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Paul Anka did it the Las Vegas way

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Paul Anka has made a few movies in his career, which is now in its sixth decade, and his uneven autobiography, appropriately titled My Way, makes it clear that he watched lots of movies while waiting for the spotlight each evening.

The Canadian crooner begins with a quote from, of all people, Henry Hill, the central character in Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas.

"As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster."

In Anka's case, the Ottawa-born son of Lebanese Christian parents always wanted to be part of "a cool scene." The coolest scene he could imagine was being part of the infamous Rat Pack, which included legendary American entertainers Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and, especially, the "chairman of the board" Frank Sinatra.

More than a lot of the kiss-and-tell memoirs that celebrities produce, My Way describes someone who knew within a very few years of his birth, in 1941, exactly what he wanted to do, and where he wanted to be. More than anything he wanted to be a singer and a songwriter.

Canada's capital is still not a place to do that in a big way, and it was much less so in 1957. That was the year Anka wrote and recorded Diana. He was 15. The song began his long association with legendary producer Don Costa, but he had already been performing on stage since the age of 11. Compared to Anka, Justin Bieber was a late starter.

Working with co-writer David Dalton, an American music journalist with some 15 books to his credit, Anka tells of illicitly driving his mother's car long before legal age, as he and a young band of schoolmates sang in clubs in nearby Quebec.

After Diana, everything changed. Both parents were 100 per cent supportive of their young star, and the family was soon living in New York and focusing on his meteoric career.

Several more top hits followed before his 19th birthday, including Put Your Head on My Shoulder and Lonely Boy. It was also around this time that Anka had his first significant romantic relationship. It was with former Mouseketeer Annette Funicello, who died earlier this month at the age of 70. Was it steamy?

"Annette and I hit it off," Anka recalls, "but her mother and a chaperone were all over her like white on rice." It didn't last.

Anka's recollections of his early years are definitely the most interesting part of My Way. So much happened to him, and he encountered so many legendary names all through his life, that the book frequently reads like Forest Gump.

While still in his teens, he collaborated with Buddy Holly before he died in a plane crash in Iowa in February 1959. The way Anka tells it, he and his managers were somewhat responsible for the tour that caused Buddy to take that doomed flight.

He also wrote It Doesn't Matter Any More, the last song Buddy Holly ever recorded. They had plans to do more collaborating had the Texan lived.

Anka, who has lived in Las Vegas for most of his professional career, devotes relatively few pages to his family life. It includes two marriages, five daughters and a son. He became a U.S. citizen in 1990, and his returns visits to Ottawa have been few.

He makes no mention of his brief involvement as one of the owners of the Ottawa Senators of the NHL in the early 1990s. Maybe he thinks nobody in Vegas cares.

Anka's most colourful stories involve his life in Las Vegas, particularly his association with Sinatra. He clearly loved hanging around the Rat Pack boys in their prime.

In 1968, Anka writes, Sinatra was in a bad way after the breakup of his brief marriage to Mia Farrow and he was seriously considering retiring. That's when Anka gave him My Way, the song he recorded for Costa just before the end of that year. It quickly put Sinatra back on top and his thoughts of packing it in were put away for a few years.

On balance, it's a very unflattering picture that Anka paints of his idol. Sinatra could occasionally be sweet and wonderfully generous, but when he drank heavily, which was often, he could be cruel and vindictive.

He says Sinatra was always accompanied by thugs who did his bidding, including physical violence. One of the victims of that was none other than Johnny Carson, who also drank heavily and was something of a Sinatra groupie.

Anka also includes lots about Sinatra's women, including his proclivity for prostitutes.

Far less interesting are the latter chapters where Anka goes on endlessly about his friendships with the likes of Donald Trump and Steve Wynn, the man who led the transformation of Las Vegas into the home of super casinos in the 1980s.

Among his other friends and associates then were Wall Street criminals Ivan Boesky and Michael Milken. Anka is also not the least bit reluctant to admit that much of his spectacular career has been managed in some measure by people connected to the mob. At no time does he express anything resembling guilt or embarrassment over this.

So perhaps Anka's reference at the beginning to Goodfellas is more appropriate than one might think.

Roger Currie is a Winnipeg writer and broadcaster. He grew up on Paul Anka's records on 45 rpm.

 

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 20, 2013 J10

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