Skip to main content

With Paul Anka, 'Rock Swings,' Part Two

Fresh Air broadcasts the second part of its interview with singer-songwriter Paul Anka. He's new album is called Rock Swings. It's a collection of covers from the 1980s and '90s, re-set to a swing beat.

26:40

Other segments from the episode on August 10, 2005

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, August 10, 2005: Interview with Rusty Sachs; Interview with Paul Anka.

Transcript

DATE August 10, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Rusty Sachs discusses his participation in the Vietnam
War
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

In 1971, the group Vietnam Veterans Against the War brought together about
125 vets to discuss war crimes they had witnessed or participated in. It was
an attempt to tell the public that the My Lai massacre, which had just been
reported, was not the only war crime Americans are responsible for. The
larger goal was to end the war. The event, which was called the Winter
Soldier Investigation, was held at a Howard Johnson's motel in Detroit.
The press was invited, and a team of documentary filmmakers recorded it. But
the film, "Winter Soldier," was hardly shown in America outside of college
campuses.

Now it's been re-released, and will open Friday at the Lincoln Center Film
Society in New York, and soon show in several other cities. The Winter
Soldier Investigation was part of a series of events, including protests,
memorial ceremonies and an event in which many vets, including John Kerry,
threw their medals or ribbons over a fence to symbolize their objections to
the war. It was John Kerry who asked my guest, Rusty Sachs, to participate in
the Winter Soldier Investigation. Kerry had read a letter to the editor Sachs
had written in opposition to the war.

Sachs had served in Vietnam as a Marine helicopter pilot in 1966 and '67, and
rose to the rank of captain. He's now executive director of the National
Association of Flight Instructors. He's one of the vets featured in the
documentary.

In the film of "Winter Soldier," during your discussion of what you witnessed
and what you did in Vietnam, you describe witnessing fellow Marines throwing
bodies out of helicopters. Would you describe what it is that you witnessed?

Mr. RUSTY SACHS (Executive Director, National Association of Flight
Instructors): Yes, and let me state up front, because there is a very common
misunderstanding, because of events that have taken place since then, that I
was talking about throwing people out of helicopters while they were flying at
altitude. I was describing unloading prisoners after we had landed, prisoners
who had been blindfolded, and were being unloaded by crewmen, taking them and
just throwing them out the helicopter--onto the ground, in front of the
helicopter, there beside the helicopter. On some occasions they made a game
of it. `Well, we can get one further than that.' And they'd throw another
one.

It was two Marines and they'd--rather than walk a fellow out of the
helicopter, they would, you know, just swing him and let him fall to the
ground outside the door to the helicopter, and then the next guy they would,
you know, just swing a little harder so it would land either further away or
not on top of the guy or--it was--the troubling thing was that it was being
done in such a cavalier fashion, at such a--there wasn't anything special
being attached to it by the people who were doing it. And it wasn't treated
as out of the ordinary by those of us who were standing, watching.

GROSS: Well, if I remember correctly, in your discussion, during the Winter
Soldier event, you said that you thought this had basically become standard
operating procedure because there were officers around when it happened and
nobody protested, nobody said anything...

Mr. SACHS: That's right.

GROSS: ...nobody tried to stop it.

Mr. SACHS: Nobody tried to stop it. And I can't speak for other people who
didn't try to stop it, but I still carry within me the guilt of not having
done anything to stop it. First time I saw this happen--and I saw it happen,
you know, several times--I was real new in country, I was just learning the
ropes, I was learning, you know, what village is where and what altitudes are
safe to fly at what routes are safe to take, and, basically, how you behave in
combat. And when I first got there, everybody there was senior to me. They
might not have been senior in rank, but they--everybody was there--everybody
there was senior to me in terms of experience. And I think it's inevitable
that the new guy on the block scopes out what's going on and tries to fit in
rather than try to change everything immediately. And I have had sleepless
nights for years, just kicking myself for not having said anything at a time
when I should have.

GROSS: And was Winter Soldier kind of a way to make up for that, a way to say
the things you wished you'd said when they were happening?

Mr. SACHS: Oh, the--I'm--yeah. And I think all of us, to some extent, felt
that this was an act of atonement, it was some sort of penance was--admitting
to our shortcomings in hopes that others would not fall short in the same
manner. But the basic goal was to tell people that this sort of stuff was
going on in Vietnam. It was not a clean war. It was not--to the extent that
there can be such a thing as a clean war.

GROSS: In 1971 after the Winter Soldier event, you heard other Vietnam
veterans testify that they had witnessed horrible atrocities, including a
Vietnamese woman being gutted after being killed, rapes--rapes with all kinds
of horrible implements. Did you believe everything that you heard?

