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Authors: Paul Anka,David Dalton

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What happened was that a contest was announced in the local newspaper, sponsored by IGA food stores. You could win a trip to New York if you were the one to collect the most Campbell’s soup labels. Well, I had what I considered a great in: I was bagging groceries at our local IGA supermarket. So I made a plan (I tend to do that): I wrote down the names of the women who bought three or four Campbell’s soup cans. Like many small towns, Ottawa has its neighborhoods where everybody knows everybody else, and from delivering newspapers I knew where most people lived. Whenever I got a chance I’d sneak out and go to the houses of the women who’d bought the cans of soup, ring the doorbell, tell the lady that there’s a contest, so please don’t throw your cans away. The plan was actually pretty intricate because of course I often had to go back more than once—people usually wanted to eat the soup before giving me the label! I also had to convince them to let me go through their garbage.

Needless to say, I collected a lot more labels than the kids who were just getting their labels from the soup cans that they ate at home. I won the contest for my district. Along with forty other winners from all over Canada, I left Ottawa on a train for New York. We all stayed at the Sloane House YMCA. I went to the Brooklyn Paramount Theatre, walked down Broadway, got a feel for the town. Just getting out in that environment and seeing something like New York, coming from where I came, well, that was the beginning for me. New York was a total cultural shock. I sniffed it out, I said to myself, “This is what I want—this and music.” I knew I belonged. And I’d yet to write a song and get it recorded!

At the hotel I remember sitting way the hell up on the thirty-fifth floor. I’d never seen that before. Looking at Manhattan down below, looking at the traffic, the streets, the buildings. I was blown away from the impact. In the ’50s it’s hard to describe what New York was to me. All our high spirits spilled out into pranks—waste-paper baskets trashed and thrown out the window, doing what kids did.

*   *   *

I never thought anything would come of the first song I’d written, “Blau Wilde De Veest Fontaine,” but that summer fate intervened with a visit to my uncle in California. Uncle Morris was an opera singer, and it was principally because of him that the music I heard around the house was classical. By the time I figured out how to get out to California, I knew quite a bit about the music scene, demos, and that kind of thing.

Right after my fifteenth birthday, I used my summer job savings to buy an airline ticket to L.A. I wanted to go to California to get away somewhere else in the States. I had the lead sheets for the song, but I didn’t have a plan in mind for pitching it; I just went out to be with my uncle. I got to L.A., and looked for a summer job. My uncle was also an actor and he was working in a play called
at the Pacific Playhouse on La Cienega and Santa Monica. I got a job there selling candy bars, and even parked cars.

A popular R & B hit in the country that summer was “Stranded in the Jungle” by The Cadets. A mile or two from where my uncle lived, if you went straight down Sunset, to Sunset and Vine, was Wallach’s Music City. They had all those booths where you could listen to the records about four-by-four feet and eight feet high. I took “Stranded in the Jungle” into the booth and looked at the sleeve and it said, “Modern Records, Culver City, California.”

So Modern Records was in Culver City—and was therefore only fifteen minutes away by car. I hitched a ride out there to some place on Washington Boulevard, carrying the lead sheet to my song. Modern Records had a little garage front-office setup—like early Motown or what Sun Records, where Elvis started out, must have been like. I walked in and there were two guys, Jules and Joe Bihari, and their sister. It was this mom-and-pop record business that produced the hit record “Stranded in the Jungle.”

I didn’t have an appointment, I just walked in off the street. It wasn’t exactly a busy, bustling establishment. There wasn’t anything urgent happening every two minutes like there is at a modern-day record company. Everyone was just hanging around. It was in the infancy stage of the business. They were just living off this one hit they had, probably almost by accident. They were waiting for the next call. They had plenty of time to listen to me.

They first looked at me and were somewhat taken aback, as well you can imagine they would be, presented with a fifteen-year-old in jeans and a white T-shirt off the street representing himself as a singer-songwriter. To them I was this curiosity they were looking over with fascination.

“Whadda ya want, kid? Who are you?”

“Well, I got this song, gonna be a hit,” I said.

