CFRA 75: Paul Anka reflects on Ottawa, CFRA, and stardom

Canadian singer-songwriter Paul Anka, an Ottawa native, is one of the most famous people to grace CFRA's airwaves, and his career started when he was just a teenager.

Anka's hit ‘Diana,’ recorded when he was 15 years old, rocketed to the top of the charts in Canada, the U.S. and around the world, and CFRA was there.

Anka, now 80, spoke with CFRA's Bill Carroll about his memories of growing up in Ottawa, listening to CFRA, and about where his music career took him over the years.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Bill Carroll: Where to start with Paul Anka and your long career? It's the 75th anniversary of CFRA. I thought I'd ask you if you have any memories of your teenage years in Ottawa? I just want to know what this city was like in the '50s. Was it all greased hair and cars with big wings on them and convertibles and people singing doo-wop music? What's your memory of Ottawa back then like?

Paul Anka: It was partially that, knowing that the influence of the music and everything came from the United States at that point, back in the '50s. We were in the shadow of the big elephant of the U.S. and the music that I was listening to came from about three different areas: east coast New York, maybe a little from the south and certainly Los Angeles.

Ottawa itself was a small town, a couple-hundred thousand people. Very cool growing up. A lot of memories of being under snow for a large amount of the time. The music influence was CFRA and then there was another station, I forget the name of it, but my friend was Gord Atkinson—who later became a friend, but who I listened to a great deal—and the memories were very cool.

It was growing up in a very structured environment. I tried to excel in all of that as a young kid, going to school. I remember I wanted to be a writer. I won some awards for my short stories, took a lot of typing lessons, shorthand, which I hated, so they put me into music.

The environment in Ottawa was small-town kind of attitude, very provincial, but nice people, good friends, and in the midst of it, I was trying to get a career out. I remember going down to CFRA and making some of my first demos back then, tapes of songs I started to write. Then I got a lot of local support when I had a group called Bobby Soxers, which Gord Atkinson started to support me on.

And the town was a friendly town. I always liked to get back to Ottawa because the sense of family and the sense of closeness was very, very cool.

The doo-wop music, there was touches of it. The Canadian vocal groups kind of dominated. They would copy all of the Black experience, which prevailed back then as it does today. All the music we listen to, all the culture-driven music, has been the Black experience and Ottawa got the fringes of that and that's how I got turned onto it all, by listening and buying records, et cetera, going to school dances and hanging out and just doing things that you do in a very small town.

BC: We still both grew up in the era where radio was huge. It’s hard to explain to a kid today who has social media and so many streaming services how much gathering around the radio and listening to the radio was such a big deal. Those radio announcers were big stars then.

PA: When you look at the complexion of the music industry back then, it was in its infancy stage, but it was all driven by radio. It was Alan Freed in New York, it was a guy in Chicago, there was a guy in L.A., and these guys could break a record in about three days until Dick Clark came along and television started to evolve.

But radio is what you listened to from your car all day long and we had a few guys that were top personalities, which Gord Atkinson was, but once you got down to the United States, you realized these DJs were it. You had get pretty friendly with them and they broke your records. It was a music industry unlike today, where it's drastically changed—you know, the streaming and there's different dynamics now that are really creating what we're hearing today. Back then, it was go in, make it, put it on an acetate and the DJ would break it for you, if you had the possibility of being an artist.

BC: I used to get so excited when those weekly charts came out. CFRA did it, CHUM in Toronto did it. It was so exciting to see where your favourite song was on the Top 40.

PA: Well, that's how it evolved. From that, trade papers, but you're absolutely right. Every station had a lot of power and they would issue these Top 10 lists. I just wanted to get out of there to make a break. I knew I had to leave because Ottawa and even Canada, even if there was a trifle of a music industry, it was really dictated by what was down south. Once I got to New York, got lucky, and got my break, then I saw the full picture of what was going on. Radio was it.