Mr. SACHS: I tried to maintain a degree of skepticism but when you--when I
saw the faces of the people telling these stories, I knew that these were
events that actually took place.

GROSS: Did you enlist in the military--did you support the war when you
entered it? And, if so, what was the turning point for you when you started
to oppose the war?

Mr. SACHS: Well, when I enlisted in the Marine Corps, there wasn't much of a
war going on. People were talking a little bit about the unrest in Laos. But
there wasn't a war in Vietnam when I enlisted. There were American troops
there, but there wasn't--there was--nobody would use the word `war' to
describe what was going on. And I enlisted with the absolute intent of
becoming a helicopter pilot. And the war just sort of happened to build up
and take birth during the time I was going through training, and by the time I
got my wings, in 1966, we all knew that we'd be going to Vietnam. I mean,
there was no question. Every pilot would be going to Vietnam and we were
looking forward to it. We were going to get to practice what we'd been
taught.

So I got over there, and I was excited, and I couldn't wait--I--how naive we
can be to--Ms. Gross. I couldn't wait to be there and find out what it was
like to be shot at. My opposition to the war came about late in my tour when
my friend Craig was killed. He was a fellow from New England who had gone
through training with me. We were in the same pre-flight class. We flew
together in our primary training, and on our basic training, and our advanced
training, and then we were stationed in--up--at--in the Camp LeJeune
complex. And he got killed. Now he wasn't my first friend that got killed,
by any means. But for some reason it upset me more. It was a straw that
broke the camel's back. Because I'd seen enough friends and peers get killed,
and I had seen no change in the way the war was being conducted or the way our
day-to-day activities were changing. They weren't changing. There wasn't any
progress being made and I said, `This is just wrong. It--this--we made a big
mistake here and we've got to stop it. We've got to do something to stop the
war.'

GROSS: My guest is Rusty Sachs. He's featured in the 1971 documentary
"Winter Soldier," which is being re-released this Friday.

More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Rusty Sachs, a former Marine captain who served in
Vietnam. He's one of the vets featured in the 1971 documentary "Winter
Soldier" about an event which brought together over 100 vets to tell the press
about American war crimes they had witnessed or participated in in Vietnam.
The film "Winter Soldier" is being re-released this week.

The Winter Soldier event in which Vietnam veterans who had started to oppose
the war testified about atrocities that they saw or participated in. That was
just one event that was part of a series of events in which Vietnam Veterans
Against the War and other veterans sympathetic to their cause protested the
war. Among those events was an event, if we can call it that, in which a lot
of veterans, yourself included, John Kerry included, threw their medals or
ribbons or military papers or other military-related objects, and threw them
over a wall to protest the war. And we heard a lot about that during the
presidential campaign in 2004. You know, the meaning of John Kerry doing that
was endlessly debated, whether he threw over medals or ribbons, and what the
difference was, was endlessly debated. What did you throw over that wall?

Mr. SACHS: I no longer had my medals because I had given them away earlier.

GROSS: To who?

Mr. SACHS: Actually to the set of the Boston production of the American
Tribal Love-rock Musical Hair.

GROSS: So what did they use them for?

Mr. SACHS: But--I'm not sure. I think they probably hung them on a flat,
you know, on the stage someplace. But I had my ribbons. I threw my ribbons.
The Park Police or someone had erected a high wire fence across the steps to
the Capitol on the Mall side and we couldn't go beyond that fence. But the
vets lined up, pretty much single file, along the fence, and this fellow made
a speech, and then people were coming up to the microphone--and people would
individually speak a few words and then throw whatever they were
throwing--medals or ribbons or--one fellow threw a cane, others threw
discharge papers--over the fence.

And as I was, you know, two or three back in the line, somebody came up and
handed me two medals and said, `Here. These are for you.' And I didn't
know--I looked at them and I recognized them. One was a Distinguished Flying
Cross and one was a Silver Star. And now I was almost at the microphone and I
had these two decorations that I had never earned. And I was--I had--in the
space of about 15 seconds, I had the most rapid moral crisis I've ever had in
my life. `What do I do with these?'

And I recalled two friends who had gotten killed recently, both in senseless
accidents, not in--not as a result of direct enemy action. One had had
to--gone down in the water with his helicopter, got out of a helicopter, was
treading water, and someone tried to hoist him out of the helicopter by
hovering above him so low that he drowned in the down wash of the rotor blades.
And the other had been steered by radar vectors to a landing zone in terribly
bad weather and something messed up and he flew into the side of the hill and
he got killed. But, as I had these--I had a Silver Star in one hand, and I
had a Distinguished Flying Cross in the other, and I got up to the microphone
and I said, `For Captain Roger P. Herrell(ph), United States Marine Corps,
this is a Silver Star,' and `For Major Bob Cramer, US Marine Corps, this is
a Distinguished Flying Cross,' and there's an interesting sequel to that, if I
can go on a little further.

