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Authors: Paul Anka,David Dalton

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BOOK: B009HOTHPE EBOK
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Later on, when Fabian, Bobby Rydell, Frankie Avalon, and all those guys came on the tours, they were very competitive with me, always battling for who was the greatest, who was going to end up on top. Clyde McPhatter, who had been the lead singer of The Drifters, was also managed by Irv and he was
insanely
jealous of me and my success. He was a bitter, angry guy for someone who sang such sweet songs. The turnover of records on the Top Ten was incredible. A new record from a major star would come out every four weeks, unlike today when rock stars will take a year—three years—to make a record.

I guess I was precocious and bratty enough to get people’s hackles up. I used to stick it to everybody on the bus, telling them “
Nyah, nyah,
be seein’ ya! I’m going on the plane tomorrow, suckers!”

It wasn’t so much shoving it in their faces—though that had its own sweet reward for me—it was more that sense of feeling different. I was younger than everyone else. My white middle-class background was different from that of the older black performers; I was even different from the Southern guitar-slinging white boys, Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran. And I guess I did have a cockiness about me, I was pretty damn sure of myself—had to be, to survive in that atmosphere. I’ve also always gotten a kick out of practical jokes. Not everybody, however, shared my enthusiasm for pranks.

Because I was so precocious and cheeky, the tables were soon turned on me. They were itching to give it to me because I was an irritant, just by being who I was, by being younger, writing my own songs, not being part of that wild, drinking, Southern group. And I had a big hit no one my age had a right to have. I think we were in Moscow, Idaho, at a university when all the performers on that tour came to Al Bloom and said they wanted to take me downstairs to the basement after the show and tar and feather me. As an initiation thing, right? They weren’t going to use real tar—it was just cold cream and all that. It was all spearheaded by LaVern Baker—she was a real loud character: outgoing, sexy, experienced, a jokester, and the ringleader of everything. Like Big Mama, you know? They all knew of my closeness to her, and that I’d go along with anything she said, but first they went to Allen and Irv and told him they were going to do it. Irv apparently flipped out. “What are you, crazy? What if the kid has a heart condition?” So they talked me through it, and I think Allen came to me before the initiation and said, “Something’s gonna happen tonight. Don’t worry, it’s an age-old tradition in show business, after the show, your last number, I’m gonna take you downstairs and they’re gonna … tar and feather you.” “They’re going to do
what
?” “Well, Paul, you see they were planning to surprise you, but I just wanted you to be aware of it, so that you don’t panic when it happens, blah blah blah.” So after the show some of the kids dragged me down to the basement, stripped off my clothes right down to my underwear, and then they started lathering me all over with this dark cold cream and sticking feathers on it. Everyone was laughing at the miserable, pitiable expression on my face. They had a real good time socking it to me.

After I’d gotten what was coming to me, the tour settled down to a normal routine and everybody got along great. And after that I wasn’t so aloof or stuck up, thinking I was better or different than them. But can you imagine that nobody took a goddamn picture of it?

I remember opening night at a show at the Syria Mosque in Pittsburgh, where some of the performers showed up completely unprepared. All they brought with them was their record to play to. The band had to scribble some notes down on their lead sheets and improvise as best they could with these singers. Not me. I came in with all my music and charts. It was all copied, very neat, organized, and professional-looking. I came with my music for my three songs, “Down by the Riverside,” “Diana,” and “Don’t Gamble with Love.”

Even though I was sixteen years old and the youngest on the tour, I was totally prepared for each performance. I have a strong work ethic, always have. I’m very fastidious—all my music has to be laid out beforehand, the arrangements neat and clean. If there were any mistakes, I had them copied over. Something was always driving me to stay on top of things. I would walk in to a session and say, “Take it from the top.” You know the band would look up and say to themselves, “Who
is
this kid? Is he an alien?”

You can see a bit of the Anka alien in the film
Lonely Boy,
the 1962 documentary about me directed by Roman Kroitor and Wolf Koenig, especially in that scene in the station wagon where I’m sitting there, totally cool, calm, and collected, affectless with people yapping away all around me. It’s an odd scene for somebody all of twenty-one, even I have to admit—but if I hadn’t had that kind of self-control I’d never have made it.

As brash and sure of myself as I was offstage, with my audience I was always humble and sincere—with them I could unabashedly express my most heartfelt emotions. I identified with them. They were me, in a sense, magnified through music. That was the difference between Bobby Darin and me. I had an abundance of feelings for my audience … and treated them like a lover wooing his main squeeze. Darin didn’t care to project that kind of warmth. He came off as aloof and arrogant—he was trying to do the Sinatra thing—which was his way of interpreting Rat Pack cool. We were different in that way on stage, but offstage we were both very cocky and self-confident.

