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A Final Farewell to Newsman Peter Jennings

ABC reporter and anchor Peter Jennings died Sunday at age 67 after a four-month battle with lung cancer. The intrepid journalist had helmed ABC's World News Tonight since 1983. (This interview originally aired Nov. 17, 1998.)

21:51

Other segments from the episode on August 8, 2005

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, August 8, 2005: Obituary for Peter Jennings; Interview with Paul Anka; Interview with Ry Cooder.

Transcript

DATE August 8, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Peter Jennings talks about his life and work
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Even though I knew he had lung cancer, I was stunned and, of course, very sad
when I heard last night that Peter Jennings died. It was only four months ago
that he left his anchor desk at ABC's "World News Tonight" after signing off
by telling us about his illness. September would have marked his 22nd
anniversary as the sole anchor of the program. From 1978 to '83 he served as
the foreign anchor, sharing the anchor duties with Frank Reynolds and Max
Robinson. With Jennings' death comes the end of an era in TV news. Within
the past year, CBS anchor Dan Rather and NBC's Tom Brokaw stepped down.

We're going to listen back to a 1998 interview with Peter Jennings. He had
just co-authored a book chronicling the major events and changes of the 20th
century. I asked him how he'd seen journalism change since the early '60s
when he started working in television.

(Soundbite of interview)

Mr. PETER JENNINGS (Journalist): Technology, I think, has probably changed my
business more in the last 10 or 15 years than it has since the invention of
radio and television, because it has obligated us to work with such speed now
that sometimes we don't even have time to stop and think what we're doing. I
don't think a lot of people necessarily agree with me, but I think that, in
some respects, reporting has been made much more difficult with the advent of
instant technology all over the world.

When I was a young reporter living in the Middle East, I could go to India as
I did, for example, in 1971 to cover the Indo-Pak war and I would go off in
the morning and cover something and then I would take the film and I'd send it
down to Dum Dum Airport at Calcutta and someone would hand-carry it to Bangkok
if I were lucky and then hand-carry it on to Tokyo, where they'd process it
and put it on the satellite to Los Angeles and landline it to California.
That was the process just to get the film back. I could then go on reporting
for another 12 or 14 hours and go to downtown Calcutta and rent a radio
station from--rent a radio studio from All India Radio just like sitting here
today, write my copy with a far greater measure of perspective, I think, than
I would have the opportunity today where I would just simply punch my camera
in or my tape recorder in and just go live. So the perils of going live are
very demanding for reporters.

GROSS: It seems to me the role of the anchor has changed somewhat since you
started in broadcasting. You first stint as an anchor was--was it 1963, '65?

Mr. JENNINGS: No, 1965.

GROSS: 1965.

Mr. JENNINGS: I used to do it in short pants.

GROSS: You mean, 'cause you were so young?

Mr. JENNINGS: Precisely.

GROSS: Right, yeah, you were--What?--26 or something.

Mr. JENNINGS: Not to mention unqualified. Yes, 26.

GROSS: Yeah, that is even by today's standards very young for an anchor.
What was expected of an anchor then that's maybe different from today?

Mr. JENNINGS: Well--when I was--an anchor then was to somehow fit in the
general overall trend of the ABC television audience of the time, which was
young. I think "Gidget" was the number-one show at the time when I was doing
it and I was the youngest guy around that had my hair and my teeth.

Ironically, some things haven't changed. I was expected to write a lot on the
evening news then. I didn't do it very well. The anchor person is, in most
news organizations--in most of the major news organizations now a very senior
editor. And so I'd be one of the two or three senior editors in the whole
news division now, certainly the senior editor on my own broadcast. You're
also expected to do an awful lot of live programming and be available to do an
awful lot of live programming, to anchor, in my case, all of the political
coverage as well. Sometimes the burden, I think, on the anchor person is
rather too much. It sounds a little self-indulgent, but when I got this job
the second time round after having been a foreign correspondent for 20 years,
I thought that I would, you know, read magazines instead of newspapers now and
books instead of magazines. And it's a much more demanding job hour by hour
than I had thought it was going to be because it has so many components to it.

GROSS: Do you write your own copy?

Mr. JENNINGS: I do. On the evening broadcast I either write or rewrite
almost all of it. I do it for a variety of reasons. I do it because it's
very subjective so I'm--if you find someone who writes exactly like you do,
it's pretty unusual. It's a great way to copyedit as well and check for
facts. It's a great way to add perspective if you've had any experience on a
particular issue.

GROSS: I find your copy really very, kind of, clear and concise...

Mr. JENNINGS: It wasn't always thus.

GROSS: ...and direct.

Mr. JENNINGS: It wasn't always thus. Oh, God, I had a producer once many
years ago who gave me a Christmas present on common English usage. I was
just...

GROSS: What was your problem?

