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The Time of His Life

Pop music * Paul Anka, appearing with Pacific Symphony tonight, is one contented crooner.

April 16, 1999|JON MATSUMOTO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's been more than 20 years since Paul Anka had a hit single in the United States. Yet the 57-year-old singer-songwriter says he's as content as he's ever been during a career that has spanned five decades.

"I've arrived at a place where I'm very comfortable [with myself], and my audience is very comfortable with me," said Anka, whose career began meteorically in 1957 as a 15-year-old heartthrob. "I'm in a place where I'm working when I want and how I want. My life isn't determined by hit records anymore. It's determined by integrity and professionalism."

Pursuing chart success may no longer be an objective, but Anka is still enthusiastic about the concert stage, performing 30 to 35 weeks every year.

Tonight and Saturday, fans can see Anka perform with the Pacific Symphony at the Orange County Performing Arts Center. The Pacific Symphony will open with a pops concert. After an intermission, Anka and his 20-plus member band will join the orchestra for a set of about one hour.

"I do about 10 symphony dates a year," Anka said by telephone from St. George, Utah, where he was vacationing earlier this week.

"Sometimes it's to help out symphonies. Unfortunately, a lot of them are in [financial] trouble. But other times it's just because we love working with symphonies, and it's just a kick for us."

Anka--a native of Ottawa who has scored 33 Top-40 hits, 24 between 1957 and 1963--doesn't view his concerts as "oldies" shows.

Yes, he reaches into his past to perform early pop hits such as "Put Your Head on My Shoulder" (No. 2 in 1959) or later favorites such as "(You're) Having My Baby" (No. 1 in 1974). But he also delivers songs such as "Freedom of the World," which will feature a gospel choir, and a tribute to Sammy Davis Jr.

For the Pacific Symphony concerts, Anka will also sing songs that others popularized, such as "My Way": Anka wrote the lyrics for Frank Sinatra's signature song, recorded in 1968.

(As writer of Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show" theme, the Beverly Hills resident has earned enough royalties to keep him financially comfortable.)

Anka has always had his detractors. He's been dismissed by critics who view him as the bland alternative to more galvanic rock 'n' roll pioneers who emerged during the 1950s. While Elvis delivered incendiary rockers such as "Hound Dog," Anka crooned sentimental tear-jerkers such as "Puppy Love."

Yet Anka remains in demand. Last year, he signed lucrative four-year deals with Bally's Grand Resorts in Atlantic City, N.J., and Foxwoods Casino in Connecticut. (Most casino contracts with performers are two-year deals.) He also continues to tour heavily in South America, Asia and Europe.

Anka, a minority owner of the National Hockey League's Ottawa Senators, established an overseas fan base early in his career. He has recorded albums in French, Italian, Spanish, German and Japanese.

"From '57 on, I've never stopped performing internationally," Anka said. "I didn't want to be just a domestic act. I didn't want to overplay myself here. Elvis wouldn't [perform in overseas markets]. Very few of us did at that time. I like the fact that my music is listened to by people in different cultures all over the world."

In September, Anka released "A Body of Work," a CD of duets with his daughter Anthea, Celine Dion, Tom Jones and Barry Gibb. There are a few new songs amid the classics.

*

During recording, Sinatra was in declining health and unable to participate personally. With computer technology, though, Anka was able to sing "My Way" along with Sinatra's original recorded vocals.

Anka lamented the passing of Sinatra in May and the lack of performers of his caliber.

"It's a different kind of a business today," Anka said. "There's no substance. There's an abundance of stuff that's selling because society needs that new sizzle, that new thing. Then they discard it because, when you strip away [the surface], there's nothing there. You don't have any substance. Sinatra had that substance."

* Paul Anka and the Pacific Symphony perform tonight and Saturday at 8 p.m. the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. $22-$52. (714) 755-5799.

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