GROSS: Sure. Sure.

Mr. SACHS: Years later, like probably 20 years later, there was a documentary
that had that little snippet extracted and broadcast. I came home from work,
and my wife handed me the telephone, and says, `It's for you.' Picked up the
phone and a voice said, `Is this Mr. Sachs?' And, `Yes.' `Is--were you the
guy who was on TV last night?' I said, `Yes.' He said, `Did you say
something about a Major Cramer?' I said, `Yes. He was--Bob Cramer was in my
squadron. We--he was a major and I was a lieutenant, but, you know, we knew
each other and he was one of the people we lost.' And there's a long pause,
and then he says, `That's--that was my wife's father.'

GROSS: Wow.

Mr. SACHS: `And she's always wanted to be able to talk to somebody who knew
her father overseas. And I wonder if it would be OK if I had her call you
tonight and--or I'll call you and just put her on the phone with you and she
can talk.' And it was a very warm conversation. I met her face to face
within about a year at a reunion. And it was a--there actually was a moment
of healing that took place because of that little 15-second crisis I had
trying to figure out what to do with somebody else's medals that somebody had
given me, somebody had handed to me.

GROSS: Let's get back to that moral crisis. What were you planning to throw
over the fence before you were handed the medals?

Mr. SACHS: Oh, I had all my ribbons that were mounted. And I had them in my
hand, and I threw them over, as well. That's what I was gonna throw.

GROSS: What does it say to you that you were given medals? It--I mean, does
that take away from the authenticity of the event? I mean, I've seen that
footage because that footage is in "Going Upriver," which is a documentary
about John Kerry and his participation in these anti-war events in 1971. And
so I've seen that footage of you and I just assumed, as I'm sure everybody
watching it does, that it was your medals.

Mr. SACHS: Mm-hmm. I...

GROSS: Because--Does it change anything? Does it make it less real, more
staged?

Mr. SACHS: That's what caused the moral crisis. `So what do I do with these?
I can't fly under false colors. But I've got them in my hand. How can I use
these to make a message that might help end the war a little bit more?'
It's--you know, I didn't claim that they were mine. I named the
people--people who had been awarded those decorations whom we had lost and
tried to make some memory of them.

GROSS: Were other people given medals to throw over, too?

Mr. SACHS: I don't know, I don't know. After I threw mine and threw the--my
batch of ribbons, I was nervous, I was shaking. This was a tremendous
atonement. This was a very powerful emotional moment for each of us. I
walked down the steps and away and I came upon a vet in a wheelchair who was
there, you know, observing, and we just sort of hugged and wept there from the
tremendous emotion of having divested of ourselves of this--of these little
colored cloth pieces that symbolized so much and we had to use to divorce
ourselves from what they were for.

GROSS: What was it like for you during the 2004 election to watch the Winter
Soldier testimonies, John Kerry's testimony before the Senate Committee on
Foreign Affairs, the protest in which you and Kerry and other veterans opposed
to the war threw medals and ribbons over this fence? What was it like to
see--for you, to watch all those actions become headlines again, and to become
very controversial, the people on different sides telling the story and the
meaning of the story in completely different ways?

Mr. SACHS: It was very frustrating to me to see John Kerry, a man I
absolutely admired for his conduct both during and after Vietnam, vilified by
folks who, basically, opposed his values rather than his actions. It--that was
very painful and it was very frustrating to see John responding in a very mild
fashion and not using the eloquence that he had used so effectively as a
28-year-old kid many years ago.

GROSS: It's been a really long time, 23 years, I think, since you actually
saw the whole film, "Winter Soldier." Do you plan on going to see it?

Mr. SACHS: I've been invited to go to Lincoln Center on Friday. I plan to be
there. I got a hunch I won't sit through the entire film. I...

GROSS: Why not?

Mr. SACHS: It's just--it's very discomfiting to see young men in such pain
over having done things that they did. I've--I lived through that in the
'70s. I don't really need to be reminded--and, Terry, to extend it maybe
longer than you'd like, I really understand now why my father, who had been in
the Army in the Second World War and been at Normandy and gone through the
Battle of the Bulge and stuff, refused to go see "Saving Private Ryan." I
just don't need to see that again.

GROSS: Well, thank you very much, and good luck to you.

Mr. SACHS: Thank you very much.

