When I wrote “Lonely Boy,” that wasn’t some clever notion I’d come up with—that was me. I’d left my family and friends behind in Canada and suddenly I was out on the road, performing in front of thousands of people. I was envious of the camaraderie, the pranks, the dirty jokes, and the silly games of my contemporaries back home. As corny as it sounds, deep down I really was a lonely teenager— because, invariably, I was alone. I was out there singing, and I’d see teenagers together at those dances. It looked like another world, a movie, almost. That kind of romance wasn’t possible, living on the road. Sex, however, was another matter.
I’d always thought if only I could make it in the music business, everything would be perfect, but ever since “Diana” hit, my life was just more working and touring and writing. The tour bus was my home. You knew everyone and they became your family. Especially at my age, you take family wherever you find it. But, even as sibling rivalries go, it was a pretty competitive family. You’d wonder who was going to have the next hit and who wasn’t. In 1958, five of my songs became hit singles: “You Are My Destiny,” “Crazy Love,” “Let the Bells Keep Ringing,” “Midnight,” and “(All of a Sudden) My Heart Sings.” It was all happening so fast. When I came down from Ottawa, Canada, here I was sharing charts with The Everly Brothers and started touring. I remember the hula hoop being huge that year.
In 1959, I met Bobby Darin for the first time. I thought to myself, “Gee, I’m really touring big-time now!” “Mack the Knife” came out in August and I tried to bump it off with “Put Your Head on My Shoulder,” which hit in September; in November, “It’s Time to Cry” came out. Frankie Avalon had one of his biggest hits, “Venus,” in 1959. I had four hits that year—and “Lonely Boy” got featured in the movie Girls Town with Mamie Van Doren. Big year—four songs in the Top 100. I got friendly with Lloyd Price who had a hit with “Stagger Lee,” produced by Don Costa on ABC-Paramount where I was recording. Originally a morbid tale of a murderer by that name, Dick Clark thought the lyrics were too dark and made him change them. It was at ABC where I first met Carole King—you could see right away she was going places, that’s how talented she was.
Things were good, but then things changed. They always do. After the plane crash in February 1959 that killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper, the road just wasn’t the same anymore. When you’re very young and something like that happens, everything seems to come to a standstill. It was strange, very strange. Time really seemed to just stop, Buddy’s death left a big hole in my life, an enormous silence.
That was when I started touring less and doing more television—Ed Sullivan’s Toast of the Town, The Perry Como Show. I pretty much be- came a regular on The Dick Clark Show and Dick Clark’s Saturday Night, and, of course, American Bandstand, which was just getting off the ground. It was based out of Philadelphia, and was all the rage on weekday after- noons, not only because of the music, but also the personalities, the romances, who was dancing with whom. A cross between a reality show and a soap opera, kids felt they had to keep up on a daily basis. I wasn’t that much older than they were.
The whole key to doing those shows was faking it. The first thing you had to learn was how to lip-synch. They emphasized—and overemphasize—that you needed to get it down flawlessly or you’d end up looking like a dope. We were all very conscious of the fact that if you messed up you looked like a badly dubbed foreign movie—your lips are moving but no sound comes out. There was no live band so you had to rehearse—with yourself. You’d practice in the mirror, see if you could pull it off, catch yourself fluffing the line.
Of course, there were the inevitable “technical hitches.” One time when I was on American Bandstand, we were live, and I was singing “Diana” when, in the middle of the chorus, the record stuck. I was left standing there just repeating the words “Oh my darlin’, oh my darlin’, oh my darlin’, oh my darlin’,” until finally, I just started fucking laugh- ing and that was that. They just shut the record off. Kids watching prob- ably had no idea what had just happened. And it certainly didn’t become a scandal, like it did for poor Ashlee Simpson on Saturday Night Live.
We all dreaded going on these shows. You did it one way in a studio and then you had to mimic it syllable for syllable on the pop music cir- cuit. You’d do it over and over again—exactly the same as on your rec- ord—at all these record hops, so it seemed like you’d been doing it forever. I don’t remember how good any of us were at it, but lip- synching was the key. Getting on any of these local bandstand shows— that would make or break you.
A little later Dick Clark developed his local clique, Frankie Avalon and Fabian and that whole Philadelphia gang. But, of course, eventu- ally Mr. Squeaky Clean was brought up on payola charges.
That was like a big shock for all of us because, you know, every- thing was supposedly so honest and innocent back then—most of all Dick Clark himself, who projected this wholesome image, and sud- denly his name comes up in connection with this squalid “pay-for- play” business.
I remember Congress announcing their intention to hold hearings over payola in November 1959. It hit us like a bolt of lightning.
But why should I be surprised? When I joined ABC and began to have hits, they were making so much dough—most of it from my hit records—that they used to take bags of money out on an airplane to L.A. just to keep the television branch of ABC going. It was just get- ting started and they needed money to to keep it operating. Everything was so casual, nothing was computerized, money was flying out of teenagers’ pockets and into the coffers of the record companies and radio stations—and into the hands of the mob, too, since they controlled the jukeboxes and the clubs we performed in.