On tour I was pretty much by myself on stage and off. I would couple up with The Crickets and Buddy Holly, but when I performed by myself, it would be just me, a band leader, a drummer, the piano player, plus my pick of the in-house orchestra. In the beginning, my group consisted of Irv, a couple of musicians, and my cousin Bob Skaff, one of the biggest guys in the promotion business and my close friend up until he died in 2012. And that was the whole group. It evolved into a bigger unit in ’58 and ’59 when I put my own band together. I was never much for excess people, the glam brigade and all that stuff. I had just what I needed around me and that was it. I never wanted a bunch of people buzzing about, confusing me or kissing my ass. I just stuck with the necessities, people I needed to do certain things, and that’s the way it was for a while.

Touring was tough. Real tough. Not like it is today. It was literally an era when you could get into the Top 20 on the
Billboard
chart, and next day you’d be on a bus traveling eight, nine, ten, twelve hours to your next gig. Star treatment for pop singers was nonexistent. And once you get into this trip, you have no friends outside of show biz. These guys were your friends, and you weren’t going to get any special treatment from them. The first thing you learned was to fail onstage. You learned a lot more from your failure than from your success. In an industry that was just starting out you could fall flat on your face in Frozen Sneakers, Ohio, and there wouldn’t be any critics there to record it.

While on tour I stayed in touch, but leaving my family behind was painful. I was constantly worrying about my mother’s diabetes. I would always be checking with my brother and sister and my dad to see how her health was at this point or that, frequently calling home to see how she was doing, how she was feeling. The realization that I could lose her was devastating. This was the woman who sat with me so many afternoons as I tried out my songs on her, who had encouraged me from the start when there was only the first glimmer that I might have some talent in this department. She gave me unqualified support, urging me on. “Paul, you can really do this, you are that talented, you are going to go places.” My mother always deflecting my father’s doubts about my pursuing this stuff. My dad was a wonderful person but like any parent—or any sensible adult, actually—he was concerned I was getting carried away by my fantasy world. It was my mom who saw my vision and believed in it. She gave me her unqualified love. This is the woman whom I lived for, for her approval and encouragement. As my mother’s diabetes got worse, she would have accidents, at one point blacking out and crashing her car into a tree. I remember one devastating time calling home and my dad telling me that medical conditions arising from my mother’s diabetes were getting worse and worse, that her eyesight was deteriorating. My mother was the glue for me until the day she died, when I was eighteen and out of town touring.

*   *   *

No pop or rock stars today would stand for what we put up with on those buses. The condition of those buses was
horrible.
There were two of them: one of the buses was for the band and the other for the tech people. These buses today, with the bathrooms, DVD players, and beds, didn’t exist. I can remember clearly the time when we broke down in the cold in some godforsaken spot. I’m freezing my ass off up in the luggage rack with a blanket. It was the pits.

Then, after you’d sit there on the bus for hours on end, looking at cornfields, you’d get to a broken-down theater where you’d line up next to each other in the crummy dressing rooms with your pomade and your hair dryer to get the hair just right, hang your suits in the shower to steam them out. It was hard work, but we had nothing to compare it to. It was a pleasure just to be there because we were earning a little money, everyone was friendly and there weren’t a lot of ego clashes, which is odd considering half of us were teenage hot shots. We knew we were a part of this special little group that was just starting to break out. In the beginning only a bunch of teenagers embraced us. I went straight from delivering papers for three dollars a week to getting on the bus with guys whose music I loved and being paid $300 a week with the number one record in the country. And loving it! What did I know back then? The conditions on the tours were the absolute worst, but you learned to live with it, you had to be philosophical about it, or it would drive you crazy.

The key guys on those early tours were Fats Domino and Chuck Berry. They were kings. They didn’t travel on the bus, they followed us in their Cadillacs.

Fats was a humorous guy, who’d been doing this stuff since 1949. Nothing fazed him, he made a joke out of everything—and he liked his liquor and pigs trotters. He and Chuck were the “Big Daddys,” the guys you went to for advice. They were colorful, legendary guys.

When we would leave a town, we’d get on the buses and Fats and Chuck would pile into their Cadillacs. To this day, Chuck wants a Cadillac waiting for him at the airport and demands to be paid in cash. He hires a pickup band when he gets there and when the show’s over he is gone. That’s his whole thing. He used to carry his own guitar into whatever gig he was playing. Didn’t bring a band with him, he’d just hire one in the town he was playing. Chuck was a funny, moody guy. You would go backstage and talk with him and it was like he was your best friend and then the next day, he would be sullen and uncommunicative.