Mr. JENNINGS: Well, I was just--I have a terrible--I have a--it may be the
way I speak sometimes. I make for--I would make for lousy soundbites. I tend
to use a lot of inverted phrases and ifs, ands, wherefores and maybes because
rather the way I look at life. And so I find writing the evening news
sometimes very challenging because I realize that what we're trying to give
folks in the evening is black and white when so often I want to give them
gray.

GROSS: I used to live in Buffalo so I recognize the Canadian out (pronounced
oat) and about (pronounced a-boat)...

Mr. JENNINGS: Right.

GROSS: ...which is a little different than the American out and about. And
so I'm wondering when you started anchoring whether you were given any heat
about the kind of Canadian vowels?

Mr. JENNINGS: I was indeed. Mind you I--knowing you're from Buffalo reminds
me that when I grew up in Toronto, we wanted something exciting to do, we went
to Buffalo. Now you grow up in Buffalo...

GROSS: That's right.

Mr. JENNINGS: ...you want something exciting to do, you go to Toronto. When
I came down from Canada in the early 1960s I was--looking back on it I was
incredibly pompous and determined and so I did think I could get away with
saying things like lieutenant (pronounced left-tenant) instead of lieutenant
and been (pronounced bean) instead of been and--but it's pretty difficult
after all those years to change. Outhouse. I've got rid of most of them now,
but as I really am amazed that people put up with me as long as they did in
those early days.

GROSS: Having come from Canada, does it strike you that Canadian and US
culture are much different or very similar?

Mr. JENNINGS: I think they're both very similar in many ways and very
different, I think, in some ways for some people, and to some extent that may
be generational. You know, in the United States we grow up with the notion of
life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. In Canada you grow up to a
greater extent with citizenship, good government and never cross a street
against a red light. I took my son up to a World Series game in Toronto when
the Blue Jays were in the World Series. And we had an awesome evening and the
Blue Jays won and there was quite a lot of beer consumed and we all came out
of the SkyDome in Toronto. And, as I said, a lot of beer had been consumed
and one cop of Front Street put up his hand and we all stopped. And I thought
to myself, `Boy, home again.'

But, yes, I think very different. And I also think that having--and this is
very true about Canadian journalists who come here. Canada is a very large
country with a small population living next door to a large country with an
enormous population which has made such an extraordinary difference in the
world, especially in this century. And so I think the Canadians had a
slightly more refined notion of the value of influence. Americans grow up
with a sense of power, and Canadians are obliged by their state to grow up
with a sense of influence.

GROSS: I'm wondering if there is anything that is common now in television
journalism that violates the rules that you were taught when you were first
coming of age in television journalism?

Mr. JENNINGS: Well, again, I think it depends a lot on your background. I
grew up--my father was a great broadcaster in Canada and I--and one of the
early broadcasters on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, which is
the--which does in Canada--has always done in Canada what NPR does here. He
beat it into my head as a child that you didn't invade people's privacy unless
there was a very demanding reason for it and the demanding reason, for me, is
invariably an impact on public responsibility or one's public job. So the
greatest difficulty job I have in general is invading someone's privacy, have
had my own invaded on more than one occasion. And so I rather wish there was
a way in which we could all draw back somewhat and have, if not--you can't
abandon it, of course--but if--I think if people who did this sort of thing
paused every time they were thinking about invading someone's privacy for
circulation reasons and could have some clear understanding of what impact
that might have on that person's life.

GROSS: Something that I think might have changed since the days you started
in television, I think, it used to be considered a violation of the rules on
television if a reporter was also a news analyst. And now, for instance,
Sunday morning Cokie Roberts and Sam Donaldson are news analysts and freely
give their opinions, but then during the week they're reporting on Congress
and the White House respectively.

Mr. JENNINGS: Well, I...

GROSS: Are you comfortable with that?

Mr. JENNINGS: Well, I think it depends, to be perfectly honest. In some
respects I'm Sam and Cokie's editor on the evening news, and one of the things
that impresses me about both of them is that they are able to work as analysts
and commentators on Sunday and yet I defy the audience to discover where
they're not acting as reporters unless I ask Cokie, for example, to be an
analyst in the course of the week on the evening news. One of the things
that's always impressed me about Sam Donaldson, and I think has impressed
almost everybody he's ever covered, is how fair he is. I think in all of
these instances where reporters are sometimes analysts and, I grant you,
sometimes columnists, the most effective thing the audience can do is to just
bear it in mind. I try to explain to people, you know, that we all have bias.
We all have baggage. I am a white, middle-aged man from the former British
Commonwealth with very little education--very little formal education and some
strong biases about some strong issues. I want people to be aware of those so
that when they watch and listen to what I do, they know where I'm coming from.

I also like people to understand that the bias you see--or you think you hear
and see in journalism is far less prevalent on the air than it is in the
selection process of what we do. I give you one example. I've been very
interested since the beginning of the AIDS crisis in the burden that AIDS is
on the society as a whole. And I was very lucky. I worked on a series for
public television when it was a scare subject. And so I learned a lot thanks
to this program called "The AIDS Quarterly" on which I worked and as a result
I have a very strong notion that AIDS is a national issue and I want to get
past all the bias points. So I'm very happy that people understand that bias
and when they see something on our air about bias--but I think the audience
should think that about everybody, that they should understand that we all
have some baggage and that's OK. We would be very boring people if we didn't
have baggage.