GROSS: Rusty Sachs is one of the vets featured in the 1971 documentary
"Winter Soldier." He's now the executive director of the National Association
of Flight Instructors. "Winter Soldier" is being re-released, starting with
it showing Friday at the Lincoln Center Film Society.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Credits)

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Coming up, part two of our interview with Paul Anka. He'll talk about
writing the "Tonight Show" theme for Johnny Carson, and writing "My Way" for
Sinatra.

(Soundbite of music)

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

Interview: Paul Anka discusses his career after the teen idol era
and his new album, "Rock Swings"
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

We're going to listen to the second part of our interview with songwriter and
singer Paul Anka. Earlier this week, he talked about being a teen idol in the
late '50s and early '60s, writing most of his hit songs like "Diana," "You Are
My Destiny," "Put Your Head On My Shoulder" and "Puppy Love." Part two is
about his life after the teen idol era, when he wrote the song that became
Frank Sinatra's anthem, "My Way," and, at Johnny Carson's request, wrote the
theme for "The Tonight Show." But before we hear that, let's hear another
track from Anka's new CD, "Rock Swings," which features his swing versions of
rock songs from the '80s and '90s by bands like Nirvana, REM, the Pet Shop
Boys and Van Halen. Here's the original version of Van Halen's "Jump."

(Soundbite of "Jump" by Van Halen)

Mr. DAVID LEE ROTH: (Singing) I get up and nothing gets me down. You got it
tough, I've seen the toughest around. And I know, baby, just how you feel.
You got to roll with the punches and get to what's real. Oh, can't you see me
standing here? I got my back against the record machine. I ain't the worst
that you've seen. Can't you see what I mean? Might as well jump.

VAN HALEN: (Singing) Jump!

Mr. ROTH: (Singing) Might as well jump. Go ahead and jump.

VAN HALEN: Jump!

Mr. ROTH: (Singing) Go ahead and jump. Hello. Hey, you. Who said that?
Baby, how...

GROSS: That's Van Halen. Here's Paul Anka, from his CD "Rock Swings."

(Soundbite of "Jump" by Paul Anka)

Mr. PAUL ANKA: (Singing) I get up and nothing ever gets me down. You got it
tough; I've seen the toughest around. And I know, baby, just how you feel.
You got to roll with the punches to get what's real. Oh, can't you see me
standing here? I got my back against the record machine. I ain't the worst
that you've seen. Can't you see what I mean? Might as well jump...

Backup Singers: Jump!

Mr. ANKA: (Singing) Might as well jump.

Backup Singers: Jump!

Mr. ANKA: (Singing) Go ahead, jump!

Backup Singers: Jump!

Mr. ANKA: (Singing) Go ahead and jump.

Backup Singers: Jump! Hey, you...

Mr. ANKA: (Singing) Hey, babe, how you been?

GROSS: Now you grew up in Canada. You're of Lebanese descent, and when you
were becoming known in the '50s, I think Lebanon probably wasn't on the map
for a lot of people. Do you know what I mean? They probably--so--and most of
the pop idols in the States, they were Italian, they were Jewish. Their
families had been here for a long time. They were African-American. Probably
weren't a lot of Lebanese pop idols back then, so...

Mr. ANKA: None.

GROSS: ...how did you handle your background when it came to publicity? Is
it something that you talked about much?

Mr. ANKA: Well, it was what it was. I was first Canadian, brought up a
Canadian, so my whole sense was, you know, Canadian upbringing. I had an
awareness of my Lebanese background, not a large community, certainly not
equatable to Italian and, you know, that was pretty much most singers were
Italian. You know, I was just this wild...

GROSS: Right. And so many of the listeners want to know is like, `Oh, is he
Italian, like I am? Is she Jewish, like I am?'

Mr. ANKA: Right. Right.

GROSS: You know, like, `How much do I identify with them?'

Mr. ANKA: Right. I think everybody thought, A, I was Jewish or Italian.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. ANKA: Then it came out in the PR, you know, he's a Canadian of Lebanese
descent, and that's what it was. You know, I never really played that up. It
certainly--at some point people went, `Ooh, you're not Italian.'

Then I really confused them by moving to Italy in the '60s because I just
loved Italy and I loved the culture. And when I left my record company and I
bought all my masters, I went to RCA Victor and started a company with them.
And I said, `I want to go to Italy and record in Italian. I just have so much
in common with that country.' And I went over there and I started this
company in Rome, and I started recording in Italian. And I had like a ton of
hits. I was selling millions of records.

