Seeing the celebrations planned marking what would have been Frank Sinatra's 100th birthday I was reminded of an interview I did with Paul Anka while I was working in Atlantic City in February of 1993.
This particular interview stands out for me not so much for what I learned in it, rather for what I almost didn’t learn after it.
The interview came just a couple of weeks after the death of legendary lyricist Sammy Cahn. What I didn’t know as I sat down with Anka that night, was how close he was with Cahn. The two had traveled around the world together, and as Anka told me, they were closer than friends.
The subject actually came up after we had finished our interview, the cameras were turned off and we were just sitting around talking. I shared with Anka how Cahn had told me how he came to write "Three Coins in a Fountain" in only an hour, a song which went on to win Sammy the first of his four Academy Awards.
It was then Anka said to me, “Well, did you ever hear how I came to write "My Way"?”
With that, I was smart enough to start the cameras rolling again as Anka started telling me about running into Frank Sinatra in Miami back in 1968.
“He told me at that time when we met he was retiring from show business,” Anka recalled. “And he said, ‘Kid, write me something that says it!’”
How do you put into word and song the sum and substance of a man who, for a generation, had so influenced American music and pop culture? A man who was as colorful as he was talented.
He thought about it for the longest time, but despite his best efforts, nothing was coming to him.
He tried to put it out of his mind as he returned to New York City where he told me one day, at 2 a.m., with rain pouring down outside, it hit him.
Originally schooled to be a journalist, Anka wrote all of his songs on a typewriter. So he got up, walked over to his typewriter and just started pounding out “and now the end is near and so I face the final curtain.”
When he finished, he knew immediately that this would be the song for Sinatra.
Anka later flew out to Las Vegas and hand delivered the song to Sinatra, “and he said ‘kookie kid, kookie. I’m doing it,'" remembered Anka. “You know to him, that was like ecstatic.”
Weeks would go by though and he heard nothing more from the Sinatra camp. Did he really like it or didn’t he? Nothing.
Then one day Anka said the phone rings and on the other end of the line was Sinatra. He was calling from inside the very studio where he just recorded what would become his signature song.
“He said ‘listen to this kid’ and he put the phone up to the speaker and I heard it for the first time over the phone sitting in New York City and I cried. Man I cried,” said Anka. “I mean I went from Puppy Love to My Way overnight.”
I’ve had the occasion to tell that story a number of times over the years, but the one I remember most was the morning of May 15, 1998, while speaking at an awards breakfast in Wilkes-Barre, Penn.
I remember the date so well because it was the morning that we all woke to learn that Frank Sinatra had died.
As I began my remarks on the particular award program that was to follow that morning, I did so over the din of the wait staff clearing the dishes, the conversations continuing at the tables.
I began to tell the above tale and, as I did, I noticed the noise in the room lowered, the conversations suddenly slowed to a halt, even the wait staff and had stopped to hear the backstory of how one of the most iconic figures in music was paired with one of the greatest tunes in the American song book.
A story I almost missed.
Thank you Paul Anka. Thank you Sammy Cahn. Happy Birthday, Frank!