GROSS: We're listening back to a 1998 interview with Peter Jennings. We'll
hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: We're listening back to an interview with Peter Jennings. He died of
lung cancer yesterday. He was 67.

(Soundbite of interview)

GROSS: Now your father was in the news business, I think at the CBC in
Canada.

Mr. JENNINGS: He was.

GROSS: What did he do?

Mr. JENNINGS: He was the first national radio anchorperson or anchorman that
Canadian radio ever had. And so 50 years ago--no, God, no, 60, 70 years
ago--my father was doing the national news on the radio for the Canadian
Broadcasting Corporation coast-to-coast every night, and he did all of the
live broadcasting, too, for the opening of Parliament and great state events.
It--I learned from my father about live broadcasting and I learned a lot from
him. I learned--which I'm not giving a very good example of today--I learned
to let other people talk and silence is to have as much impact. I love, for
example, covering funerals. I learned how to cover a funeral from my father
who used to say to me, `Be sure we hear the horses' hooves.'

GROSS: In other words, stop talking for a while.

Mr. JENNINGS: Stop talking for a while and let the--let people hear the gun
carriage go by.

GROSS: Well, what you did early on in 1965 was to anchor for ABC, as you
said, at the age of 26. This was after Frank Reynolds' death. I think you
were opposite Cronkite and Huntley and Brinkley?

Mr. JENNINGS: Mm-hmm. I was at lunch once with Chet and David. Chet, as you
know, is dead now. Walter Cronkite is still a good friend, had been immensely
kind to me when I'd come down from Canada. We went to a lunch here in New
York, Chet Huntley and Walter Cronkite and a young Peter Jennings, and some
man stood up in the audience and said, `You know, you guys--just like you--you
guys are just in show business.' And Brinkley drew himself up to his
haughtiest height and said, `Excuse me, the only concession I make to show
business is on the way to the studio I stop in the makeup room and I have
these bags under my eyes painted out.' And Cronkite piped in, `Yes, and
Jennings stops in and has 'em painted on.' That's how young I was.

GROSS: Did you feel very uncomfortable? Did you feel like you were, like,
the young, handsome guy who was cast in this position because he was young and
handsome?

Mr. JENNINGS: Well, I did it for three years. For the first two years I was
too stupid to feel awkward about it, which meant I was probably too
full-headed. And by about the end of the second year just before the
Arab-Israeli War broke out in 1967 I realized enough, already. I hated it. I
went off to the Middle East at the end of the 1967 war and came back to my
employers and said, `That's enough. I want out of here.' And they said,
`Yes,' very eagerly, I realized. I think that it would have been only a
matter of time before they'd have fired me and off I went. And I never
thought I'd come back. I never thought I would anchor again 'cause I was so
happy for the intervening 20 years.

GROSS: One of the things you did as a foreign correspondent was you opened
the Beirut bureau, which was the first ABC bureau in an Arab country. And you
were there for, I think, seven years?

Mr. JENNINGS: Six years.

GROSS: Tell me why ABC opened a bureau there at the time.

Mr. JENNINGS: Well, I think we were very self-conscious at the end of the
1967 war that the press corps had rather cheered for the Israelis and got to
the end of the war and realized that there hadn't been much coverage from the
other side. The only person we had on the other side of any significance was
Charles P. Arnot, wonderful foreign correspondent who died just a few months
ago in Arizona. And he'd been in Cairo and the Egyptians had put him on a
train, sent him to Alexandria and before he knew it he was on a Greek island.
And I think the people felt that the whole region was not being covered with
as much balance or as--interest as we might have because the region, as you
know, after 1967 got very, very interesting.

And so I was living in Rome going back and forth and they said, `We'd like you
to go and live in Beirut.' I said, `No, I live in Rome.' And they said,
`We'd like you to go live in Beirut.' And I said,`Excuse me. You don't
understand me. I live in Rome--Roma,' and was having an awesome time. But
when they said it the third time I said yes, quite, and I went and lived in
Beirut and, of course, turned out to be even better than Rome. But I had as
my responsibility for all those years everything east of the Mediterranean,
all the way to India, and at India the Hong Kong correspondent picked up. So
I had all of the Arab world. I had the territories that were occupied by
Israel. I had Greece and I had Cyprus and occasionally Turkey. I had Iran
and Afghanistan and Pakistan. I mean, I was--thought I'd died and gone to
heaven.

GROSS: Well, one of your colleagues, Charles Glass, was kidnapped in Beirut,
and I think you were anchoring the news at that time and probably you were
anchoring when the footage was played of him making a kind of forced
confession, I think about--What?--being tied to the CIA or something, which...

Mr. JENNINGS: Mm-hmm. No, Charlie was here...

GROSS: ...he wasn't.