My name over there was like one word, `Paulanka, Paulanka.' I check in a
hotel, it was under P, `Paulanka.' And I was winning these festivals. I had
the greatest time of my life, and I only recorded in Italian, only wrote in
Italian with Italian writers. And it was one of the greatest times of my
life. So that totally confused everybody.

GROSS: At what point did you start thinking about how you were going to make
the transition to adult music? And again, just to go back to the '50s and
early '60s, it was a time when a lot of adults in the record industry were
thinking rock 'n' roll is this, like, passing phase and it's not going to
last. And a lot of, like, young rock 'n' rollers are being groomed to play
the Copa, because they were going to become adults soon and they had to make
that transition to the adult audience. So what did you think your life would
be like as an adult, and what kind of transition did you think you would have
to make?

Mr. ANKA: Well, somewhere around '58, '59, you know, I realized that, you
know, I was changing, and I had to change. I was looking for longevity. And
you know, one has to realize that back then, rock, as we know it today, or
when it really started in, let's say, the mid-'60s, and you know, you had The
Beatles with that form of rock 'n' roll, which was light in '64. Prior to
that, there was nothing else around except the Rat Pack. So it was all Frank
Sinatra, that kind of music, and oops, who are these little kids with this
kind of music that no one liked, including Sinatra?

You know, we started saying to ourselves, `Well, where do we go from here? I
mean, you know, look at those guys. They're so cool. I mean, they work that
place, Las Vegas and the Copa and, you know, we want to be like them.' And
I'd sit with Bobby Darin and you know, he and I had that natural instinct to
go that way, and we'd say, `We want to be like them.' And you know, I re--one
of my earlier albums was called "Swings for Young Lovers," and it was an album
of all old standards with a big swing band, which was very unusual, and then
Darin did his.

And you know, I realized that that's where I wanted to go if I had to survive.
And you know, with my management and agents, all of a sudden I was the
youngest kid to work the Copa, then I was the youngest kid to work Vegas in
'59, with Sophie Tucker. And I started to say, `Yeah. You know what? I
think I can survive if I learn my craft and I become a performer,' and that's
what I pursued. And I really started to sense the foundation broadening which
was going to allow me to maybe sustain myself, because I felt that people were
looking at me different, not only as the writer, but this performer and this
kid that put this tux on.

And then Darin became successful with "Mack the Knife," so it really looked
like we were on the right course. And then we started to merge with Sinatra,
and there I was working with them and learning from them and being around
these guys, and that was the final goal for us. And then The Beatles came and
changed everything.

GROSS: When you started hanging out with Sinatra and the other guys in the
Rat Pack, what where some of the things about their lives that you wanted to
emulate, and other things about their lives that you wanted to make sure to
avoid?

Mr. ANKA: Yeah, for sure. You know, you're enamored and flattered being
around them and being accepted by them. You certainly weren't one of them,
but you were, you know, on the periphery but also allowed in. And you know,
you liked their sense of style, you liked the way they dressed. You certainly
liked the music. You liked the way that they sang. You liked the way they
performed. For a while, you know, you started getting the habits of--they'd
teach you how to play blackjack. OK, if you don't lose a lot of money. You
watch them drink and smoke. You know, life is choices, and I looked and saw
what it did to them and saw how they suffered from it, and went, `You know
what? I'm not going to be a smoker and I'm just not going to drink the hard
liquor because I need to function and, you know, I want to be in control of
what I'm doing.' So you learn, you know, both sides of that, what to do and
what not to do. But it was very exciting to be around. It was a big learning
college for me.

GROSS: Did Sinatra treat you like `the kid'?

Mr. ANKA: Yeah. I was the kid. You know, everybody--we all had our robes in
this famous steam room that we all hung out in, and Dino was `The Dage.'(ph)
Joey Bishop had a robe which was one of his sayings like, you know, `What do
you think about that?' I forget what it was. Sammy was `Smokey the Bear,'
and mine was `The Kid,' and that's what Frank called me, the Kid.

GROSS: And did that seem affectionate to you, or did you feel like you wanted
to grow up and not be the kid anymore?

Mr. ANKA: No. I was the kid. I was younger. He was very affectionate about
it. And I liked it. You know, I called him the old man, ultimately. You
know, you got with the program. You know, I never felt in any way inferior.
I was certainly younger. You know, I was just sitting there watching this
incredible candy store unfold in front of me, from JFK showing up and Marilyn
Monroe and all these stars and, you know, all the activity and all the little
boy antics.

GROSS: My guest is Paul Anka. His latest CD is called "Rock Swings."

More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Let's get back to the second part of our interview with songwriter and
singer Paul Anka.

