He did it HIS way: How Frank Sinatra (with help from Paul Anka) turned a French dirge about a loveless marriage into the world’s favourite song
For half a century, it’s never been far from our ears. It’s on the radio, it’s a karaoke favourite, it’s crooned (in the plural) on football terraces, and it’s increasingly heard at funerals for those of a certain generation.
It is, of course, My Way, the English-language version of which was recorded by Frank Sinatra in 1969 in a performance that has since led to forests of newspaper headlines, billions of conversational cliches, untold millions of dollars for those involved with it, and the titles of many self-aggrandising autobiographies.
Personally, I’ve never much cared for it. But, in pop music terms, I can see that it’s brilliant.
For half a century, Frank Sinatra’s My Way has never been far from our ears. It’s on the radio, it’s a karaoke favourite, it’s crooned (in the plural) on football terraces, and it’s increasingly heard at funerals for those of a certain generation
‘Regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention . . .’ Sinatra sang all those years ago, in what sounds like a musical last will and testament for the common man.
Which is, of course, the strength of My Way, the reason it has hung around long after Sinatra moved on, and why it became a posthumous hit for Elvis Presley, too, when his version was released as a single shortly after his death in 1977.
Growing in popularity through the decades, not even the late Sex Pistol Sid Vicious could diminish its appeal — although, to give him his due, he did his best a year later.
Next month, a 50th anniversary edition of Sinatra’s classic album, My Way, which featured the song, will be released and, no doubt, win a generation of new fans.
But was My Way inevitably destined to become one of the most popular songs of our time? Absolutely not. Not even when David Bowie got involved.
In its original French version, by Jacques Revaux and Claude Francois, it was called Comme d’Habitude — which translates into ‘As Usual’ — and its theme was far from reminiscences about overcoming life’s travails.
Instead, it told the story of a day in the life of a bored man in a boring job with an arid relationship.
The French could have invented the word ‘ennui’ especially for this song and its depiction of marital despair, as a couple fake affection for each other while getting undressed ‘as usual’, go to bed and kiss ‘as usual’ and make love ‘as usual’.
This paean to conjugal misery became a huge Gallic hit back in 1968. British and American music publishers have always kept an eye on songs popular in Europe and elsewhere, in the hope that one might, with English lyrics, have a wider appeal.
Comme d’Habitude was too big to overlook.
Attracted to the tune, a London music publisher asked a young jobbing songwriter called David Jones to see what he could do with it.
As it turned out, not much. He renamed the song Even A Fool Learns To Love, gave it some odd lyrics about sad clowns and hoped to record it himself. Unfortunately, his work was rejected.
The original French version of My Way was called Comme d’Habitude — which translates into ‘As Usual’. Paul Anka helped Frank Sinatra turn it into My Way
He was disappointed, but not deterred. Taking the stage name of David Bowie, he concentrated instead on a new song of his own called Space Oddity.
Others had also seen the potency of Comme d’Habitude — most importantly Paul Anka, who had been a teen singing star a decade earlier with his record Diana.
He had first heard Comme d’Habitude while on holiday on the Riviera and was so taken with it, he flew to Paris to negotiate the English-language rights.
He got them for a dollar, provided the original writers kept their share of the royalties, with a cut for himself, too.
His decision to approach Frank Sinatra came after a dinner with the star, who said he was thinking of retiring and wanted Anka to write a song for his final album.
(It wasn’t, of course. Comebacks became Sinatra’s forte.)
Having won Sinatra’s interest, the first task for Paul Anka was to determine the style of the song. He chose to write it as Sinatra in the first person.
Years later, he would remember sitting down at a typewriter in New York at one o’clock one morning and asking himself: ‘If Frank was writing this, what would he say?’
In an interview, Anka admitted: ‘I used words I would never use myself, like “I ate it up and spit it out” . . . that’s the way Sinatra talked . . . like the Mob guys.’
It took him just four hours to write, he reckoned — which, one suspects, might well have been because he’d spent a lot of time thinking about it beforehand.
But, at five in the morning, he called Sinatra, who was appearing at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, and told him he had something really special for him.
Legend has it that Sinatra was never that keen on the song, and later grew actively to dislike it because he was asked to sing it so often.
But he knew a hit when he heard one.
Paul Anka, for his part, found that his own record company was infuriated that he had given such a commercial song to Sinatra, wondering why he hadn’t recorded it himself.
His reply was: ‘Hey, I can write it, but I’m not the guy to sing it.’ He was, he felt, at 27, too young.
He was right. It’s an older man’s song. He was right, too, when he said it didn’t suit Elvis Presley.
It is a song to be sung at the end of a life, not in the middle, although, as fate would have it, Elvis would die, aged just 42, not long after he added it to his repertoire.
Legend has it that Sinatra was never that keen on the song, and later grew actively to dislike it because he was asked to sing it so often
Not that Anka’s opinion counted for much by this time. The song as rewritten had a life of its own.
The Sinatra version, while only a minor hit initially in America, reached the top five in the UK and would remain in the UK Top 40 for a record 75 weeks.
Elvis had an even bigger hit when a version recorded in concert in Hawaii just before his death was, with what some might see as unseemly haste, rushed out after his demise from a heart attack.
In the record industry, death is death and business is business.
More than a hundred other artists have recorded My Way since then, including Celine Dion, Michael Buble and Robbie Williams, but it will always be thought of as Frank Sinatra’s signature song.
And it no surprise that it became a classic.
Even with Paul Anka’s slight changes to the melody, it remains French music hall in style, a song that starts quietly and then builds and builds in emotion to a huge climax sung at the top of most singers’ range.
Like I Will Survive or You’ll Never Walk Alone, it is almost anthemic.
The French lyrics were morbidly interesting in their despair, but they would never have made the song a worldwide hit.
They were too singular. Anka’s decision to write about a man’s conversation with himself worked because it was so universal.
From the start, the lyrics grab our attention with: ‘And now the end is near, and so I face the final curtain.’
It could have been Sinatra singing about doing his last show before retiring, but, viewed more widely, it fits all of us as we begin considering our own mortality.
And then off the song goes, almost every line triumphant, rewriting the singer’s life in the way he wants to be remembered, always insisting that, no matter whatever befell him, he was always the master of his own actions, and ‘did it my way’.
As Anka would admit, it’s a ‘me’ song. Yes, the singer wants you to know that he’s ‘had his share of losing’. But it seems he got over that all right and now he finds ‘it all so amusing’.
For me, My Way is the boast of a man who sees himself as a tough guy. In the real world, only dictators get to do everything their way — it was Serbian War criminal Slobodan Milošević’s favourite — with the rest of us doing the best we can as we get battered by events.
But Paul Anka struck gold. Comme d’Habitude was an honest song about a man in despair at the dullness of a life over which he seemed to have no control.
Anka’s version puts the man in control, remembering things the way he wants to remember them, which is why it tops the charts at funerals, and is the second most picked song on Desert Island Discs.
There are lessons for us all here. All the world loves a winner, so, if you’re a songwriter and want a hit, don’t write about a loser — not unless you’re French, anyway.
Ray Connolly’s novella Sorry, Boys, You Failed The Audition is now on sale.
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