Mr. JENNINGS: Yeah, Charlie was here the other day. He's more than a
colleague of mine. I trained him. I took him to India as a soundman. I'll
never forget he used to carry the microphones in his socks. We'd get in front
of some very important person we have to interview and there'd be Charlie
shaking out his socks so that the microphones would fall out onto the floor.
So he was much more. Indeed, he was kidnapped in Lebanon in the process of
writing a book. And he'd planned to write a book about going from the
Syrian-Iraqi border--or Syrian-Turkish border down into Egypt. And writing a
wond--which he wrote a very good book called "Tribes With Flags." But he got
interrupted when he was kidnapped in Lebanon. And I was on the air here doing
the stock market crash--or the stock market Black Tuesday--and suddenly
somebody put on the air this picture of Charlie confessing to being a CIA
agent, and it just--it's one of the few times I ever lost it on television.
It was tough.

GROSS: How much did you lose it?

Mr. JENNINGS: Enough to have to apologize to the audience minutes later.

GROSS: Were you seeing this footage for the first time?

Mr. JENNINGS: I was seeing it for the first time. It was the producer's
mistake in some respects. Somebody should have told me it was in the house
and we could have looked at it in a break. But they didn't. They rushed to
get it on the air and so I saw it cold for the very first time. It was very
hard.

GROSS: What were you seeing?

Mr. JENNINGS: Charlie, Charlie sitting there looking like hell admitting that
he was a CIA agent. And I could see--I could--I knew the situation so well I
could just see the guys standing just off-camera, just out of frame, you know,
with their AK-47s or whatever pointed at him. Yeah, it was very tough.

GROSS: I imagine that there have been other times when you've been anchoring
live news coverage of something and a story has broken that has been greatly
shocking and you were kind of narrating the story as it happens. Yes?

Mr. JENNINGS: Yeah, I--I don't want to portray myself as being cold-blooded,
but I--indeed I've had other times. I remember when Ronald Reagan went down
to the memorial service for the Challenger families after the Challenger
disaster. And he went to Houston and President Reagan, as you know, who had
this extraordinary capacity to comfort people--Bill Clinton has some of the
same--but Ronald Reagan could hold a mother in his arms, albeit briefly, and
you could feel the comfort oozing out of him, not only for the individual but
for the country. And in the background the--whatever band was playing the
Navy hymn--and I just thought that was too much for me.

But in the main--in the main, I've always felt very strongly, was trained to
believe that expressions of emotion other than happiness--happiness has always
seemed to be an acceptable mood to communicate--I never thought it was my job
to have other people know precisely how I was feeling about anything on the
air. They have enough trouble dealing with their own feelings.

GROSS: When is happiness OK?

Mr. JENNINGS: Well, I think...

GROSS: What kind of story are you thinking of?

Mr. JENNINGS: Yeah, I think at the end of the news if a piece--if a story
that we've done is clearly funny or if I can feel people--or if I've written a
closing item to the broadcast and people around me smile, I think it's OK for
me to smile. I just don't think it's--I think that crying on television is a
bit demeaning to everybody, but mostly to the audience.

GROSS: One last question: When you first anchored the news in '65, was there
anything that was different about the nature of stories--their length, their
content, what qualified as an appropriate news story--compared to now in 1998?

Mr. JENNINGS: Oh, no, I think if you go back and look at those days--I
occasionally hear my friend Don Hewitt at CBS, from whom I learned a lot,
railing about the old days. If you go back and look at a newscast from the
1960s or the '70s or even the early '80s and compare on a good day to what we
do today, we're doing an infinitely better job today. Our techniques are
better. Our reporters are much more specialized today than they were 25 years
ago. The ability to communicate a story is vastly greater. The--you know,
people used to laugh at us for the graphics innovations of the news programs.
But, in fact, graphics have enabled us to communicate much more complicated
stories. If you watch--we do a series on "World News Tonight"--John McKenzie,
one of our medical reporters, do some of the most avant-garde medical
reporting there is on television. They could never do it without graphics,
but because we now have the computer-age graphics that we do, it's totally
easy to understand stem cells and how they work and DNA. And that would never
have happened 20-some-odd years ago.

GROSS: Well, Peter Jennings, I want to thank you very much for talking with
us.

Mr. JENNINGS: Thank you, Terry, very much. Thank you for giving us the time.

