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The stars of the film (L-R) Peter Lawford, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Frank Sinatra in Hollywood. 1960. (Underwood Archives/Getty Images)
In his autobiography, entitled—what else?—My Way, after the tune he wrote for Frank Sinatra, Paul Anka comes off as a Dante figure, returned from the depths of strange netherworld landscapes—Las Vegas, Los Angeles—dragging up to the earth’s surface a trove of forbidden gossip. “Frank, of all the women you’ve known,” Anka, the aging Ottawa-born teen idol, asked Sinatra shortly before his death, “who was the best in bed?”
You might think Sinatra’s reply—which by the way was Angie Dickinson, praise that fellow Rat Packer Dean Martin, apparently in a position to know, seconded—would remain locked in the subterranean vault of the American entertainment business back in Anka’s heyday, with its high-wattage machismo, the drinking, hookers and collusion with the Mob. A thing of confidence—secret, in other words. Instead Anka, whose name in Arabic means “noose,” as in a hangman’s, dishes on all his famous pals, crafting that rare thing: a celebrity memoir that’s fun to read.
In the lead-up to its publication, and the release of his first CD in six years, Anka is already causing a stir, with expansive excerpts in Britain’s Daily Mail and a TMZ-broadcast rant in which he scolds rapper Jay-Z for not returning his call. There’s something peculiarly Canadian about his comeback—the way Anka’s memoir, told from the point of view of a smart but wide-eyed Ottawa boy visiting the land of excess and crookedness down south, serves to puncture its myths. Here is an aging Dean Martin, sitting in a restaurant with his false teeth in a glass, or Sinatra showing him his colostomy bag. Who knew Anka was the keeper of such secrets?
Because, after all these years, it’s easy to forget how much Anka, a kind of primordial Justin Bieber, who helped transform the pop world, skewing it to a younger audience, and became a Zelig of the hit parade in the process, has seen. Anka toured with Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis, ingratiated himself with the Rat Pack and recorded with Michael Jackson (who he says had a henchman steal into his studio and pilfer the tapes, demonstrating, in Anka’s estimation, his “absolutely ruthless streak”).
- Read our interview with Anka, where he speaks about Frank Sinatra, Dodi Al-Fayed, Canadians…and The Ottawa Citizen
His book is a story of decadence and of the nature of celebrity. Anka, it seems, was everywhere. In Las Vegas he watched Elvis Presley grow “out of his skin . . . disfigured. What I’ve discovered is that all of us have our natural face and when you go too far with weight, you stretch your skin to the point where you no longer have your natural face.” When Presley began to withdraw into his hermetic world, sealing the windows with tinfoil, Anka arrived with a pep talk. “You’ve got to get it together, you can’t live this twilight life,” he told him. “Then there were the guns. He hated Robert Goulet, and every time he was on TV, Elvis would shoot the television.”
Sammy Davis Jr., meanwhile, that great song-and-dance man, Rat Pack cohort, singer of The Candy Man, had a “porno fixation.” Anka recalls a night in the early ’70s when Davis invited Anka and a crowd of friends to a private film screening. “There were about 30 or 40 of us, and no one knew what we were going to see. We get in there, sit down with our bags of popcorn . . . and on comes . . . Deep Throat!” With that film’s star, Linda Lovelace, Davis enjoyed wide-ranging sexual adventures, sharing her in group-sex romps with his wife, Altovise. Sinatra, “hardly a prude,” found his appetite for pornography—not to mention cocaine—“disgusting and didn’t forgive him for years,” writes Anka.
It is Sinatra, Anka’s hero, who receives the in-depth treatment, and Anka follows the great crooner, sophisticate, professor in “the college of cool,” right into dotage. In Sinatra’s prime, he recalls, the “public even loved him for his outbursts—his temper tantrums only illuminated his image and gave more sizzle to his celebrity.” “Sinatra was a guy who was fascinated with the Mafia” and who “developed an irrational loathing for Barbra Streisand.” In 1967 he racked up $500,000 in gambling debts at the Sands Casino, then, “drunk and showing off,” commandeered a golf cart with his “teenage bride” Mia Farrow, driving it through a plate-glass entrance. When the Sands stanched Sinatra’s flow of free gambling chips he became irate, standing on a blackjack table, crying: “This place was sand when they built it, and it’ll be sand when I’m f–king done with it.” The scene ended only when the manager punched Sinatra in the mouth, knocking out all his caps.