You know, we were talking about your friendship with Sinatra and some of the
things that you learned from him. You wrote the English lyric for the song
that became his anthem, "My Way." The song pre-existed, but it was a French
song with a French lyric, a lyric that was totally different from your English
lyric. How did you first hear the song, and what made you want to write a new
lyric for it?

Mr. ANKA: Well, as I said earlier, I was very much into the whole European
culture, and I'd started spending a lot of time in Europe. I'd gotten married
there in Paris and brought my children every year to the South of France to a
house that I had down there that we rented. And I was down in Loujois(ph),
which is just a little village, South of France, and I was listening to the
radio. And not unlike "Rock Swings," you know, listening to all of these, you
know, modern songs and knowing where they fit, I heard this melody on the
radio and I said, `Mm, there's something more to that. I'd like to get my
hands on it.'

So I called a friend of mine in Paris who I was in business with with a
publishing company, and he said, `Yeah, I know the guy that has the song.
And, you know, it's not that big a hit, but what do you want?' I said, `Just
give it to me, the rights.' He said, `Fine.' He said, `I'll call the guy.'
So I flew up to Paris and I met with him, and they gave it to me. I mean,
there was--no money changed hands. There was...

GROSS: There was no money?

Mr. ANKA: Nothing. There was no work buying the pyramids, nothing. It was
real simple--a couple of pages, a piece of paper--and I took this song. I
just took it from that form and I started playing it on the piano into the
vibe that I heard. And it was just more classical and structured.

And fade out, fade in--I'm in Florida, Sinatra calls and he said, `Let's have
dinner. I'm doing this movie down here, but let's have dinner tonight. I'll
come and see your show.' We have dinner. He said, `Kid, I'm doing one more
album with Costa and then I'm quitting the business. I'm fed up. I'm getting
out.' And, you know, he'd been really hassled, things were going on in his
life that he didn't like and he wanted to quit.

So that really moved me, you know, `One more album, I'm out of the business,'
Sinatra, can't believe it. I go back to New York where I was living at the
time and I started typing. And I said, `Now if Sinatra were writing
this'--you know, not unlike Anka writing something in "Rock Swings"--`what
would he say?' And I started, `And now the end is near, and so I face the
final curtain. Da, da,' and it started to write itself. And I called he and
Don Costa, who at the time were out at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, and I
said, `Guys, I've got something for the album, and I just--you need to hear
this.'

And about a few months later, I got a call, knowing that they were in the
studio, and Sinatra was on the phone and he was in LA, I'm in New York. He
said, `Kid, listen to this,' and he put the phone up to the speaker and that
was the first time that I heard Frank Sinatra singing "My Way." And I just
started to cry. It was just the most emotional moment for me because I'd
never really written anything like that, let alone have Frank Sinatra be the
messenger of such, you know, a different song from what was going on back then
in the late '60s.

GROSS: Well, why don't we hear Frank Sinatra singing "My Way," with a lyric
by my guest, Paul Anka.

(Soundbite of "My Way")

Mr. FRANK SINATRA: (Singing) Regrets? I've had a few, but then again, too
few to mention. I did what I had to do and saw it through without exemption.
I planned each charted course, each careful step along the byway. And more,
much more than this, I did it my way.

Yes, there were times I'm sure you knew when I bit off more than I could chew.
But through it all when there was doubt, I ate it up and spit it out. I faced
it all and I stood tall and did it my way.

I've loved...

GROSS: That's Frank Sinatra. And the English lyric for "My Way" was written
by my guest, Paul Anka. His new CD, "Rock Swings," features his new swing
versions of rock songs from the '80s and '90s.

You know, you show up in so many different aspects of popular culture. You
wrote "The Tonight Show" theme. I mean, how did you get to do that?

Mr. ANKA: Well, you know, a lot of my business is it all starts with that
phone call and, you know, you get phone calls. And this one call--well, let
me take you back. It was a call saying I needed some comedy element on a show
I was doing in Great Britain for Granada TV and I needed comedy. And someone
called and said, `Look at this guy. He's funny.' And they sent me a film of
this guy called Johnny Carson, and I looked at it and it was this guy, Johnny
Carson, who was--had a morning show for kids. The only problem was that all
night he drank and he showed up with a hangover, and the kids are screaming
and yelling and that didn't fit.

So I thought it was a very funny bit, and it was. And I brought him over and
he did the show and we got to know each other a little bit. I came back to
New York after that and ran into him and his manager somewhere in a building
and they said, `You know, we're thinking of doing this show for a couple of
years, "The Tonight Show," and we want to change this and we want to change
that. And I think maybe we need a--Do you want to write something?' And, you
know, I said, `Yeah. Does the pope pray?'