In those early years—we’re talking 1959 and 1960—I was making mad money, more than a million dollars a year, which some reporter figured out was equal to the combined salaries of the president and vice president of the United States and half the U.S. Senate—and I wasn’t even old enough to vote yet.
When American Bandstand first took off there was a lot of hanky- panky going on between the deejays and the guys promoting the rec- ords, lots of money changing hands to get air time for their records. That’s what payola was—paying to get your record played. We were just clueless young artists—what did we know? Our songs were be- coming hits and then we started hearing the word “payola,” and all the rumors about who was paying who to plug your record.
In the beginning music publishers and songwriters used to walk around with music sheets; they’d sit at a piano and plug a song—that’s years and years ago—but this eventually gave way in the late ’50s to the new wave of promotion guys. They were called “promo men,” guys who would be hired by the record companies to go around and pay off disc jockeys.
It was a common business practice but eventually people started questioning it because these disc jockeys also happened to be in the publishing business themselves. They frequently got writing credit on records they had nothing to do with, and they often had a piece of a record company, too. There was definitely a conflict of interest there, but everybody would turn a blind eye and say, “Hey, what can you do, y’know? That’s just the way it is.” Still, it was a dirty business. No respectable businessman would run his company like that. But for the record companies payola was a very useful tool—you could just buy yourself a hot record. What a racket!
It really got out of hand by the late ’50s. By then, there were squads of these promo men, like the guy The Stones make fun of on “The Under Assistant West Coast Promotion Man.” These were slick guys who plugged records, which at that time simply meant paying off these disc jockeys. You’d go into the men’s room and right out in the open there’d be promo guys handing over huge envelopes stuffed with cash. I don’t know how deep Dick Clark was into all this—he went on de- nying it, but the evidence kept piling up and so did the rumors.
Dick Clark used all kinds of rationales to justify his participation in it. One day Leonard Goldenson, the head of ABC, brought him into the office and, you know, really grilled him and what they found out was that he’d been given the publishing—I think all or part of it—to my record, “Don’t Gamble with Love” as a payoff for getting me on American Bandstand.
I was just a kid, so what did I care? They gave me three hundred bucks a week—I was in heaven, you know? I was just writing away on a record contract and when Congress started asking questions of all these people, it all came out in public that they’d given Dick Clark a piece of my publishing.
But Dick Clark was never indicted because the stuff that went on wasn’t, strictly speaking, illegal, but still it was definitely frowned upon. So even though they tried to nail him on it and there was a lot of bad publicity, they really couldn’t do anything. Nevertheless, for Mr. Clean-Cut Dick Clark, it was a really big, big deal, and it went on for some time. I know they dragged his producer, Tony Mammarella, down to Washington for sessions with the subcommittee. They brought him down to D.C., and he started naming names and telling about the money that had changed hands—he admitted to it all. And they brought in other people, too. Dave Maynard and a guy named Norm Prescott— these were all disc jockeys—and they started spilling the beans. They’d say stuff like, “If you played a new song, you’d get a thousand bucks right there on the spot, and then if you got it into the charts they’d give you another ten thousand bucks.” Those were huge amounts of money back then and people were outraged. It just boggled the mind to think that these hit songs were fixed. So right away you knew they had to find a fall guy.
That’s where Alan Freed comes in. Freed was a revolutionary deejay and rock impresario who did more than anyone to promote rock ’n’ roll. He plugged all the R&B artists and really changed the scene; never- theless, he was the guy who got crucified in all of this. He was indicted in 1962 on two counts of what they called “commercial bribery” and was fined $300, which wasn’t much of a punishment money-wise, but it was all they could do. It was the resulting public disgrace that exacted the real price, though, and led to his downfall. He was blackballed by the industry, and lost everything—his livelihood, his self-respect. He was made the scapegoat for the whole thing. Everybody had a hand in the pot, but Alan was the one who was made to pay. He was a nice guy and a true rock visionary, but for some reason they just had it in for him. Within a year or two of those hearings he was ruined, and a year after that, on Lyndon Johnson’s inauguration day, January 20, 1965, he was dead.
Okay, what now? Here I was, a bona fide teen idol, but I knew that wasn’t going to be enough. A lot of us had a good run as teen singers in the fifties, but we weren’t going to be teenagers forever. Those of us who wanted to survive knew we had to do something else to prove ourselves. It’s the law of pop music: ever y three years you have to reinvent yourself. After you’ve done that a few times, you get to stick around.
Irv, thank God, was just such an astute, resourceful manager. After I’d had a few hit records he knew I was going places, but he also knew I was going to make mistakes, right? So he figured, let Paul Anka fail out of town. It was a way to test the waters for my new songs. If they hit there, bring them back to the big city. It was a brilliant formula.