Even at his best Sinatra was “notoriously unpredictable,” Anka writes. “If you went to dinner with Frank, you took your passport.” Much of that energy was fuelled, it seems, by a covert, masterfully hidden self-doubt: “Sinatra was sophisticated and educated in a way you wouldn’t expect. He was a big reader, for one thing. And beneath all the swagger, he was insecure. He always felt inferior to all the socialites he went out with.” Ironically, women always remained a mystery to Sinatra, in Anka’s view. “He has had some major women, but at the end of the day he said he never understood them. He was just as happy going to bed with a hooker.”
Watching Sinatra’s facade, that work of genius, fall away in old age pained Anka. “One night he forgot to put on his toupée and went out onstage like that. He was forgetting the words he’d sung a million times and that anyone in the audience could have recited by heart.” In a stunning and strange example of senility Sinatra-style, he became obsessed with Marlon Brando’s casting in The Godfather. “I don’t know why they wouldn’t give that to me,” he told Anka. “I called everybody, I mean I’m him, that part was me, I wanted to play that so badly.” “Toward the end it became a litany, he repeated it over and over,” writes Anka, without noting how odd a piece of casting that would have been, given that the first scenes of The Godfather revolve around a thinly veiled retelling of Sinatra’s own story, the narrative of an Italian-American crooner whose star is fading and who enlists Don Corleone’s help in securing a film role he’s desperate to play. It is that storyline that leads to the placement of a horse’s bloody severed head in a Hollywood director’s bed.
Anka is the first to admit that most of these stories aren’t new. “What I’m bringing is my first-hand observation of being there,” he told Maclean’s in an interview. “It was who he was, and no one—and I hope you print this—no one can say anything bad about Frank Sinatra to me. I love the guy.” Anka all but created the teen-idol template that today has Bieber, a fellow Canadian, in its grips—“a clergyman’s answer to rock’n’roll,” he calls it. “We ‘whitified’ it.” And he knows what it’s like to be in the spotlight, with all its temptations. In My Way Anka reveals how he first took advantage of celebrity’s magnetism in Japan—“the girls were throwing themselves at me”—and later in France, during a mysterious encounter with sex kitten Brigitte Bardot. (“When I got to Paris I wanted to meet Brigitte Bardot. And I did. Let’s leave it at that.”)
Candid, frank, My Way is “not a fairy tale, and I certainly wanted to open some veins,” Anka told Maclean’s. “We live in a time, unfortunately, of a lot of bullshit.” His revelations still titillate because they’re relatively fresh: in those years stars could still maintain a personal sphere, a public no-go zone. “Not today,” says Anka. “Those that are in the circus—I don’t want to say they’re victimized, because, listen, let’s get down to our own lovable little Justin Bieber. I happen to know what’s going on. I’m not going to tell you. The point is, no one in life—I don’t care if you’re a politician, a singer, whomever, or Sammy—in today’s world, there is no privacy whatsoever. We are being monitored left and right—every phone call, every dime, every time you go to the bank.”
Top of mind in this discussion of celebrity is Anka’s principal heir. Bieber, whose past weeks have been marked by public missteps uncharacteristic of his flawless rise to fame—odd fashion choices, his two-hour-late arrival at London’s O2 Arena, Twitter rants, a row with a paparazzo—could learn a thing or two from Anka, the subject of a 1962 cinéma-vérité NFB classic, Lonely Boy, that transforms the young singer’s casual walk onto a stage, the spotlight throwing his looming shadow onto the brass section behind him, surrounded by a cacophony of girls, into an allegory of existential isolation.
