Paul Anka has written an inordinate amount of pop music classics, cranking out hit songs like “My Way” for Frank Sinatra, “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore” for Buddy Holly, saving “Lonely Boy,” “Put Your Head on My Shoulder,” “Puppy Love” and others for himself — not bad for a guy who arrived on the music scene in 1956 with a not-quite-as-catchy tune about a place called Blaauwildebeestefontein.
Anka, who’s marking his 50th year in show business, actually tried to break into the business 51 years ago.
“A lot of people don’t know I came to L.A. the prior year to visit an uncle,” the 66-year-old Canadian-born singer-songwriter recalled recently as he was putting the finishing touches on his anniversary album, the just-released “Classic Songs My Way.”
Still a high school student, Anka had brought with him the book “Prester John” (required reading for Canadians because it was written by the country’s legendary governor general, John Buchan).
“The premise of it took place in Africa,” he recalled. “There was a town called Blaauwildebeestefontein. I loved the title, so I hitchhiked to Culver City and made a record of it.”
“I was a failure at 15,” Anka laughed.
Fortunately for him, Sinatra, Johnny Carson (Anka wrote Carson’s “The Tonight Show” theme) and pop music in general, he headed to New York the following year. This time he brought with him a more traditional song about a 16-year-old’s unrequited love for an older woman.
“Diana” became a No. 1 hit and turned a short kid whose voice hadn’t quite matured into an overnight teen idol.
Fifty years later, he’s still short but the voice is deeper and richer and the ’50s-style pop star pompadour is gone, having surrendered to a slightly receding hairline.
Anka is also still writing songs, still recording and touring, and still occasionally discovering the latest new thing. When urban folk music had a renaissance in the 1970s, he found John Prine and Steve Goodman in Chicago. When pop crooners came back into style earlier this decade, he discovered fellow Canadian Michael Buble and helped produce his first album.
But Anka is especially proud that, no matter what the current trend, he’s placed a Billboard Top 50 hit on the charts in every decade of his career.
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“We’ll talk again in 2010,” he jokes during a recording studio break. “I’ve got one decade left.”
Or maybe two.
“When I’m in a studio I wish everybody could get off on it like I do,” he says. “It’s such a great occupation, I don’t want to retire.
“Oh, I’ll slow down a little,” he adds. “But to totally retire? It ain’t gonna happen. I’m too good at what I do, whereas I wasn’t years ago.”