Paul Anka in the 1980s

Forty years ago, I discovered a recording by Paul Anka, a song that actually got played with other contemporary songs. At first, I thought I might have misunderstood who was singing on it, but no, I was correct. Paul Anka?

In the 1980s, Anka was about as far from hip as a teen heartthrob from the late 1950s could be. Anka was from the Rat Pack, Vegas nightclub generation. This song sounded like it could be a Christopher Cross, Stephen Bishop, Melissa Manchester, Kenny Loggins, Neil Diamond, Lionel Ritchie, Barbra Streisand, Chicago, George Benson, Olivia Newton John or Julio Iglasius type adult contemporary pop production.

So, how did he end up getting serious airplay with a slick sounding, mid tempo ballad, washed in a sophisticated L.A. musical arrangement? David Foster.

Anka signed with Columbia Records and released Walk a Fine Line (1983). Hooking up with the white-hot Foster was genius. Bouncy, blue-eyed soul was in fashion, and Foster was becoming a hit-factory. He turned the avant-garde punk-rockers, The Tubes, into top 40 successes.

“Hold Me ‘Til the Mornin’ Comes” was released as a single and cracked the Billboard top 40, and #2 on the adult contemporary chart. The song stayed at the bottom of the top 40, but stubbornly continued airplay for months. This was Anka’s first top 40 action since 1978, and would be his last time on the top 40. Part of the success of this song is in the background vocals from Peter Cetera, who apart from being the face of the band Chicago during that period, also had a burgeoning solo career. Foster retooled Chicago into an adult contemporary charting band before helping Cetera go solo.

There’s an interesting story regarding Michael Jackson and this album. Yes, really. Jackson wanted to work with Anka in the early 1980s, this was before Thriller. They worked on a song together and before they could meet to put the musicians on the tape they had made, Jackson stole the tapes. Yes, really. A threat to sue got Anka back the tapes, and the collaboration idea ended. End of story? Nope. In 2009, when Jackson died, his people released some “new” music and it included “This Is It”. Anka recognized something familiar about the song, he felt strongly that Jackson used their working copy to become this song. Anka again threatened to sue, and received co-writing credit and half the royalties for that and two other songs they both worked on. Michael Jackson stealing from Paul Anka? Seriously.

“I said, ‘Hey guys, that’s my song with Michael. We have a problem here, boys. This ain’t going to fly; you’ve got about two, three hours to fix this.’”

So, back to Walk a Fine Line. There is only one weak song on the album out of nine songs. Denny Diante is listed as the producer, but the fingers of David Foster are all over these songs. He is listed as co-writer on five of the nine songs. He also is listed as keyboard player and I’m betting he is responsible for the session players from Toto, the new “Wrecking Crew” of the era. Jay Grayton has two co-writing credits as well as Michael McDonald who has three credits and lends background vocals on those songs. Even the songs Foster does not co-write or play on still has his slick, commercial groove.

This is a very crafted album, with bright and layered arrangement. It is a keyboard-centric album with stylishly thumping bass and strategic guitar fills. It represents the best and worst of the 1980s. Top-notch players. The help of Foster, Graydon, McDonald, Loggins, Cetera, Bill Cuomo (keyboards, arrangements) and Nathan West (bass) cannot be overstated.

01. “Second Chance” – An energetic, hummable song starts the album. Good choice. This could have been a hit.
02. “Hold Me ‘Til The Mornin’ Comes” – Cetera’s vocals and Foster’s arrangement really make this song. Cetera really adds volume to Anka’s thin voice.
03. “Darlin’, Darlin’” – Background vocals by Kenny Loggins. Thundering bass by Nathan East. Mid tempo, slowly it settles into mellow, silky groove.
04. “No Way Out” – Co-written by Michael McDonald, this slick ballad has a jazzy feel as McDonald sings and plays. Anka has a thinner vocal, similar to McDonald’s fuller, husky. Classy and romantic song.
05. “Walk A Fine Line” – Another helping hand by McDonald, mid tempo R&B song that might have been a Doobie Brothers adult contemporary hit. Another fine effort.
06. “Take Me In Your Arms” – This bouncy, groove song should have been a hit. Co- written by Foster, played and harmony vocals by McDonald, it has that “What a Fool Believes” vibe. Toto’s Steve Lukather provides great guitar solo. Anka has never rocked harder.
07. “This Is The First Time” – A Fosterized power-ballad. Perfect for Anka’s nightclub gigs.
08. “Gimme The Word” – A duet with Karla DeVito. A gimmicky song with an obnoxious arrangement. An attempt to sound 1980s hip. A very dated arrangement.
09. “Golden Boy” – A non-Anka or Foster written song, good, but not quite on par with the album’s first seven songs. Very 1980s slick, generic pop.

I still have my vinyl copy, but I did seek out a hard to find CD version, a high quality Japanese version. So, yes, I like this album.

More on the music of Paul Anka in a continuation of this blog.

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