I’d always had this attraction to the Rat Pack, Sinatra and those guys. I wanted to wind up like them. So when I told him what I wanted to do, he came up with an ingenious plan to take this teen idol kid, smooth out the rough spots, put me in a tux, and transform me into a performer who could become an attraction for adult audiences— get me headlining at night clubs like the Copacabana in New York. His first move was to get me to record an album called My Heart Sings, which featured old standards like “Autumn Leaves” and “I Love Paris,” and included only one of my so-called teen songs. I also did a big band album, Paul Anka Swings for Young Lovers and later on a live LP, Anka at the Copa.
In 1958, Irv Feld made a deal for me to open for Sophie Tucker at the Sahara. At that time I was riding the crest of all my teenage success. There I was in Vegas, long before The Beatles set foot in the States. So when they did come, I already knew where I was going. I wasn’t go- ing to get blown out of the water like all my other soft-pop contem- poraries.
So I opened for Sophie Tucker at the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas. I had finally made it to the fabled land of the Rat Pack. When I showed up in Vegas I was way ahead of myself. I was the youngest headliner ever. Wayne Newton came out much later doing his 1963 hit, “Danke Schoen,” becoming a Vegas fixture. I was different, not only in that I wrote my own songs, but I’d taken the time to become a polished cabaret act. Because I was underage and I wasn’t allowed in the casino, they would bring me into the hotel through the back door.
I did about twenty-five minutes opening for Sophie Tucker. There were a lot of families in Vegas, their kids listened to the radio and watched American Bandstand, so they knew me, and, all of a sudden, they’ve got five hundred kids in a showroom at a Sophie Tucker con- cert going nuts. I wasn’t even on stage yet when this huge hooting- screaming-whistling barrage of noise came on. Then you’ve got Sophie Tucker coming on and going “Some of these days, mama can I have another, uh, banana split, mama” or whatever the words were. The kids started screaming as soon as she came on. She was a trouper, nothing fazed Sophie, she was like a great old battleship, but in the end it was too unsettling for her, they were driving her nuts. She was a grande old dame, and after opening night she asked me to close the show for her. She just said, “My boy, I hope that you could come on after me so that I don’t get pelted with spitballs.” Funny lady.
She was this very big imposing aunt of a woman—Paul McCartney once referred to her as “Our favorite American group, Sophie Tucker.” She was like the lady next door yet had a good strong sense of who she was. She had her game down. She was a legend who had so many years of being a success, she was like a singing Statue of Liberty.
She was great to work with. I used to hang with her after the show. She’d sit in her big robe and sign autographs and meet people back- stage. I held the cigar box she put the money in. But she wasn’t any- body to hang out with really. She was like ninety-two—born in tsarist Russia in another century. We didn’t have all that much in common. The girls I was going to bed with were just a bit younger and a lot skinnier.
My bringing soft, preachified rock ’n’ roll to Vegas helped business and I started getting invited back. Rock ’n’ roll, even preachified rock’n’ roll, was not the kind of music Vegas favored but, after all, money was money, numbers were numbers.
At first I was so young I wasn’t allowed into the casinos other than to walk the halls, stay in the room, etc. I loved entertaining, I loved meeting people, but, initially I didn’t—wasn’t allowed to—socialize. Basically I hid in my room. The irony being that I was headlining, fill- ing a show room, and yet not allowed to go near a casino because I was underage. So I would look through the outside window, go back to my suite, and watch television, or I’d stay in my room and write songs. Lonely boy in Sin City.
That was really the beginning of my other career. Meanwhile, the whole teen idol thing, once thought to be a passing phase, was getting a lot of mainstream attention. The music business had gotten behind it and suddenly there was this huge “teen market” that hadn’t existed before. But there was I, just trying my damndest to get away from it. For a while I had a foot in both worlds, but I knew which one I wanted to follow.
Then Irv Feld carefully arranged the perfect setting for my night- club debut—the first time I would appear in a show not designed spe- cifically for teenagers. It was a big step. New Year’s Day, 1959. On that day, Paul Anka’s second incarnation began.
There was a lot riding on this move, so Irv next cleverly booked me at the Lotus Club in Washington, D.C. It was his hometown and as he put it, “I could paper the joint with friends and celebrities who came free and made a lot of noise.” On February 15, the day after Valentine’s Day, I began a weeklong engagement there.
Just a genius move on his part. And true to his prediction, there was a virtual who’s who of music-biz people, deejays, press, and publicists on hand my opening night. And because my nightclub debut was a success there, I got booked into top clubs in Las Vegas, Boston, Phila- delphia, and Buffalo.
Irv Feld and I always felt: hit the clubs, break into Vegas. He wanted me in those places and I wanted to get in there. When I first went out, I saw Johnnie Ray, an old idol for me and all these older guys who took the business in their stride. Eddie Fisher and Nat King Cole were the best-selling artists at the time, playing Vegas and New York. They were all very supportive of me, considering I was just a snot-nosed kid.
Excerpted from My Way: An Autobiography by Paul Anka, David Dalton
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