Paul Anka was one of Rock & Roll’s first teen idols
(No. 41 in a continuing series on artists who should be in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, but are not)
By Phill Marder
This week, two artists – Paul Anka and Bobby Vee – who became teen idols at the age of 15 in spite of their talent.
The suggestion that Anka should be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is certain to draw scoffs from many. But those who were there when Rock & Roll started and those who have studied the facts and not revisionist fiction are aware that Anka was a major player in the early success of Rock.
Just 15 when his first hit record, “Diana,” was working its way to the No. 1 position, the Canadian was riding the tour busses with a lot of other Rock troopers traveling from town to town. He also toured the United Kingdom at age 16, thanks to “Diana” hitting No. 1 there also, becoming one of the biggest selling 45s ever. The terrific flip-side ballad “Don’t Gamble With Love” didn’t hurt sales, either, and helped establish Anka as one of the biggest and youngest teen idols.
At 16, Anka toured Australia with Buddy Holly and Jerry Lee Lewis as his second major hit, the power ballad “You Are My Destiny,” was heading for No. 7 in the US and No. 6 in the UK. Ironically, Anka’s follow-up to “Diana,” “I Love You Baby” backed with “Tell Me That You Love Me” bombed in the States, but both sides were hits in the UK, “I Love You Baby” soaring to No. 3.
The double-sided hit “Crazy Love” and “Let The Bells Keep Ringing” connected in the States in 1958 as Anka toured with the Everly Brothers, Sam Cooke and others. On all these tours, these youngsters were not wearing tuxedos and singing at supper clubs, you can be sure.
Later in the year Holly asked Anka, still just 17, to write him a song. The result was “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore,” which became Holly’s last hit. Anka said, “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore” has a tragic irony about it now, but at least it will help look after Buddy Holly’s family. I’m giving my composer’s royalty to his widow (Maria Elena Santiago) – it’s the least I can do.”
After combining with George Hamilton IV and Johnny Nash for “The Teen Commandments,” Anka gave his first indication of his future direction with two ballads, “(All Of A Sudden) My Heart Sings,” from 1945 and “I Miss You So” from 1940, his first Las Vegas appearance and a starring movie role in Girls Town. But, he was not finished rocking…not just yet.
From the movie came one of his biggest smashes, the driving ballad “Lonely Boy,” which sat four weeks at No. 1. Then came another early Rock classic, “Put Your Head On My Shoulder,” which sat three weeks at No. 2, blocked by Bobby Darin’s “Mack The Knife.” The No. 4 “It’s Time To Cry,” another strong ballad, followed. All three were major hits across Europe and even reached the upper echelon of the US Rhythm & Blues charts.
“Puppy Love,” supposedly written about Annette Funicello, reached No. 2 in early 1960 and “My Home Town” got to No. 8 later that year. But it proved a long wait for his next top 10 entry. However, he continued having hits and became the youngest star at New York’s Copacabana, wrote the theme song for “The Tonight Show,” wrote the English lyrics to the French standard “My Way,” and penned “She’s A Lady,” a mammoth hit for Tom Jones.
While producing “Oh Happy Day” for the Edwin Hawkins Singers, Anka and his protégé, Odia Coates, recorded the controversial “(You’re) Having My Baby,” which, in spite of female ire from many quarters, sat at No. 1 for three weeks. To placate the upset feminists, Anka later sang “our baby” when performing the song live. Coates and Anka followed with three more hits and he added a solo top 10 entry, “Times Of Our Life,” to close out 1975. But, by this time, his Rock & Roll past was well behind him.
Still, in 1990, it was Anka inducting Darin into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, though Darin, from the outset of his career, had made no secret of his ambition to develop into the next Frank Sinatra. Anka didn’t start out with that in mind. He was just a real young kid with tremendous talent. He paid his dues as a teenage Rock & Roll idol and deserves recognition for the contributions he made.
I don’t ever remember seeing Vee in a tuxedo, at least not in concert. Of course, I never was invited to any of his family functions, either.
Yes, his records were not the heaviest, but he did cut many great sides, beginning with his 1959 chart debut, “Suzie Baby” after starting his career in the worst way possible, filling in for Holly after the plane crash that claimed Holly’s life. In the liner notes to his 1963 album, “I Remember Buddy Holly,” Vee wrote, “The local radio station broadcast a plea for local talent to entertain at the scheduled dance. About a week before this, I had just organized a vocal and instrumental group of five guys. Our style was modeled after Buddy’s approach and we had been rehearsing with Buddy’s hits in mind. When we heard the radio plea for talent, we went in and volunteered. We hadn’t even named the group up to that time, so we gave ourselves a name on the spot, calling ourselves ‘The Shadows’.”
Eventually, Vee recorded an LP with The Crickets.
“I have never forgotten Buddy Holly and his influence on my singing style and my career,” Vee noted.
Vee turned out to be much more than a Holly clone. He became a major star, posting six top 10 records in a long and fruitful career.
The first breakthrough came with his 1960 remake of the Clovers’ 1956 hit, “Devil Or Angel,” which Vee carried to No. 6. He followed with another No. 6, the bubblegum classic “Rubber Ball.” The follow-up, “Stayin’ In,” which describes Vee sitting in detention for punching his friend in the nose, didn’t do much to dispel Vee’s sugary reputation, but the flip, “More Than I Can Say,” later remade by Leo Sayer, was a gem, reaching No. 4 in the United Kingdom, and the follow, the solid rocker “How Many Tears,” also hit the UK top 10.
Vee’s records sparkled with pristine production that helped carry “Take Good Care Of My Baby” to No. 1 in 1961 and “The Night Has A Thousand Eyes” to No. 3 in 1963. Meanwhile, “Run To Him,” a wall of sound ballad, reached No. 2 backed by a solid rocker, “Walkin’ With My Angel,” and two more ballads, “Please Don’t Ask About Barbara” and “Sharing You” each peaked at No. 15.
As noted previously, Vee was just as popular in England, notching 10 hit singles, including six that reached the Top 10. Five Vee EPs made the UK top 20 between 1961 and 1963, “Just For Fun” by Vee & the Crickets going all the way to No. 1. His albums also sold well there, “Bobby Vee Meets The Crickets” reaching No. 2 in 1962, while seven others climbed into the top 20. For proof of his staying power, “The Very Best Of Bobby Vee” peaked at No. 18 just three years ago, 47 years after his UK debut. But the British Invasion appeared to end Vee’s hit-making run after “Charms” in 1963, though he surprised everyone with a monster smash in 1967, “Come Back When You Grow Up” climbing to No. 3 in the US The follow, “Beautiful People,” also cracked the US top 40, just edging the original version by its composer Kenny O’Dell.
For the most part, Vee’s chart presence ended as the ’70s entered, but he has remained active on the concert circuit. His backing band, which once included a young Bob Dylan, now features two sons, Jeff and Tom.
Vee’s portfolio should get a second look by those involved in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Though some of his recordings were sugary, his quality never was less than excellent and earlier this year, he was most deservedly inducted into The Rockabilly Hall of Fame. The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame should follow suit.