BC: Did you listen to late-night radio? When the sun goes down, AM radio travels farther. Did you tune in to Boston and New York and try to hear what was going on from Ottawa?

PA: I tried to. I could pick up a DJ out of Buffalo by the name of ‘Hound Dog.’ His name was George Lorenz. I tried to pick up a lot of radio. Radio was it. Radio was just what it was. That's where you got the full stroke of everything.

BC: Which radio station to you first remember hearing a Paul Anka song?

PA: Wow. I think the first time, I was in New York, recorded in May, the song came out, and I think it was on WINS Radio, WINS in New York. Then I came back to Canada and then I heard it on one of the Ottawa stations. I could very well have been Gord Atkinson because he was out front and centre then at that point. I know it was WINS Radio in New York and maybe CFRA when I got home. It was CKOY and CFRA, the two stations that I listened to in Ottawa.

BC: Did you ever get that experience to come home to Ottawa and be a star back then or did that happen years later?

PA: No, that happened pretty quickly. I think within the first six months. You have to realize, when you'd record in the '50s, unlike today—I defy anyone to tell me what the hits are; it's just so eclectic and so different and nobody knows anything that’s going on, other than the obvious artists—but back then, it was immediate. You felt that stardom, if you will. I'm against all the images of idols and that stuff, but I knew right away my life had changed. The impact, I felt within three weeks because ‘Diana’ just flew; it was number one everywhere. When I got home, it was the parade and all the attention and all that stuff was just levied on me. The clarity of it back then was right in your face. I knew my life had changed. You had to stay cool.

It's really hard to explain it to a lot of young artists that I work with. They have no idea what it was like back then or what that journey was. Most artists from back then, or even today, they're not born sophisticated. Most successful people in this county aren't. They get lucky with something and they have all this success they have to deal with, like I did in the '50s, and you're crawling along this journey, trying to keep yourself straight and deal with it because there's nothing like the impact of the celebrity dynamic that can just turn your head around.

BC: You did all of that without the help of Canadian content regulations, right? You were on your own.

PA: Yeah, that's right. I just keep on keepin' on. Every decade I've had some kind of success, right up to ‘Rock Swings’ and all the Michael Jackson stuff. It was just, you know, writing and continuing to look forward, as opposed to behind me.

Right now, I'm in the middle of a documentary and I have a new album coming out. The documentary is quite intensive and got a lot of content to it and that's going to tell the whole story. I'm in the middle of tours and albums and that stuff, so I'm still doing what I did years ago, but it's selective, the way I want it and how I want it, as opposed to being told what I had to do back then.

The ‘Having My Baby’ period was, I guess, my next evolution after ‘She's a Lady’ for Tom Jones and ‘My Way’ and all that stuff. So, I said, ‘I'd better sit down and write something for myself.’ That was an interesting period, the '70s. Of course, from the '80s and '90s, as soon as rap hit, all the urban everything, all the great rock bands that I loved, they disappeared, so we no longer have really what we had back then.

But it's been great. I'm playing with the house's money. I'm still doing what I love and still my number one occupation in this crazy world is my health. As long as I keep that going, I'm going to do my tours in June, go to Europe in July, and I'll be up in Canada in I think October-November. I get back to Canada. I make sure I get back.

BC: Can I ask you one last thing before you go? You wrote the lyrics to 'My Way' and when I think about the number of times I've heard that played at people's funerals, you obviously touched a nerve about how people want to live their life. You were a very young man when you wrote that song, so you had a lot of insight that's touched people as a way to define their entire life. So, I just wanted to ask you where those lyrics came from at that time. You captured something so important. Were you already aware that that's what life was going to be about for you?

