The idea was to not get hurled from a speeding vehicle.
This was Paul Anka’s concern, winkingly, as he contemplated the prospects of writing for the Chairman of the Board for the first time.
Flashback to the onset of the 1960s.
The now celebrated singer-songwriter was in his early 20s, but he was already a veteran of the music business, having written and recorded his first hit, “Diana,” when he was 15.
But he knew that the career lifespan of a teen heartthrob was akin to that of a well-coiffed fruit fly: You had to grow or you’d be gone.
“When I started as this kid, me and (Bobby) Darin used to sit around and say, ‘Hey, what do we do next when the voice changes?’ ” Anka recalls. “And Vegas was the place. So late ’50s, ’60, was always about Vegas and Sinatra and the Rat Pack. I was curious and I wanted to evolve.”
A Sin City start
Anka first came here in ’58, performing at the Sands with Sophie Tucker. It wasn’t long before he was in the Rat Pack’s orbit, rubbing shoulders with Frank Sinatra.
“He’d always tease me and say, ‘When you going to write for me?’ ” Anka recalls. “And I’m scared to death. I’m coming off ‘Puppy Love’ and ‘Lonely Boy,’ which you and I both know he would have thrown me out of a moving car if I ever presented it to him.”
Yet Anka would end up penning the lyrics to one of Sinatra’s most iconic hits, “My Way,” a song that encapsulates the man as well as any.
Anka was the musical equivalent of a method actor in a way, inhabiting the person he was channeling in song.
“In knowing him, I was able to write, eat it up and spit it out,” he explains. “I knew the way he talked. It was almost molded to the way he would speak about something. When you know these people and you hang with them, you get kind of an inside trader’s view, if you will, of what these people are about.”
So, on the night he wrote “My Way,” from midnight to 5 a.m., it all came as naturally as the rain pounding against his window pane.
“There was a huge thunderstorm, I’m typing away and it was just coming out like he was writing it,” Anka says. “I knew when I was done with it that I had something very, very special. I called him from New York, I flew out there and that night I sang it to him in the dressing room. He called me two months later and played it over the phone from the speaker.”
Anka took a similar approach with Tom Jones, for whom he wrote “She’s a Lady.” Other well-known songs penned by Anka include the themes for “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” and the popular film “The Longest Day” along with his own hits such as “Put Your Head on My Shoulder” and “(You’re) Having My Baby.”
Penning a hit parade
For Anka, becoming a writer was a matter of necessity.
He knew he had a way with words as a cub reporter when he was a kid, having once contemplated a career as a journalist.
He also knew no one would be handing him any tunes anytime soon.
“Because I was so young, no one was interested in recording me, let alone writing songs for me,” Anka says. “So I kind of did it subliminally at some point, just saying, ‘You’d better do it yourself or you’re never going to be heard.’
“Pop music was in its infancy,” he continues. “You have to remember, television didn’t start until 5 in the afternoon. So I’m out there all by myself, this kid with a bunch of songs who can write and sing them, and for the most part, no one would even look at me. At my age, I struggled with it. But I knew that I had something — enough — that I saved my money until I got to New York and I got lucky at 15 years old with my first song, ‘Diana,’ which I wrote and which kind of set the new pace, because it was always guys twice my age who were writing hits and most of the artists weren’t writers other than the blues people.”
Still, it wasn’t easy at first, even with a future hit in “Diana” under his belt. Anka recalls a rough review from one of his musical idols.
“I broke into a dressing room once with Chuck Berry and I sang ‘Diana’ to him, and he said, ‘It’s the worst song I ever heard,’ ” Anka laughs. They weren’t ready for a 15-year-old kid, but as the years evolved, my whole thing was, ‘You’d better become a performer if you want to last.’ ”
Las Vegas was where he did so, and the 78-year-old Anka retains a fondness for the city that so was instrumental in the honing of his stage chops, noting that he plans on moving here next year.
On his current tour, Anka is paying tribute to his old Vegas running buddy with his “Anka Sings Sinatra” show, where he’ll also perform a number of his own hits.
Revisiting his roots
In a way, Anka is coming full circle, returning to the place where he not only made the scene but became a part of it.
“You have to realize when I walked in there and met these guys, it was like, that was it,” Anka says of his first run-ins with the Rat Pack and befriending Sinatra. “I was totally intimidated, trying to retain my cool and whatnot. But working there and being around him socially, going out and all that, you got to know the man.
“You knew that there was some substance there,” he adds. “He was great with his friends. Forget about all the imaging and what he had to live up to, what people knew. I saw all sides of that, and I liked it. I was very attracted to the fact that he could be that and deal with the success the best he could and then have this incredible integrity toward his craft.”
Decades later, times have changed, but not the lessons those times imparted.
“You learned to keep your nose clean. You learned to keep your ego in check,” Anka says. “In watching Sinatra and all those guys, I never became a big drinker, I never became a cigarette smoker, because I watched what it did to them.
“But I loved their company. I loved these guys, because they had empathy. I knew what they were off stage,” he continues, before recounting perhaps the most important lesson of all. “You learned to be a gentleman.”
Who: Paul Anka
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: The Smith Center, 361 Symphony Park Ave.
Tickets: $45-$149 (702-749-2000)