GROSS: Peter Jennings recorded in 1998. He died of lung cancer yesterday.
He was 67.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: Coming up, Paul Anka talks about his years as a teen idol in the late
'50s and early '60s, and we talk about his latest CD featuring swing versions
of rock hits of the '80s and '90s by groups like Nirvana and R.E.M. Also, we
remember Ibrahim Ferrer, the Cuban singer rediscovered by Ry Cooder as part of
The Buena Vista Social Club project. Ferrer died Saturday at the age of 78.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Paul Anka discusses his career and his new CD
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Paul Anka was a teen idol in the late '50s and early '60s. He wrote most of
his hit songs like "Diana," "You Are My Destiny," "Put Your Head On My
Shoulder" and "Puppy Love." After outgrowing the teen idol identity, he wrote
the song that became Frank Sinatra's anthem, "My Way." And at Johnny Carson's
request, Anka wrote the theme for "The Tonight Show." He returned to the top
of the charts in 1974 with the hit "(You're) Having My Baby." Now Anka is
making a comeback doing other people's songs, songs few people expected he'd
even care about. His CD "Rock Swings" features swing versions of rock songs
from the '80s and '90s by bands like Nirvana, R.E.M., the Pet Shop Boys and
Van Halen. "Rock Swings" debuted at number two on Billboard's jazz chart.
Here's Anka's version of Bon Jovi's "It's My Life."

(Soundbite of "It's My Life")

Mr. PAUL ANKA: (Singing) This ain't a song for the broken-hearted. Silent
prayer for the dear departed. I ain't gonna be just a face in the crowd.
You're gonna hear my voice. I'll shout it out loud. It's my life, and it's
now or never. Ain't gonna live forever. I just want to live while I'm alive.
It's my life. My heart's an open highway. Frank said it, I did it my way.
Just want to live while I'm alive. It's my life.

GROSS: That's Paul Anka from his new CD "Rock Swings."

Paul Anka, welcome to FRESH AIR. Why did you want to cover songs from the
'80s and '90s? That's, like, not your period.

Mr. ANKA: Very simple, actually. And I don't know that they're covers in the
true terminology. A cover record, from whence I came in the '50s, is to
pretty much emulate another record. All songs out there, whether they be from
the '40s or '50s or of standard quality or whatever, you know, they're all
fair game in terms of re-records. I've done the old standard route for many,
many, many years. I realized that there was a window out there for swing
music. And when the record company came to me to do a swing album, I said,
`Well, you know, certainly I'm indigenous to that world. I hung around
Sinatra and all those arrangers. I grew up with those people. But it's
somewhat been done to death. And you have a young cult of guys doing it who
probably don't even understand it but it just seems to be the thing to do.' I
said, `There's some real great music from some great bands and some great
artists from the '80s and the '90s. And that demographic have grown up. And
I think that a hit is a hit, a good song is a good song. And I don't think
that we should pigeonhole music.' And I said, `Within my mind's eye as a
musician and a songwriter, there are some songs out there.' So I went in and
recorded it, and it evolved, and it worked out.

GROSS: Now I'm a big Sinatra fan. I really love so many of Sinatra's
recordings.

Mr. ANKA: So am I.

GROSS: Yeah, well, I knew that. But one of the Sinatra recordings I don't
love is "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown." You know, I think sometimes when Sinatra went
into rock, it didn't quite work. Though the truth is, I don't like the
original of "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown," either...

Mr. ANKA: Right.

GROSS: ...so maybe it's not a great example. But were you concerned that
some of your records might sound like Sinatra doing "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown?"

Mr. ANKA: Good comparison in a sense; not an analogy to this. And I agree
with you. That's not one of my favorite records, even though Don Costa, who I
introduced him to, did that arrangement. I don't think that it's the same. I
think that, you know, I looked at this stuff honestly and picked songs that I
felt that I really got into and that I was motivated. You know, Sinatra went
in and did a lot of those songs as just a throwaway, you know? They were just
one take like his films. He wasn't really into it. He did it because he
felt, you know, in some cases it would sell records. I didn't look at it that
way. I felt that, you know, coming as a songwriter and a musician, unlike
Sinatra, I knew what to do with them as a songwriter. I knew how to work with
them as a musician to make them personally mine. You know, we can't look at
it as religious fanatics as to music.

GROSS: One of the songs you do on the new CD is Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen
Spirit," you know, probably their most famous record. What did you hear in
this as a potential swing song?

Mr. ANKA: Well, it started with assessment of the charts. When I looked at
all the Billboard, you know, I saw the importance of grunge, you know, that
whole Seattle movement. The Nirvana record is an anthem. He's a poet in a
sense. You know, I understood it intellectually and where it was coming from.
But when I looked at it, I said, you know, `Wouldn't it be wild if I could
find the groove for this?' Because I saw it right away in its melody
structure. As a musician, I saw `da-da-da-da-ba-ba-da-ba.' It does swing.
The only thing I had to get over was to assess, you know, lyrically how much
of it--'cause I left a lot of the song out--how much was I going to use, how
did it lay into this real swing shout that is probably one of the best swing
shouts on the whole CD are those two instrumental releases. You know, I heard
that, and that really hooked me. So I really selected the lyric that when I
sung it would be at least believable enough for me once I got it into the
pocket.