“Okay, sing it to us.” And I did. It just spilled out, whatever it was emanated from me to them and right away they said, “We’d like to record it.” I was surprised, but not all that surprised—like any teenager I believed everything I did was magic and certain to be a surefire hit.

Later on they said, “Well, how’d ya like to do it with The Cadets?” How would I like The Cadets to be on it? Are you kidding? I’d do anything to record with the folks who had a hit record in the country. “Hell,” I said, “I’ll take anything. You guys could sing it—but The Cadets … wow! Okay!” I freaked out—the hit group of the summer was going to sing on my record. How could it fail?

I met with Ernie Freeman, who was the A&R director (artists and repertoire), who was just starting his own successful career. He went on to produce all the Bobby Vee records, and later worked as an arranger on Sinatra’s “Strangers in the Night.” He became huge, but this was right at the beginning of his career. We arranged a session and in two weeks, there I was in the back room doing “Blau Wilde De Veest Fontaine” with The Cadets. We did another song I’d wanted to cover, an R&B number called, “I Confess,” on the flip side.

You could do things like that back then. It wasn’t like the media-driven society that we have today. There was a kind of innocence in those days, when pop music was in its infancy stage.

That was the first song that I ever wrote and it actually came out! “Blau Wilde De Veest Fontaine” doesn’t sound like too promising a title, I know, but when you’re just feeling your oats, and when the business wasn’t really that big a business, it was enough. There was melody to it, without which it would have been just a novelty song. The business wasn’t as precise as it is today, it wasn’t as competitive. It was an environment where everybody had a shot; it was this new business—nobody knew what was going on. That was the difference.

As unusual as the title was, that’s what I thought we had going for us. I thought it would attract attention; I thought people would say, “Wow, ‘Blau Wilde De Veest Fontaine’! What is that?”

Well, not surprisingly, the record was never a hit—it only sold about three thousand copies. So I went back to Canada, a failure at fifteen! Okay, it did get me on a CBC-TV show called
Pick the Stars,
but the only guy who played the song was George Lorenz, who called himself “the Hound Dog,” out of Buffalo.

The song got me a little notoriety, but not for long. My career had started … and ended just as fast.

After the record went nowhere in the fall of 1956, I re-enrolled in tenth grade at Fisher Park High School and went back to school in Canada. At that age I was sort of a cross between
The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz
What Makes Sammy Run
? The former was a film with Richard Dreyfuss and the latter a popular novel by Budd Schulberg about the driving ambition of the story’s central figure: Sammy Glick. I was a blend of these two characters and anyone else who had the burning desire and dream to get involved in some improbable schemes. I eventually did play Sammy Glick on Broadway a few years later.

That fall semester I took a course in music and as my involvement grew, I began to get excited again.

I’d been very aware early on that rock ’n’ roll was the new wave in music. That was the future and I wanted in on it. Once I made that decision, I realized that if I wanted to record any new songs, I’d have to write them myself. All the established songwriters of the day—Cole Porter, Sammy Cahn, and Irving Berlin, among others—were busy writing songs for crooners like Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and Perry Como. They weren’t about to start writing songs for me, that’s for sure. Anyway, these guys hated rock ’n’ roll, thought it was the death knell for most crooners and the guys who wrote songs for them. Overnight it was a brash new world that the older writers found cheap and corny. They figured it was just a novelty sensation that would go away. Rock ’n’ roll had made serious inroads into the charts but it wouldn’t be until The Beatles and the British Invasion in the early sixties that the big band singer became obsolete—except in Vegas, but then Vegas is another country (as we’ll soon see). Presley didn’t make it in Vegas the first time he went out there—they were in a time warp for a long time as far as youth culture was concerned. Crooners flourished for years in clubs—they’re still out there, that’s never going to go away. The Beatles spelled the end for the Jimmy Durantes and those type of singers but it took almost ten years for rock to take over the charts—up till then there was a mix of different genres on the radio, in the Top Ten.

Even if you were famous like Elvis or Pat Boone, there just weren’t many writers out there writing songs for rock ’n’ roll singers. The singers who pioneered the rock ’n’ roll revolution—Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Fats Domino—had mainly written their own songs. The only guys writing pop and rock ’n’ roll songs for other people in the fifties were the Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller duo, and the inimitable Doc Pomus.