I'm a writer. So I went and I did a demo for about 1,200 bucks of what I
heard and put it down--da, da, da, da-da--just very simple, and I sent it to
him. And I got word back, another phone call, saying, you know, `You got it.'
And there's certainly a little wedge in there in that the original bandleader,
Skitch Henderson, wasn't pleased because he wanted it to be his. And what I
did at that point was when I heard that there was some jeopardy, I said,
`Johnny, take half the song. He can have half the writing and half the
publishing,' and that just ensured me staying on the air. What I thought
would be three years which turned into you know how many and the
longest-running TV theme in the history of television.

GROSS: For listeners just tuning in, my guest is Paul Anka. And his new CD,
"Rock Swings," features his swing interpretations of rock songs from the '80s
and '90s.

One more thing in the annals...

Mr. ANKA: Yes?

GROSS: ...of Paul Anka lore, and this is a Web site that you probably really
hate; I'm sure you know about it. There's a Web site called The Guys Get
Shirts that features...

Mr. ANKA: Oh, yeah, I love it. It's great.

GROSS: It features a really long tirade where you're bawling out your
band--this was recorded a few years ago...

Mr. ANKA: Yes.

GROSS: ...probably surreptitiously...

Mr. ANKA: Fifteen, 15 years ago by a real snake that we fired after a month
that brought a tape machine in. In fact, we had a nice big moment on it with
Howard Stern recently.

GROSS: Oh. Did he play it?

Mr. ANKA: And--oh, yeah, he played it. And, listen, he absolutely agreed
with it. And he said, `Look, I've done that. I do that.' And everybody
does. You know, I mean, I think that any guy running a company gets it. The
whole part of that tape--you know, I'm a real stickler for detail and I have a
ral strong respectability and responsibility to my audience. And when I'm up
on that stage in anything that I do, it's got to be as perfect as possible for
the consumer or for whomever. You know, I don't go to work at night and take
the check and run.

So what was happening there was there was a lot of mistakes in the band in the
sense that we'd rehearsed it one way and then when you have a cutoff or you're
doing something, everyone has to end together. And the other was that
the--you know, we'd gone and spent a lot of money on getting guys dressed so
that there was uniformity and--whether it was for the TV show or whatever it
was. And guys just dropped the ball.

You know, a lot of musicians--some of them are drinkers and some of them doing
dope and what have you, and you learn that, you know, later in the gig. It's
like hiring people. You know, the resumes are one thing and everybody's on
their best behavior, but until you get somewhere into the voyage and realize
that, you know, you've got some bad apples in there, that's when you have to
deal with it. And, you know, it was--it's a funny tape. You know, listen,
that's me and I'm that way. You know, I--people don't toe the line, they're
out.

GROSS: Well, you really lay into the band on this and you say things, `When I
F'ing move, I slice like an F'ing hammer.'

Mr. ANKA: Right.

GROSS: And what's it like to really bawl out your band and then be in front
of them in a performance? 'Cause when it comes time to perform, you want that
band to be really sympathetic...

Mr. ANKA: Oh, that stuff goes away.

GROSS: ...and you want them to play in a moving way. So...

Mr. ANKA: Oh, they do. They don't even take light of it. You know, we're
having dinner together on Saturday night. It's totally meaningless 'cause
they're used to that environment. They've done it with Buddy Rich, they've
done it with--they've heard it with Sinatra. You know, these are seasoned
guys that really--when you show them those mistakes and you bawl them out
anyway you want, they know the personality and the other side of the person.
I mean, I've heard, you know, Tommy Lasorda--I mean, there's, like, thousands
of these tapes out there from Orson Welles to Lasorda, and I think we're all
indoctrinated with that and get it.

So a band, when you're giving them work--and most of those guys are still with
me today--you know, they know the personality, they know when they're wrong,
they know how to decipher and edit what all of that is, and it really doesn't
come to play whatsoever. I mean, when you're doing this 47 years and you're
successful on that stage, every entity is working and all the energies are
working. And the other side of the coin is, you know, you're the guy that's
loaning them money, that you're doing this for their families, that you're
bringing them here. So you gotta look at the full mosaic. This is not
anything new here; this is a small pebble on the whole infrastructure of
business where people hear it. I know how to motivate people and how to treat
them, and I've been doing that for years. So I have absolutely no regrets for
anything on that whatsoever.

GROSS: My guest is Paul Anka. His latest CD is called "Rock Swings."

More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of "Johnny's Theme" from "The Tonight Show")

GROSS: Let's get back to our interview with songwriter and singer Paul Anka.