But I knew it was an important challenge. I knew the importance of the group.
And I just had to do it. And I've since heard from Dave Grohl, who is with
the Foo Fighters, who was a part of the band, and he heard it. He heard me do
it on Letterman and then he heard the record. And he said, `Man,' you know,
`I didn't recognize that lyric for about 20 seconds, but what a classic and
great arrangement and the treatment.' He went on and on about it. The reason
I say that is because I felt in my heart that, you know, we're all creative
people here. We're all part of that mosaic. And if I can create that and
take a song that, you know, no one felt really had a chance to go there and
really impress one of the guys that wrote it or that was a part of it, then my
job is complete, and I've made a huge point there as to not pigeonhole it. A
good song is a good song.

GROSS: Well, why don't we hear the original Nirvana version back to back with
your new swing version of "Smells Like Teen Spirit." And this is...

Mr. ANKA: OK.

GROSS: This is Nirvana followed by Paul Anka from Paul Anka's new CD "Rock
Swings."

(Soundbite of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" by Nirvana)

Mr. KURT COBAIN: (Singing) Load up on guns, bring your friends. It's fun to
lose and to pretend. She's over bored and self-assured. Oh, no. I know a
dirty word. Hello, hello, hello, how low? Hello, hello, hello, how low?
Hello, hello, hello, how low? Hello, hello, hello...

(Soundbite of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" by Paul Anka)

Mr. ANKA: (Singing) With the lights out, it's less dangerous. Here we are
now, entertain us. I feel stupid and contagious. Here we are now, entertain
us. A mulatto, an albino, a mosquito, my libido. Yeah. I'm worst at what I
do best. And for this gift, I feel blessed.

GROSS: That was "Smells Like Teen Spirit" performed first by Nirvana and then
by Paul Anka as featured on Paul Anka's new CD "Rock Swings."

Paul Anka, the problem with that lyric as a swing song--and I know other
people have pointed this out to you--is, you know, you don't really hear the
lyric that clearly on the original record. But when you sing `a mulatto, an
albino, a mosquito, my libido, yeah,' it's just--I don't know that the lyric
is meant to be heard that clearly or kind of swung that way. How did you
feel...

Mr. ANKA: Well...

GROSS: What did you do to try to make that part of the lyric work for you?

Mr. ANKA: Well, I think the key is it is what it is. You know, you can look
at abstract art or poetry of any kind, and, you know, you have to respect, you
know, the person that created it. Originally--on the original record, you
know, the way they mix those records is not necessarily let's hide the lyric.
The fact is it is the lyric to the song. And I think that those that grew up
with the song, hearing it this way, not unlike taking a film from way back and
modernizing it, it's the same analogy. You can't go changing the lyric, but
there are people that have identified with it, that understood the original
record and that--you know, you can't sit down and hand out a pamphlet every
time you record something as to what it means or what you mean by it. It is
what it is. It swings. Those are the words. And if it's poetry in a sense,
take it for what it is.

GROSS: Paul Anka's new CD is called "Rock Swings." We'll talk about his
years as a teen idol after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Paul Anka. And his new CD "Rock Swings" features his new
swing versions of rock hits from the '80s and '90s.

How old were you when you knew you wanted to perform? I mean, you were a star
in your midteens.

Mr. ANKA: I was--around 12 or 13, I realized that I had a talent for writing.
I was working, you know, around that period at the local newspaper, at The
Citizen, with the editor Mr. Finn and wrote some short stories in school and
won some awards. So I started as a writer. And then what evolved was I
started typing 60, 70 words a minute and then taking shorthand and hated
shorthand, got thrown out of that and put in a music class 'cause I was a fan
of music and started taking piano and drums. And just around that age 13, 14,
15, realized that, you know, I could play the piano. And then I started
taking these poems that I'd written and started writing songs about it and
then started working in, you know, local plays around town, in the school,
started a group called the Bobby Soxers. So I was this huge music fan from
that window, from 13 to 15, you know, realized that there was this fire in my
stomach, and I pursued it from there.

GROSS: Your first hit when you were 16 was "Diana," which was produced by Don
Costa, who later became Frank Sinatra's arranger and producer. And at the
time, he'd been doing arrangements for Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme. How
did you meet Don Costa?

Mr. ANKA: Well, I left Canada, where I was living at the time. And I wanted
to get to New York--I'd already been there prior to meeting Don Costa--because
I knew that's where the music was. I won a contest collecting soup wrappers
for Campbell's Soup. There was an ad in the paper for IGA food stores. And
it said that if you collected these soup wrappers and put your name on
it--behind, put it in the box that you could be selected on and on and on. So
I won. I got a job at IGA, clocked all the cans leaving, went to the houses.
Anyway, I win for my district. I go...

GROSS: Wait, wait, wait. So you got this job just so you could collect more
soup cans?

Mr. ANKA: Uh-huh. Uh-huh. So I...

GROSS: Wow. That's ambitious.

Mr. ANKA: Well, I was a very ambitious young man. And I won the contest, and
I went to New York with 40 other guys from Canada and a little box lunch, went
to the YMCA, they put us up. And I really got a sense of the scene down
there. Alan Freed, the rock 'n' roll, everything that was happening. So I
knew I had to get back there. I had some friends of mine who had a hit record
at ABC-Paramount called The Rover Boys, a song called "Graduation Day." And
they steered me over...