PA: Well, I was 26. You have to realize I started in that industry when I was 15. I was the youngest to land in Vegas, to be successful. The meaning of that and the point of that is I was around a lot of people twice my age. I was around the entertainment capital of the world, which I guess it's become again. I was with a lot of really intelligent people. I think I had my finger on the pulse. I was learning what my trade was about around, you know, Mafia people, the Rat Pack, Sinatra. I read a lot. I graduated high school, but my whole thing was to educate myself. So, I was always on somewhat of the pulse of what was happening, but being around Sinatra, and Sammy Davis and Dean Martin, but mostly Sammy and Frank, I really had an insight into what was happening and the whole evolution of ego and narcissism. Even though it isn't what it is today, you could sense it. And then, the honesty of people who were trying to survive, who were doing things their way, the motivating factor to me was always the instrument of what was going to happen with my music. I was really motivated by all the time I spent with Sinatra. He would constantly give me a lot of input about things. I, like many others, was very impressed with him and I was the only one that was the writer, so I was constantly writing, even when days were lean.

But one day in Florida he had told me at dinner that he was quitting show business and no longer wanted to partake in what was happening. Rat Pack was over and he just said, ‘I'm out of here and you never wrote me a song,’ and I was always very intimidated because I knew he hated pop music. He was more into the American standards, which he established. So I just took away from that dinner that he was going to record with my producer Don Costa—one of the great albums called ‘Sinatra and Strings’—and I just went away from it, went back to New York where I was living, and saying, ‘God, this guy ain't going to be around anymore. One more album and that's it. This is my shot.’

I watched him do things his way. I was always around people that were that ‘A’ personality that were doing things their way and I was in touch with a lot of people who I felt were surviving and doing it their way, so it all kind of manifested itself.

I just started writing: what would Sinatra write if he were writing these words?

I think the whole writing process, people have to understand, I think it's a gift. I think it's spiritual, in some cases, because sometimes I don't know where it's coming from. I feel it going through me, but I have to feel there's something larger going on because when these ideas come to you, you're saying ‘this is it.’ To tell you exactly where it came from, I can't, but I can tell you the inspiration of knowing that this was my last shot. That really motivated me. Within five hours, I had it done and I called him in Las Vegas, Nevada, where he was working, and I said, ‘Sir, I've got something I think you'll like.’ He said, ‘Bring it out.’ Next night, I'm in his dressing room playing it and I could tell by his reaction that he liked it. Two or three months later, I got the phone call from the record studio in Los Angeles and they said ‘Frank Sinatra calling from studio A,’ or whatever. He said, ‘Kid, listen to this.’ And he played ‘My Way’ for the first time over the phone while I'm in my apartment in New York and I started to cry.

Right there, everything kind of changed for me. Even though I had what I felt was evolving content in the way I was writing and learning my craft from the early '60s, I'd never quite written anything like that. Everything I'd sensed, being on the pulse of what was going on, not any different from ‘Having My Baby,’ I said, ‘Wow, this is a moment for me and I've got something very special.’

And, yeah, it's evolved. It has meaning for a lot of people. I guess what the proper assessment of it is, what it means, or how accurate, that's kind of up to the individual, I guess. That good friend of mine, Warren Buffett, he and I go sing ‘My Way’ at certain private parties and for special people and it's gotten to the point where he's going to have it played at his funeral. I said, ‘Warren, you should sing it.’ And I took him into a studio with an orchestra and he's singing ‘My Way’ and it's sitting right there with him and he plays it every day, and it means a lot to him. He's certainly done it his way. The fact that it's moved a lot of people, who am I to judge what that is? I think all of us in today's society and where we are at, it's healthy but it's unhealthy. I think the malignant narcissist in our society today is not helping things and I guess ‘My Way’ isn't helping it either (laughs) if they embrace it…

BC: I just love that you started listening to CFRA 75 years ago and you were responsible for a lot of airtime being filled by a lot of great songs, so thank you.

PA: Well, they were responsible for getting all of my songs out there, so I guess it's a two-way street, isn't it?

All my love and thoughts to everyone in Ottawa. Hope to get up there one day but, until then, you've still got a place in my heart because it all started there. Still Canadian and it's kind of an important vibe in my body and love to all of you.