These rock ’n’ roll tours would run as long as eighty days, we’d do as many as seventy cities—nobody got any sleep. We were kids, everybody was grateful for the fact that we were getting three or four hundred bucks a week. In a sense we were in that unspoiled period before stars began making ludicrous sets of demands. Today you can’t get some of these people to go to work for two million dollars. Back then you were running on fumes and excitement—not that you weren’t tired, not that you weren’t pissed off, but it was a lot of money for us and then when the camaraderie of being together as a family sunk in, you felt you were part of a team. In most cases, whatever the conditions were, we were just happy to be out of our neighborhoods, our environments. Instead of griping we looked at the big picture: we were having a lot of fun together, traveling to cities we’d never been to before, making music, getting all that adulation from the fans.

To our own core group we were
it,
we were getting written about, photographed everywhere we went, called heartthrobs, screamed at by hordes of young girls. What could be bad about that? Radio played our stuff all the time. We were the Top 20. Sure we complained when the buses broke down, bitched about the lousy food, the flea-bag hotels, but mostly we just accepted it as part of the deal and knew that if we made too much of a fuss we wouldn’t be asked to be on the next tour.

We’d even get bilked on the bus. There’d be Otis Redding in the back or James Brown selling chocolate bars, candy, and Coke for three, four, and five dollars, stuff you could buy in stores for twenty cents?! I remember later on being in Paris on tour. Otis was singing at the Olympia Theatre and he wanted to buy some diamonds, so Bruno Coquatrix, the owner of the Olympia, says, “Why, yes, of course, Monsieur Redding, we take you over to Harry Winston and you pick something very fine, yes?” Bruno is this big guy with a little pencil-thin moustache, impeccably dressed, a connoisseur of wine, women, food—Mr. France. So Bruno, Otis, and I went over to Harry Winston’s. “What is it that we might interest you with this afternoon, Monsieur Redding?” To which Otis, with great panache, says, “Aw, just show me your
latest
diamonds!”

“It was a golden age of camaraderie,” as Phil Everly would say. “Everybody was so young, so thrilled to be part of it all. It was like being in a fraternity. It only lasted about three years before everybody got too big to work together. But many of us who are still around keep in touch, and it’s so great to know someone a whole lifetime.”

The tours were long and tiresome. The average sleep you got was fifteen to twenty hours a week. We played all-night poker games to pass the time. At first I didn’t participate, but then as time went on, boredom set in. It was better than looking at your reflection in the bus window. You’d try and sleep, you’d take the instruments out and have jam sessions—not much more to do than that. Other than that, we were just resting up, anxious to get to the next gig, and in most cases if it wasn’t the hotel, you’d go straight to the arena and set up. We only did two songs each. The stars of the show would do maybe three or four.

It was as if a curtain went up and suddenly there I was with all my idols, these larger-than-life characters. I’m on the tour with Fats Domino. Fats was exactly like you would imagine. To be hanging out with Fats Domino was a dream come true. I just loved his music and he was a real lovable guy. I couldn’t believe him (and he couldn’t believe me, either). He remembers when he first saw this cheeky little kid sneaking into his dressing room to get an autograph, and when he saw me again, he said, “Hey, little Paulie, I’m so proud of you, little Paulie.” Once I was in, I was finally behind the scenes, in the trenches, seeing how everything works (or
doesn’t
work). The one indelible picture I have of Fats was before he’d go on. Because of his deviated septum, two of his aides would pick him up by his ankles and hold him upside down, then another one would come along and put Neo-Synephrine in each of his nostrils to open up his airways. Then they’d prop him back up again. When I saw that, I said to myself, “Man, I’ve really made it. I’m on the inside of the in-crowd. Look at this: my idol, upside-down!” As he’s standing there, seriously, going “Oh, thank you so much,” I’m looking at him, he’s looking at me, ’cause I don’t want to make fun of the guy, this is my hero, one of
them
. So that was the first thing I learned after getting on the road: open that nose up every night. Funny. Fats’s eyes were big and glossy, everything about him was supersize. These guys already had a big body of work by the time I got there—and they virtually invented rock ’n’ roll. You’re sitting there in the wings, watching it, getting off on it, still pinching yourself that this is all really happening to you. I’m one song deep with “Diana” and I don’t even know what I’m going to do next—I think we were still doing shit that I did with the Bobby Soxers for the first year. You watch Fats, Chuck … These guys had an arm’s length of a head start by the time I came on the scene. I’m still checking out how it’s done because nobody choreographed moves like the black acts.

BOOK: B009HOTHPE EBOK
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