GROSS: Oh, is that `We'll remember always graduation day?'

Mr. ANKA: Uh-huh.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. ANKA: It was a big hit back then. And I was a fan of The Rover Boys as I
was for The Crew Cuts and The Four Lads. So I went up to see Don Costa. And
he saw this young kid walk in, you know, the T-shirt, jeans at a time when,
you know, that wasn't the thing. It's not, you know, like it is today where
you've just got this rash of kids running around making records. And he said,
`OK. Play me something,' 'cause they were a new company. And I sat down and
just started banging away at the piano. And I played "Diana" and "Don't
Gamble With Love" and a couple other songs. And that's where it all started.
He, you know, said, `Where's your parents?' `In Canada.' `Can we fly them
down?' Blah, blah, blah. And we signed a contract. And that was the
beginning for me. I never went back.

GROSS: The song "Diana," the lyric is `I'm so young, and you're so old...'

Mr. ANKA: `You're so old.'

GROSS: `This, my darling, I've been told.' I've read this was basically
about your baby sitter.

Mr. ANKA: Well, she sat a couple of times for my brother and sister, but she
wasn't on an ongoing basis. She was someone I saw at church, you know, knew
in the community, small community, Ottawa, Canada. And I saw her from afar
most of the time, and then I would, you know, run into her socially at certain
gatherings. But back in the '50s, unlike today, you know, if you were older
by a few years, if you were taller, if you, if you, if you, you didn't have a
shot. You know, that's what it was back then. And she was all of those
things. But I had this little crush on her and, thus, `I'm so young, and
you're so old.' I would play it at parties for my friends. The word would
leak out to her. And she thought it was rather cute. I mean, there was no,
you know, real spiking of emotion there. And I just went on with it, and I
put it in my pocket and just kept writing until I had the chance to--you know,
originally, I started playing those songs for these groups that would come to
town, including Chuck Berry, and nobody really paid any attention to me. And
that kind of really motivated me to go on and sing my own songs. And that was
my first record.

GROSS: Well, why don't we play it? This is from 1957, Paul Anka singing his
song "Diana."

(Soundbite of "Diana")

Mr. ANKA: (Singing) I'm so young, and you're so old. This my darling, I've
been told. I don't care just what they say 'cause forever I will pray. You
and I will be as free as the birds up in the trees. Oh, please, stay by me,
Diana. Thrills I get when you hold me close...

GROSS: That's Paul Anka recorded in 1957. He has a new CD called "Rock
Swings" that features his swing versions of rock classics from the '80s and
'90s.

Now in 1958, I remember hearing your hit "You Are My Destiny," which starts
with this big orchestral flourish and a chorus singing `Destiny, destiny.'
And, you know, I must have been around eight, and I thought, `I don't know
what destiny means, but it sure sounds important.' Did you have any sense
when you were, like, 17, writing this song of, like, the bigness of the
emotion, saying `You are my destiny?'

Mr. ANKA: Yeah. Yeah. I was aware of it. It was, you know, a part of just,
you know, evolving as a writer and really kind of setting a new kind of trend
because most rock 'n' rollers weren't really into the big orchestras. And,
you know, that record actually was a case in point to Buddy Holly, who was a
very good friend of mine, who wanted to change his style and, you know, was
leaving The Crickets and told me that, you know, he was just being robbed
blind by a manager and wanted to change. But he wanted to make a record like
"You Are My Destiny." He was very impressed with it, and he wanted to do "It
Doesn't Matter Anymore," a song that I wrote for him, with the large
orchestra. And that was the last session that he did before he went down on
that plane on our sister tour.

GROSS: Wow. Why don't we hear "You Are My Destiny." And this is 1958, Paul
Anka.

(Soundbite of "You Are My Destiny")

Chorus: Destiny, you're my destiny.

Mr. ANKA: (Singing) You are my destiny. You are what you are to me. You are
my happiness. That's what you are.

Chorus: You are my destiny.

Mr. ANKA: (Singing) You have my sweet caress. You share my loneliness.

GROSS: That's my guest Paul Anka's big hit from 1958, "You Are My Destiny."
And Paul Anka has a new CD called "Rock Swings" that features rock songs by
people like Bon Jovi, R.E.M., all recorded in a swing style.

I want to ask you about another hit that you had in the '50s, "Put Your Head
On My Shoulder." And this was a big expression at the time.

Mr. ANKA: Yes.

GROSS: And, you know, if a girl put her head on her boyfriend's shoulder,
that was really a sign of their growing intimacy.

Mr. ANKA: Big deal. Commitment. Commitment. Commitment. Yeah.

GROSS: Commitment. Now I don't know that I've heard that expression in
decades. I mean, was that already a big expression when you wrote the song?