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He was always an unlikely pop star: “short, Semitic, not exactly the mould of the current matinee idol,” he writes. “I made it in spite of all that—maybe even because of it.” A Lebanese Christian whose surname derives from a misunderstanding between his grandparents and Canadian immigration officials, he was a pushy, ambitious Ottawa kid who leaned heavily toward ham. He compares himself favourably to Duddy Kravitz and others who “had the burning desire and dream to get involved in some improbable schemes.” He idolized the histrionic singer Johnnie Ray—Ray later made a pass at him—and began singing in the clubs dotting the opposite side of the Ottawa River, in Gatineau, Que. One early gig saw him performing between exotic dance numbers. “I used to hang out in the dressing room and dig holes in the walls with the pocket knife I carried around with me so I could ogle the girls,” he writes. His 1957 international hit, Diana—“I’m so young and you’re so old”—concerned a 19-year-old girl, Diana Ayoub, who he knew from church. Anka hadn’t even turned 18.
Soon he was touring with the Biggest Show of Stars, the legendary travelling rock’n’roll review, with its drinking, drugs and girls. It was a jarring moment for Kid Anka. “I’m pretty sure I was still watching The Mickey Mouse Club,” he writes, confessing, in another poignant, Bieber-esque moment, that: “I’d buy toys and claim they were gifts for my kid brother back in Canada when they were really for me.” Anka maintains it was family and his Canadianness that carried him through: “Even after I hit, my dad kept me centred. That’s how Canadians are—anchored. We keep the lower 48 from floating off into the blue.” Surrounding Anka on that bus were a crew of Americans, the founders of a budding genre—rock ’n’ roll—in all its variety and danger, and Anka’s book supplies finely observed portraits of them all: Berry (“a funny, moody guy. You would go backstage and talk with him and it was like he was your best friend and then the next day, he would be sullen and uncommunicative”), Lewis (“a mean redneck . . . I can’t explain how abusively unpredictable this guy could be . . . white trashy spew”) and Buddy Holly, who emerges as the great tragedy in Anka’s life, his death in a plane crash in Iowa while on tour in 1959 the coda to a budding partnership.
“Buddy was aware of me even before his record, That’ll Be the Day, climbed the charts,” Anka writes, not long before suggesting that it was Anka and his cronies on the tour bus who first talked Holly into wearing his trademark black-rimmed glasses. “In the beginning I was Buddy Holly’s nemesis. Buddy and I were neck-and-neck all the way with That’ll Be the Day and Diana. He’d look at my picture in record-shop windows and say, ‘Who is this kid Anka, anyway?’ ” Anka composed one of the last songs Holly recorded—It Doesn’t Matter Anymore—and the pair had plans to form a songwriting partnership and start a publishing company together. Anka even claims a role for him and his manager Irvin Feld in Holly’s death. “Buddy called Irv and me. He was sounding a bit desperate.” Holly, just split from his band, the Crickets, and newly married, needed money: “Could we bring him out on tour? So we created a sister tour, a parallel tour to the one we were on, just for Buddy.” It was the tour that killed him.
Throughout the book Anka pops up to emerge as a sort of pop-star missing link, the common denominator in 20th-century music’s grand picaresque—often in the unlikeliest places. It was Anka, according to Anka, who helped connect the Beatles to their first American label, Vee-Jay Records, then introduced them to his agent Norman Weiss, which in turn landed them on The Ed Sullivan Show, a seminal appearance. He says he got country-folk singer-songwriter John Prine a deal with Atlantic Records, and that he made a bad $150,000 loan to Dodi Fayed in L.A. that precipitated Fayed’s return to Europe and his death, along with Princess Di’s, in Paris. Later he explains that he was the principal investor in Michael Bublé recordings that led to Bublé’s rise as an international easy-listening star, heir to the Sinatra legacy.
It is with Bublé that Anka sings the jazz standard Pennies From Heaven on a new album, Duets, that arrives in stores the same day as his book. Bublé, in many ways much like Anka before him, has got the fame thing right, cleaving to integrity: “I can tell you that he has learned well,” says Anka. “My hat’s off to him.” There’s still time for the latest Anka iteration—Bieber. “You’ve gotta realize, none of us were born sophisticated,” he says. “You get lucky at a young age, you have a God-given talent, and you’re crawling and absolutely moaning and learning as you take that voyage in life. C’mon. You can’t tell a kid who just got a cheque for $150 million. I don’t care how smart he is.”