1993 SHOF inductee and 2008 Johnny Mercer Award honoree Paul Anka graced the Zoom stage for an epic Master Session at USC on April 22, moderated by SHOF Board member and USC’s Chair, Popular Music Program, Patrice Rushen.
Rushen kicked off the session by shining a light on the SHOF’s 9-year relationship with USC and SHOF Board Member and West Coast Committee chair Mary Jo Mennella went on to share the SHOF enthusiasm for supporting the USC program that had begun with guest and inductee David Foster. She profoundly thanked SHOF West Coast Committee vice chair Barbara Cane for forging the relationship with USC.
Known for his signature hit songs including "Diana," "Lonely Boy," "Put Your Head on My Shoulder" and "(You're) Having My Baby," Anka also wrote the theme for The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, one of Tom Jones' biggest hits, "She's a Lady" and the English lyrics to Claude François and Jacques Revaux's music for Frank Sinatra's iconic song "My Way." Three songs he co-wrote with Michael Jackson, "This Is It" (originally titled "I Never Heard") "Love Never Felt So Good," and "Don't Matter to Me" became posthumous hits for Jackson. Anka was nominated for an Academy Award for his theme for The Longest Day, the 1962 film in which he also starred.
Rushen introduced Paul Anka to students and attendees and spoke of his illustrious career, with a song on Billboard charts every decade since 1957, Billboard singles "Diana," "Lonely Boy" and "(You’re) Having My Baby" and having recorded over 120 albums, selling 50 million worldwide of his 900-song catalog. Multi-talented Anka has collaborated with other artists and songwriters and has donned a producer hat at times including Michael Bublé’s "Put Your Head on My Shoulder."
Anka said his career has been an “Inspiring challenge since I was 15 years old,” having recorded his first single at 14. Anka collected a bunch of Campbells Soup can labels for a competition and won a trip to NYC where he got an appointment at the ABC Paramount label with legendary conductor/arranger/producer and A & R executive Don Costa who signed him after they flew Anka’s parents down since he was still underage.
Rushen asked, “How have you managed to stay relevant?”
Anka answered, “Pop music was in its infancy when I started and I had the passion to begin.” As he went through each decade, he said, “The important thing was to keep learning your craft. Listen and try not to be the smartest person in the world. Out of your failures, you become better.” He spoke of how all of the trappings and challenges of success can be tough to deal with when you’re a young person.
He said he felt he had a songwriting talent and after being cut from a high school shorthand class, he switched to a music class. From piano lessons, he evolved into writing songs. His first was "Diana," and he started playing at parties with his group the Bobbysoxers, who became known around his native Ottawa. He said he “Left home on an Easter vacation and I had the hit at 15 instead of going to school.”
He said one of the main things that has given him longevity is songwriting; "The song is the thing." He always tried to separate performing from writing, and felt it was “Deep and meaningful being the writer.”
The classic song "My Way," popularized in 1969 by Frank Sinatra began as a ballad by Jacques Revaux and singer Claude François called "Comme D'habitude" that Anka had heard while in France. He subsequently purchased the rights to the song and began playing it on piano. He became inspired and finished it in 5 hours after speaking with Sinatra who had said he was “quitting the business” and putting out one more album.
He went on to say, "I wish everyone could have experienced what it was like back then with these artists….the foundations they laid down made for incredible experiences."
Anka then told the story of writing the theme to the Johnny Carson Show. He ran into Carson and floated the idea of a new theme song, after which he went into the studio and put it down. Carson said he couldn't use it because his band director, Skitch Henderson, had wanted to write it, so Paul offered half of the song to Carson, who accepted, and that theme song put Anka's children through school…it was a great success story.
Anka talked about starring in the Daryl Zanuck 1962 film The Longest Day. It occurred to him to ask Zanuck who was doing the music for the film, and the response was that there would be no music. Melodies then “started banging at me,” and he wrote the song "The Longest Day." He then made a demo record for $250 and shipped to Zanuck in France, after which he received a telex, "Dear Paul, there will be music."
Anka had started writing in Italy with a number of Italian musicians, including composer/director Ennio Morricone, singer-songwriter Lucio Battisti, and lyricist Mogol. Anka wound up as the first million-seller in Italian history.
He went on to talk about a certain kind of spirituality that influenced a lot of pieces he wrote. “It’s all part of everything and somewhat unknown who we are. There are not millions of people who succeed as songwriters & artists. If you are successful, don’t think it’s you...there's something moving us spiritually. It's magic and it isn't just you.”
Some of the USC students then asked several questions, including “What do you know now that has changed your work-life balance?”
Anka said, “The work balance is very important in life and success can be dangerous. There’s a different dynamic today with technology. You have to hang on to what is the most important dynamic which is family. This is very important in order to keep creating and for your sanity. Don't get too taken with yourself, stay true to yourself and don't fake it.”
In response to a question about writer’s block, Anka said, “When you're creating, it's up and down. Don't fight it and believe it will come to you another day...don't force it or worry about it.”
Rushen and USC students then gifted Anka with a stunningly beautiful medley of his songs, including "Diana," "Put Your Head On My Shoulder," "She's A Lady" and "My Way," performed by USC students Ted Bordeau, Joshua Wilson, Jack Romero, Maddi Lasker, Dominic Anzalone, Jack Lavanway, Soona Lee-Tolley, Noah Ehler, Maria McMillan, Sophie Kierszenbaum, Jules Lee, Dino Iannello, Louie Pereira, Max Sjostrom, Alejandro Davila, Sophia Dion and Katherine Nerro. The tribute brought Anka and everyone in attendance to tears.
In closing what was an extremely instructive and extraordinarily inspirational master session and in response to the students’ musical tribute, Anka stated, “I thank you all today for this very moving moment. What you gave back to me is so far beyond what I gave you.”
Also in attendance with Mennella, Cane and SHOF President & CEO Linda Moran were SHOF Senior VP/BMI President & CEO Mike O’Neill and SHOF West Coast Committee members Joel Flatow, Michael Pizzuto, Kathy Spanberger and Mike Todd.
The SHOF/USC Master Sessions have hosted events featuring David Foster, Billy Steinberg, Benny Blanco, Graham Nash, Donovan and Ralph Peer, Bill Withers, Linda Perry, Desmond Child, Lamont Dozier, Imagine Dragons’ Dan Reynolds and Evan Lamberg, Carole Bayer Sager, Irving Burgie, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, Paul Williams, Steve Dorff, Jason Mraz, Allee Willis, Jackie DeShannon, Michael Bolton, Ne-Yo and John Oates.