Everyone needs a break sometimes. But Paul Anka, the ageless 70-year-old crooner, took much longer than he ever imagined to release his second Christmas album, Songs of December. More than 50 years, in fact.
"That's a good question," he says in a honeyed near whisper when asked why he hadn't returned to the holiday scene since 1960's It's Christmas Everywhere.
The last few times we heard from Anka, the original teen idol was definitely not acting his age. On 2005's Rock Swings, he took on songs by R.E.M., Nirvana, Bon Jovi and Billy Idol. He followed that up with 2007's Classic Songs, My Way, another album of unexpected Anka-ized covers of tunes by Bob Seger, Joni Mitchell, Bryan Adams and Duran Duran.
Both albums helped create a renaissance for Anka, the late 1950s teen dream who melted hearts with classics like "Diana," "Lonely Boy" and "Put Your Head on My Shoulder," all written and recorded when he was still a high schooler. He dropped out of school at age 16 when his first number one hit, "Diana," (which he says he wrote in 20 minutes at age 15) took off.
Now, Anka is unleashing a new album of Christmas classics that he thinks reinvents the genre by doing away with the expected sleigh bells and mistletoe in favor of richly romantic, cinematic arrangements that recall the days of his youth. "There's nothing quite like it out there," says Anka of songs like his bossa nova version of "I'll Be Home for Christmas," as well as his takes on "Let It Snow," "Silver Bells," "Blue Christmas" and "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year."
He hopes the disc will become a new must-have, much like his favorite holiday releases from such old pals as Nat "King" Cole, Johnny Mathis and Andy Williams.
The truth is, Anka is one of the only boy crooners-to-men left standing. Tony Bennett has talked in interviews about how a teenaged Anka used to attend his shows and study Bennett's moves. But Bennett was never part of the gang Anka ultimately ran with, so while they are both enjoying late-career upswings, their paths to this point were much different. Bennett didn't play Vegas casinos the way Anka did, and he didn't hang with Dino, Sammy and Sinatra (for whom Anka famously penned the English-language lyrics to "My Way").
And Anka managed to avoid the malaise and substance abuse that Bennett has admitted experiencing at mid-career. How? Clean living, naturally, and that famous pen. "The difference for me was that I've always been a songwriter," says Anka. "Tony went through lean periods, but I was writing and going and traveling."
Nearly six decades in, Anka looks and feels much younger than his age. He attributes that vigor to the lessons he learned early on from the other acts he shared tour buses with as a 16-year-old, taking careful notes on how drugs, drinking, smoking and carrying on usually led to a dead end. "I learned that you have to take care of yourself," he says. "In life we make choices and my choice was to keep my body fit, eat well, exercise, learn how to use my voice properly."
Yes, he has the occasional sip of cognac, but otherwise Anka tries to maintain a level of moderation in all things, which explains why as we speak he is getting ready to pack his bags for yet another European tour. Did he ever imagine he'd still be doing this all these years after "Diana"? The answer is yes. And no.
"When you feel it building and you have a solid foundation and ultimately make it through … then get into your second decade and you're still surviving and writing and traveling and you've been all over the world, you start to look at the future in certain increments," he says. "I thought if I kept focused and healthy and constantly changed I had a good shot."