Mr. ANKA: It was certainly, you know, a physical act. I don't know that we
used it that much, and, obviously, it doesn't prevail today. But what all
that was about, you know, I was really writing everything that I observed,
whether it was "Lonely Boy." "Put Your Head On My Shoulder," I remember very
clearly. You know, I'd be the guest of these disc jockeys. Back then, you'd
record something and be invited to sing at a high school. And all I saw when
I went to these high schools was everybody--the ultimate game was to get your
head on somebody's shoulder, whether it was there or in a movie house. You
know, you'd take a girl to see a movie. And for the first 15 minutes, you'd
worry about navigating your arm around her shoulder. And then the next 15
minutes was to get that head on your shoulder. So it was a big deal back
then. And, you know, we all knew it as kids. And when I would go to these
dances and sing and be alone up on that stage, you know, ultimately those that
got there, I saw those heads on each other's shoulders. And that was, like,
the cool move of the time.

GROSS: Well, why don't we hear some of "Put Your Head On My Shoulder." This
is Paul Anka.

(Soundbite of "Put Your Head On My Shoulder")

Mr. ANKA: (Singing) Put your head on my shoulder. Hold me in your arms,
baby. Squeeze me oh so tight. Show me that you love me, too. Put your lips
next to mine, girl.

GROSS: We'll talk with Paul Anka about writing "My Way" and "The Tonight
Show" theme in part two of our interview, which we'll hear later this week.
Anka's new CD is called "Rock Swings."

Coming up, we remember the Cuban singer Ibrahim Ferrer. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Ry Cooder discusses the late singer Ibrahim Ferrer's
work
TERRY GROSS, host:

In the late '90s, the musician Ry Cooder went to Cuba in search of older
musicians who had been popular decades ago but had disappeared from the public
eye because of the embargo and because their music was considered
old-fashioned. With the help of bandleader Juan de Marcos, Cooder found some
great musicians and organized them into a band called The Buena Vista Social
Club. He produced a CD by them, and that led to a documentary film. One of
the musicians who caught on and recorded subsequent solo albums was the singer
Ibrahim Ferrer. Ferrer died Saturday in Havana at the age of 78. Here's
Ferrer singing "Dos Gardenias" from The Buena Vista Social Club CD.

(Soundbite of "Dos Gardenias")

Mr. IBRAHIM FERRER (The Buena Vista Social Club): (Singing in Spanish)

GROSS: In 1998, Ry Cooder produced a solo album by Ferrer. I asked Cooder
what kind of music Ferrer was playing when he was a young man and what
happened to him when he stopped performing.

(Soundbite of interview)

Mr. RY COODER (Producer): When he was active, you're looking at the postwar
era, so let's say '40s and more like '50s and '60s. This is the era of the
bolero and the kind of romantic tenor singing that was popular during those
years in Latin American music. And Ibrahim is, I suppose, the last great
bolero singer. This is a style that died. It was killed off by gross
commercialization and guys in silk shirts and gold chains. And the beauty and
the incandescence of the music seems to have--I don't know--it fell on hard
times. And there again, you know, a style can just disappear.

But when we asked de Marcos, `Does anybody still sing this way, this beautiful
high tenor lyric voice?' he says, `There's only one guy left. There's only
one man. And it's Ibrahim Ferrer. And he's hard to find. And he's on the
streets somewhere. And I'll go find him.' Then he went out, and he came back
two hours later with this really strange-looking fellow. He was just very
skinny, moves like an old cat, you know, like some kind of aging cougar with
this Chinese face. He's part Chinese, very black, and a little cap and his
cigarette. He said, `What do you want me for? I don't sing anymore. Who
wants me?'

And I look at this guy, and I can see he has this quality where his eyes don't
move in his head. He's like an old guy from Mississippi. And I'm thinking
this is somebody, you know, this guy's heavy. Put him up in front of a
microphone and see what he's going to do here. And out comes this chocolate
syrup voice like--I think of him like I think of Nat Cole, the rarest kind of
vocal quality and very rare in a person who's older because age generally is
not kind to that vocal quality. You know, the top extension in the voice is a
thing that age starts to wear away. And--like me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COODER: And I think that, you know, it's bad pollution down there, and he
smoked every day of his life and so forth. But he opens his mouth and out
comes this angelic sound. And he's very inward, and he's very Zen-like, lived
a life of poverty. And he'd never been known, he'd never had an opportunity
to make his own records, never had a record with his name on it, had been just
not only forgotten but ignored the entire time.

And he had no idea what we were doing. We were saying, `Look, we're making
some songs here. We're trying to do something nice. It's good. Stick with
us,' you know, `Come back every day.' `You want me to come back?' I said,
`Yeah, I want you to come back.' Every day he would say, `You want me
tomorrow?' I said, `I really want you tomorrow.' And so pretty soon, he
began to realize that this was--something was serious, you know, that we
weren't just carpetbagging and running off with the music. And a fantastic
experience as far as I'm concerned because I really never expected to be able
to record this music in the world again because nobody could sing it, far as
I was concerned.

GROSS: Ry Cooder recorded in 1998. Ibrahim Ferrer died Saturday at the age
of 78.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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