really made waves in the world of music and couldn’t possibly have much interesting to say in a book, I reasoned.
I was wrong.
Anka, now 72 and in show business for nearly six decades, has lived a very interesting life – musically and otherwise. Over the years, he’s been close to a fascinating array of celebrities – including Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, the Beatles, Dick Clark and the Everly Brothers.
During his years as a night club performer, night club owner and denizen of the late-night scene in Las Vegas, he learned much about the seamy side of that crazy city, including some of the vicious and flamboyant mobsters who once dominated the place.
He’s had romances with many famous and glamorous women, and he isn’t bashful about revealing the details in print. He’s also a man of surprisingly strong opinions, and he’s not afraid to spout them.
Anka is a talented musician, and a man so confident in his talents that he moved from his hometown in Ottawa to New York City – not knowing a single influential soul out there – in search of a record contact at the tender age of 15. And he knocked on doors until he got it.
Yes, he wrote goofy songs like “Puppy Love,” but he also wrote “My Way,” which became the signature song for his idol Sinatra. He wrote the brassy theme song that played for decades at the opening of Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, and he also wrote hit songs for other folks, including “She’s a Lady” for his Welsh buddy, Tom Jones.
Anka admits that he hates “She’s a Lady,” a song that does not play well with women’s rights advocates. But he says he was writing the song in the swaggering persona of Jones, just as he wrote “My Way” with Sinatra in mind.
“Writing for other people is like playing a character,” the songwriter says.
It doesn’t really come off in most of his music, but Anka is one cocky little dude.
Growing up in Ottawa, he studied classical music but fell in love with the pop songs he heard on the radio. Anka determined that he would get his songs onto the radio, too.
In 1957, he headed off to New York City with a pocket full of songs. He knocked on doors until record producer Don Costa – who would later become one of Sinatra’s favorite arrangers – gave his songs a listen. Costa produced “Diana,” Anka’s first hit, and his career took off like a rocket. As one reviewer observed, it was the first time a teenager was writing songs for other teenagers, and the formula was very successful.
Over the next five years, Anka became one of America’s most popular hitmakers. He also made movies with his girlfriend Annette Funicello and other teen stars. He hit the road in “package shows” with Holly, Berry, the Everlys, the Drifters, Domino and other stars of the day, including Jerry Lee Lewis, whom Anka hated.
When the Beatles and other British bands took over America’s music scene, Anka didn’t fret. In his late 20s, he made the successful transformation to night club crooner, playing clubs in New York, Vegas and elsewhere. He mentions Buffalo’s old Glen Park Casino as one of the many night spots he played.
Later, he moved to Vegas and become accepted into the “Rat Pack,” the legendary group of hell-raisers led by Sinatra, with Martin and Davis as his first lieutenants, and gorgeous women all over the place.
To me, the most interesting sections of this book are Anka’s recollections of Sinatra, the Rat Pack and Vegas, including its mobsters.
“The guys who wrote the book ‘The Green Felt Jungle’ said it best,” Anka writes. “The town was built for degenerates by criminals.”
He adored Sinatra and portrays him as a larger-than-life figure. Anka depicts the late singer as a warm, generous and loyal man who, at times, could get extremely nasty and unreasonable.
Anka recounts several incidents that illustrate Sinatra’s volcanic temper, including one from the 1970s at the Caesar’s Palace casino. A couple of weeks after he and a buddy had won $2 million at the baccarat tables, Sinatra had a very bad night of gambling, losing $8,000 a hand until he was $400,000 in debt – just for that night.
When the casino refused to extend him more credit that night, Sinatra went into a rage, throwing chips into a powerful gambling executive’s face and slapping him. The gambling exec got a gun and pointed it at Sinatra’s head. That quieted the singer for a brief time, but he later badly cut his arm while chasing the same executive and crashing through a glass door.
Sammy Davis had his demons, too. While known as one of the most popular mainstream stars in America, he was severely addicted to cocaine, deeply in debt to the Internal Revenue Service and totally infatuated with pornography stars, Anka writes. Davis would tell him of his wild escapades with actress Linda Lovelace of “Deep Throat” fame.
Sinatra broke off his friendship with Davis for years because even he was outraged with his behavior, Anka reveals.
The most chilling character in Anka’s book is the late Vegas mob leader Anthony Spilotro, whose violent life and equally violent death are recounted in Martin Scorsese’s “Casino” film. When Anka ran a Vegas night club called Jubilation, Spilotro and his buddies were in the place several nights a week. Anka got to know these scary guys too well.
“In Vegas, we worked within this infrastructure that had been made by the mobsters,” Anka writes. “This was the hand we were dealt. But it was colorful, all right, and exciting and edgy.”
There are many enjoyable anecdotes in this book. My favorite is this one:
Anka was drinking in a Vegas hangout late one night with his heroes, Sinatra and Martin. Anka asked Sinatra, out of all the famous and beautiful women he had slept with over the years, who was the best?
Without skipping a beat, without batting an eye, both Sinatra and Martin uttered the same name, the name of a well-known actress.
To find out her name, you’ll have to read this book.
Dan Herbeck is a veteran News reporter and the co-author, with News reporter Lou Michel, of the book “American Terrorist.”
By Paul Anka with David Dalton
St. Martin’s Press
371 pages, $29.99