By the late '60s, big band crooners from Sinatra on down came to realize that rock music wasn't going to be the passing fad that they'd hoped. And so, grudgingly, they waded across the divide and began covering songs of the younger generation. The albums were usually called something like A Today Kind Of Sound, and featured candy-colored pseudo-psychedelic artwork with the singer in a slightly mod get-up.
The problem was, when Frank sang "Mrs. Robinson," you got the distinct sense that he was baffled by a line like "Put it in your pantry with your cupcakes." You could almost hear him thinking, "Sammy Cahn, it ain't."
These cross-generational alliances, many of which are collected on Rhino's Golden Throat series (Jack Jones doing "Dixie Chicken," anyone?), died out, then returned in the '90s. Tom Jones covered Prince's "Kiss" and Pat Boone made the cringeworthy In A Metal Mood album, on which he mangled Deep Purple, Ozzy Osbourne, and Alice Cooper.
So the news that Paul "My Way" Anka, he of the sandalwood tan and Vegas shtick, was releasing a collection of contemporary rock covers, didn't bode well. One night in Tower, I noticed the album on a listening station. For fun, I played Anka's take on Van Halen's "Jump." And wow, was I knocked out. The song was reinvented as a full-on Count Basie number with sinewy bass, sparse piano, and those kind of brassy exclamation points that make your tie flip up. The chorus was a call-and-response between singer and band. But what really won me over was how committed Anka sounded. When he sang, "And I know, baby, just how you feel / You gotta roll with the punches to get what's real," it sounded like a mission statement.
I listened further. Spandau Ballet's "True" was recast as a gently swinging ballad, with thumb-soft guitar and a stair-stepping horn chart framing Anka's aerodynamic voice. The guy is 64 and he's nailing high notes like they're nothing. He swings hard through Survivor's "Eye Of The Tiger" and Oasis's "Wonderwall" (Anka communicates this hippy-dippy lyric better than Liam Gallagher), then turns the Pet Shop Boys' "It's A Sin" into a gorgeous samba. By the time I got to the feline, finger-snapping cool of the Cure's "Lovecats," I was sold.
This record works for three reasons. First, the arrangements, by Randy Kerber, Patrick Williams and John Clayton, are inventive and swinging. Second, the songs are well-chosen. And third, Anka's singing is dynamic, sensitive, soulful and in the moment--everything you want from a vocalist, regardless of genre or generation.
He writes in the liner notes: "It was my goal to execute these songs 'my way' and in doing so, give people a great deal of pleasure--the cornerstone of a well-lived life!"
Consider me pleasured. • Bill DeMain