Meanwhile, by the late 1950s rock ’n’ roll had become the overwhelming force in American pop music, and in that blitzkrieg nothing was more culturally important than The Biggest Show of Stars. It was this giant rock ’n’ roll show that traveled by bus throughout the United States and Canada, hitting the major cities at least twice a year. It was basically R&B driven. It featured some of the biggest names in rock ’n’ roll including Fats Domino, The Platters, Chuck Berry, The Everly Brothers, Eddie Cochran, The Drifters, The Crickets, and Clyde McPhatter. These acts had some of the hottest hit records at the time and were adored by teenage fans. I was a huge fan of these guys—they were my absolute idols.

When I heard the tour was coming to Ottawa I wasn’t going to miss out on that. Other than Elvis Presley coming to town, the rock ’n’ roll tour was the music event of the year. The tour bus rolled into town for a show April 18, 1957, at the Ottawa Auditorium, an old downtown hockey arena. My goal was to get backstage and meet the performers. I had a plan and I was going to succeed come hell or high water. I had been to hockey games, so I knew how to get backstage. After the concert, when no one was looking, I snuck into the backstage area and went looking for my musical heroes.

You had the stage, the seating, and a decrepit, crumbling backstage area. Security was tight. There were a lot of young female and male fans running around, wanting to meet the stars, and one of them was me. The others didn’t get very far; I was the only one who managed to sneak backstage.

The dressing rooms were built with cinder-block bricks that were loose enough so you could move them. I’d bought a new black jacket with white sleeves, and I wanted all the stars to sign the sleeves. I pushed one of the cinder blocks in and through the opening, I yelled to Fats Domino, “Can I have your autograph?” And that’s when Allen Bloom, one of the show’s producers, came out and reprimanded me.

“Get out of here! What are you doing backstage? You’re not supposed to be here!”

“But, I’m a singer,” I said indignantly. “My name is Paul Anka. I have a record out here in Canada called ‘Baluuwildebeestefontein.’”

“Blau-what?! I don’t care who you are, you can’t be back here, you have to leave!” he said, before calling for security to lead me away.

They threw me out one door and I went back in through another. Nobody was going to stop me. So I get backstage again and I was just hanging around, determined to talk to Fats Domino and Chuck Berry. I see Berry, but he is more interested in chatting with a pretty eighteen-year-old girl who had an autograph book.

Chuck Berry was one of the first people to hear “Diana.” He just hated it! “You’re too young and she’s too old?” he recited sneeringly. “That’s horrible,” he went on. “What is this stuff? That’s not a song, man, that’s a conversation you have at the Dairy Queen.” The story’s in his autobiography, actually.

To put it mildly he wasn’t too interested in me or my songwriting. “Diana” must have seemed very corny and simple-minded to him, one of the greatest songwriters in all rock ’n’ roll. I played it to him and he as much as threw me out of the room. “Listen, kid, let me give you a bit of advice, quit what you’re doing and get a real job.” Which I totally understood ’cause you know that’s what was so great about him, the stories in his songs are great Southern tales all painted with broody landscapes, neon, and fast cars. Here I was, this kid, with this dream and a fire in the gut, and just blurting out this very basic emotion. It was like telling the rock ’n’ roll Shakespeare you just wrote a sonnet and it goes like this …

Undaunted I went over to see Fats Domino, who was in his dressing room, hoping for some better luck. I said, “Mr. Domino, I’ve got a song for you.” Domino listens to “Diana.” He looked at me quizzically and then beamed in that way Fats did, flashing his big teeth. “Now that’s sincere,” he said, and laughed. “Not my kinda thing, son, not a song I could sing, understand? I’m old.” Big laugh. “You want people to hear that song you best record it yourself.” By this point, Bloom showed up and sees me. He’s furious that I broke through security a second time and he’s ready to throw me out himself.

“I told you to get out of here, kid!”

Just then, Irvin Feld shows up and I call out to him, hoping to get his attention.

“You’re Mr. Feld!” I said to him.

“Yes?” he said, like why would that be of any interest to me.

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