04 June 2007

Paul Anka

Singer, songwriter, master craftsman

While preparing material for ABC’s coverage of New Year’s Eve 1999, I wound up learning a lot about Las Vegas and some of the people who have made that town so weird and wonderful. Some of the biggest surprises came from Paul Anka, whom I knew only as a singer, and whose singing I knew but little — and took for granted. But Anka is not only a singer but songwriter, a true craftsman of pop music, and many of his songs are anything but forgettable. He’s also a remarkably nice, unaffected guy. Kinda makes you wonder how he managed to get along with Frank Sinatra.

When Anka showed up at the ABC trailer, on the banks of the lake at the Belaggio hotel, I introduced myself and told him (not too left-handedly, I hope) that the more I learned about him, the more I admired him. “So many songs I know turn out to be by you!” I said, unable to disguise the excitement of my discovery. “I mean, you wrote ‘Put Your Head on My Shoulder’! For Annette Funicello!”*

“‘Puppy Love,’ too,” Anka said. “I wrote that one for Annette, too.”

The two dated when they were young, but it was no publicity-stunt match-up between teen idols. Theirs was an enduring bond. Anka told me that Funicello, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis many years ago, lives in relative seclusion now. “I still call her every week,” he said, without wistfulness or pity, or pride in his generosity, or any of those things that might have colored his tone. Their friendship is so much a part of him that it didn’t require embellishment. “She’s just great.”

Maybe they did call it “Puppy Love,” but it sure has lasted.

And when I got back to New York, I made a fresh discovery. As a girl growing up in Toronto, Teresa Stratas was at exactly the right age and exactly the right place to be a serious Paul Anka fan — even though his family is Turkish and her family is Greek. I think she had a little bit of a crush on him, too.
* I can’t get rid of this mental image of Annette’s trying to put her head on Paul’s shoulder — but those darned Mouse ears keep getting in the way.