A fading breed still going strong

The mutual love affair between Paul Anka and Israel continues to blossom as the legendary crooner returns to Tel Aviv for his fourth show in two years.

Paul Anka 311 (photo credit: Courtesy of Sinaya Mizrachi/PR)
Paul Anka 311
(photo credit: Courtesy of Sinaya Mizrachi/PR)
I can’t even remember what I had for breakfast yesterday, and Paul Anka is recalling an obscure question I asked about Elvis Presley in our first interview two years ago.
Either he’s employing stock show biz glibness to ingratiate himself with me, assuming that the topic came up during that 2009 conversation ahead of his debut performances in Israel, or he’s a sincere student of detail. I’m betting on the latter.
It’s 11:30 p.m. California time, and Anka sounds as fresh and alert as someone half of his 70 years as he promotes his upcoming show on November 12 at the Nokia Arena, his fourth concert in Israel in two years, after never having appeared here once during his illustrious career as a singer, songwriter, performer and entertainer. In addition, Anka has returned here socially, attending and performing at the wedding in the Ben Shemen Forest of the son of close friend, tycoon Yitzhak Tshuva, earlier this year (he flew in on the private plane of another Israeli pal, media mogul Haim Saban).
“It’s been a long time coming, this relationship with Israel, and now that we’re entrenched here, it’s a relationship that I cherish and one that I hope to nurture as best I can,” said Anka.
While Anka’s appreciation for Israel is relatively recent, the country has always been enthralled with the singer, whose compositions range from 1950s teen classics like “Diana” to standards like “My Way” and the “Theme to the Tonight Show.” Two of his early songs – “You Are My Destiny” and “Crazy Love” were featured in the iconic Lemon Popsicle film series, which cemented his status among Israelis of a certain age.
“I think some of my popularity in Israel derives from their love of a certain time period and songs, and because of that, I’ve been embraced,” he said. “There’s a certain passion that Israelis have for music, let alone mine, that really enhances the performances.
“On the other side of that coin, they can also be judgmental and tough – but that’s okay, it keeps you honest as a performer.”
And the consummate all-around performer and entertainer is what Anka remains. Described by Haaretz’s Ben Shalev following his 2009 show at the Nokia Center as “an endangered species, perhaps even the last remnant of an already extinct type of performer,” Anka is anchored in the grand Las Vegas tradition as personified by the Rat Pack – Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin, et al – who ruled America’s stages with tailored suits, suave moves and crooning voices. Anka is the one of the last of that breed of the generation depicted in the hit TV series Mad Men, when the drink was scotch on the rocks and the cigars were Cuban.
Jerusalem Post reviewer Amanda Kuperman used the word “charisma” to describe Anka’s gift at his 2009 shows in Tel Aviv, which she called a time tunnel “to an era of screaming teenage girls and unforgettable ballads.” Anka filling the packed audience’s eyes with “both tears and joy” as he offered the soundtrack to their lives accompanied by a 12piece band/orchestra in a show punctuated by several standing ovations.
For Anka, the dilemma in returning for an encore performance in November is how much of the show to repeat and what to update.
“It’s going to be somewhat different because I don’t want it to be the same,” he said.
“It’s kind of a catch 22 – after not performing in Israel for so long, it’s ver y hard to retire songs. Ultimately you get in trouble.”
WITH SONGS like “My Way” and the Anka-written, Tom Jones-sung “She’s a Lady” Anka explained that he worked under the assumption that even if the Israeli audience heard them a year ago or two years ago for three minutes, they’ll be ready to hear them again.
“The audience comes to the show for a reason, to relive those moments, whatever they are, through the music,” said Anka.
“So what I do for myself, and it also works for the crowd in a subliminal way, is to change the arrangements slightly. It keeps me interested and affects the audience because there’s a subtlety to it, in hearing the songs slightly differently.”
“But I remember going to see Sinatra, who I grew up with and hung out with, and he was always doing the same songs, but in a different order. I’ve toyed with the idea of medleys or dropping certain songs, but the feedback might be catastrophic, so I rejected it.”
Anka clearly takes his performances seriously, giving much thought to the set list, arrangements and presentation.
It’s somewhat surprising since he’s been touring regularly for over 50 years and could probably sing “Having My Baby” or any number of his hits in his sleep.
However, he explained that performing and touring – although for the last ten years he’s done it more selectively – is integral to his ongoing vitality.
“When you’ve made it past a certain point and have a body of work, then you tour,” he said.
“You don’t really know the impact you’re making on an audience unless you see them. It’s kind of a black hole between the creative process and the public.
Until you get out in front of them, you don’t realize how you’re affecting their lives.”
“I continue to work because of the love and the passion, but also because I’m not one to sit back and do nothing. I think it’s important that anyone who has passion for something get out and do it – it keeps your mind and body active and keeps you young in spirit.”
Anka said he learned when he began touring at age 16 about how to sur vive the pitfalls of fame and being on the road, the same temptations that contemporaries like Presley succumbed to.
“I hung out with the Rat Pack and with the Mafia, but I learned to stay on top of my game, stay focused and take care of myself so I could function. There were so many who didn’t and I saw the end result – they died early and they were in pain most of their lives. I take pride in taking care of myself and I learned what was good for me and do ever ything with a lot of integrity.”
Showing no signs of slowing down, Anka is finding time between performances to work on his autobiography, which is 80 percent complete, managing the career of up-and-coming hard rocker Nina Bergman, and spending time with his brood of children and grandchildren (one of his daughters, Amanda, is married to actor Jason Bateman).
When he answered my late-night call, he said that he was up at that hour planning the final touches on a Christmas album which will be released ahead of the holiday season.
Surely, I asked, he had recorded a Christmas album before in his career? “Yeah, 53 years ago. It’s time for an update.”