You know, when songs are as popular as yours, you never know where and how
they will be used. And in a moment, I'd like to ask you to tell us the most
unusual place you've heard your song performed, or the most unusual way you've
heard one of your songs performed. But first, I want to read you a paragraph
from an article in The Seattle Times from January 1987. You probably already
know about this, but here it goes.

(Reading) `President Corazon Aquino's forces used tear gas and Paul Anka
records today in a vain bid to get 150 soldiers loyal to ousted strongman
Ferdinand Marcos to vacate a TV station they've held since yesterday.'

Mr. ANKA: It was on the front page of The Economist.

GROSS: OK. (Reading) `About a thousand troops wearing gas masks were
deployed around Channel 7 and about seven tear gas canisters were fired.
Hours before the tear gas assault began, troops played Paul Anka songs over a
loudspeaker for the rebels, saying, "They might enjoy some beautiful music."'

Mr. ANKA: Right. That was in the editorial piece of The Economist. Yeah,
that was--I'd been to the Philippines many times. I go to Asia quite a bit.
Your songs are used, obviously, in many different places. I've experienced a
myriad of emotions from how they were used. I think the one that really
jolted me the most was that--you know, "My Way," being as important a song for
me coming off of all those adolescent songs--someone called me and said,
`We're sending you a recording by Sid Vicious and The Sex Pistols.' And I
said, `Yeah. OK.' And they sent it, and it was "My Way." In fact, I dare
you to play it when I'm finished.

GROSS: Oh, I love that version of "My Way."

Mr. ANKA: But they...

GROSS: Don't you--You like it, don't you?

Mr. ANKA: Yeah. Oh, I do like it. Absolutely. But they said back then, you
know, it was jolting. I guess it's the other side of the coin somewhat of
Anka doing these rock songs for "Rock Swings." When you think about, in terms
of the strategy and the philosophy, I think he had a right to do it. And once
I got past it and realized that he was very sincere and that the song meant
something to him, that's when I OK'd the license.

And that's kind of an interesting case in point. You know, I've seen
different artists do them differently, and I've respected the fact that they
brought to the table what they were capable of doing with any of my songs and
allowed it.

GROSS: So getting back to this Ferdinand Marcos thing. Were they using your
records to try to drive...

Mr. ANKA: To calm them down.

GROSS: To calm them down or to drive them out? I couldn't understand...

Mr. ANKA: Yeah. No, to calm them down, apparently.

GROSS: OK.

Mr. ANKA: Yeah. They were--I think The Economist--what they were saying was
that, you know, after implementing everything else that they were doing, they
felt that my music was going to, you know--I mean, my music was very popular
in Asia. You know, there were times where I had five records in the top 10 in
Japan or Manila. So that there was--and they, like Europe, take American
music a lot differently and deeper. So I think the point of the article was
that this music, after everything else, was going to just calm them down a
little bit so that they could continue to negotiate with them. I like to
think it...

GROSS: Did it work?

Mr. ANKA: Well, there they are today. Yeah, I think it did work.

GROSS: Do you get royalties when your record is used that way? (Laughs)

Mr. ANKA: I would say no.

GROSS: Yeah, that's what I thought.

Mr. ANKA: It goes into a collect--I don't think someone's running around with
a sheet in the midst of a war to tell them, `Sign this.'

GROSS: Right, ASCAP doesn't show up.

Mr. ANKA: `Please sign this.'

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Paul Anka. His new CD is called "Rock Swings."

(Soundbite of "My Way")

Mr. SID VICIOUS: (Singing) There were times I'm sure you knew when there was
(unintelligible) but I ...(unintelligible). But through it all, when there
was doubt, I chewed it up and spit it out. Let the record show I took the
blows and did it my way.

I've loved ...(unintelligible)...

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of "Wonderwall")

Mr. ANKA: (Singing) Today is gonna be the day that they're gonna throw it
back to you. By now you should've somehow realized what you got to do. I
don't believe that anybody feels the way I do about you now. And all the
roads we have to walk are winding, and all the lights that lead us there are
blinding. And there are many...
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.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

43:07

Has Tucker Carlson created the most racist show in the history of cable news?

The NY Times did an exhaustive survey of the Fox News hosts' broadcasts. Reporter Nicholas Confessore says Carlson's show is based on ideas that were once "caged in a dark corner of American life."

42:05

British 'Office' co-creator Stephen Merchant isn't afraid to fuse comedy with tragedy

Merchant co-created the British Office and Extras with Ricky Gervais. His new show, The Outlaws, is about people court-ordered to do community service for low-level crimes. He spoke with producer Sam Briger about what inspired the new series, his best writing advice, and how being very tall (6'7") has informed his personality.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue