For fifty years it’s never been far from our ears. It’s on the radio, it’s a karaoke favourite in bars, it’s crooned in the plural by mobs on football terraces, and it’s heard with increasing frequency at funerals for those of a certain generation.
It’s My Way, the English 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 and the titles of more than a few self-aggrandising autobiographies.
Personally, I’ve never much cared for it. But, in pop music terms, I can see that it’s brilliant.
‘Regrets, I’ve had a few, but, then again, too few to mention…’ sang Sinatra 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 that it has hung around long after Sinatra moved on, and why it became a hit for Elvis Presley after he’d shuffled off his mortal guitar strap.
Growing in popularity through the decades, not even the late punk Sid Vicious could diminish its appeal – although, to give him his due, he did his very best.
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 the most arid relationship you can imagine.
The French could have invented the word ennui especially for this song with its depiction of despair, as the couple fake affection for each other while getting undressed ‘as usual’, go to bed and kiss ‘as usual’ and make love ‘as usual’.
Perhaps only the French could have turned such conjugal misery into a huge Gallic hit back in 1968, but that is what happened.
British and American music publishers are always noting what songs are popular in Europe and elsewhere, in the hope that one might, with English lyrics, have a wider appeal.
And Comme d’Habitude was too big to overlook.
Attracted to the tune, a London music publisher asked a jobbing young songwriter called David Jones to see what he could do with it.
As it turned out, he couldn’t do much. Although he hoped to record it himself, after re-naming the song Only A Fool Learns To Love, and giving it some rather odd lyrics about sad clowns, David Jones found his work rejected.
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, however, had also seen the potency of Comme d’Habitude, most importantly Paul Anka, who, with his record Diana, had been a teenage singing star himself a decade earlier.
He’d first heard Comme d’Habitude while on holiday on the French Riviera, and, intrigued by it, 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 him, too. They all did brilliantly.
His decision to approach Frank Sinatra came after a dinner with the older singer, who said he was thinking of retiring – he usually was, and suggested Anka write him a song for his last album. (It wasn’t, of course. Come-backs 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 in the first person, that person being Sinatra himself. 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 he admitted: ‘I used words that 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 about four hours to write the lyrics, he reckoned, which, one suspects, might well have been because he’d spent a lot of time thinking about them beforehand. But at five in the morning he called Sinatra who was appearing at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, telling the singer he had something really special for him.
Sinatra is believed to have never been that keen on the song, and later he would grow to dislike it when 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 were infuriated that he had given away such a commercial song, 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 old man’s song. He was right, too, when he believed it didn’t suit Elvis Presley. It was a song to be sung at the end of a life, not the middle. Little did he know that as Elvis passed the forty mark, he was heading towards the end of his life. He died aged 42.
Not that Anka’s opinion counted for much by this time. The song as re-written had a life of its own. The Sinatra version, while only a minor hit initially in the US, hit the top five in the UK and would remain in the British top forty for a record 75 weeks.
Elvis had an even bigger hit when a version recorded in concert just before his death was rushed, with what some might see as unseemly haste, into the shops just a few weeks later. In the record industry death is death and business is business.
Over 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.
So, what is it about My Way that has turned it into a classic?
Well, just about everything. Musically, even with Paul Anka’s slight changes to the melody, it remains French musical 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 original French lyrics were morbidly interesting in their despair, but they would never have made the song a worldwide hit. They were too singular. Paul Anka’s decision to write about a man’s conversation with himself worked, because it was so universal.
Right from the beginning the lyrics catch 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 are getting on in life and begin considering our own mortality.
And then off the song goes, almost every line triumphant, rewriting the singer’s own life in the way he wants it to be remembered, always insisting that, no matter whatever befell him, he was the always the master of his own actions, and ‘did it my way’.
As Paul 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, and now he finds ‘it all so amusing’.
For me, My Way is a braggart’s song, the boast of a man who sees himself as a tough guy. In the real world, only dictators get to do everything their way, the rest of us doing the best we can as we get blown along by events.
But Paul Anka was on to something. The original song, 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 full control, remembering things the way he wants to remember them.
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.