The Strange Saga of 'My Way': How It Revived Frank Sinatra, Crushed David Bowie and Sparked a Murder Spree

A new doc on the Paul Anka-penned standard premiered at Cannes in May and detailed its origin as an obscure French pop song and its journey to karaoke mainstay

Photo by Joan Adlen Photography / Getty Archives Frank Sinatra
Photo by Joan Adlen Photography / Getty Archives Frank Sinatra

In the 55 years since its release, “My Way” has become perhaps the only serious contender to a modern national anthem. Made instantly immortal by Frank Sinatra, it’s a song steeped in defiant American individualism — surprising considering the words were written by a Canadian and the melody borrowed from a Parisian chanson.

But then, everything about the origin and endurance of “My Way” is unusual. The beloved standard is now the topic of a new documentary narrated by Jane Fonda, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May.

The self-reflective lyrics of “My Way” were penned especially for Ol’ Blue Eyes on the eve of his planned retirement by his young friend Paul Anka, the then 26-year-old former teen star-turned-composer. Intended as a swan-song for a career that stretched from bobby-soxers to the Beatles, the success it yielded quickly convinced Sinatra to abandon the whole notion of retirement. Two years after his famed 1971 farewell concert — where he gave “My Way” a spirited workout — he would return to public life, continuing to do it his way until his death in May 1998.

In addition to Sinatra's version, “My Way” has since been covered by more than a hundred different artists, bringing chart success to acts as diverse as Dorothy Squires, Elvis Presley and the Sex Pistols. But ultimately the song has endured because of what it’s done for regular people.

Singing “My Way” is the musical equivalent of wearing a Superman cape or a fine tuxedo. Though inspired by Sinatra, the implied meaning  is that every life is a triumph. That’s why it regularly tops karaoke charts around the world and is the most popular song to be requested at funerals. It’s the center point of the Venn diagram between Trump’s inaugural ball and murdered rapper Nipsey Hussle’s funeral. It’s a song that will last forever because it makes whoever sings it feel like they’re somebody.

In advance of the new documentary, read on to learn more about the surprising history of this classic ballad. And for more behind-the-scenes stories and little-known details about ”My Way,” check out the recent episode of the iHeartRadio podcast Too Much Information, hosted by former PEOPLE editors Jordan Runtagh and Alex Heigl.

It began as a French pop hit by a doomed Parisian singer.

“My Way” has its origins in France, where it was a hit in February 1968 under the name “Comme D’Habitude” (or “As Usual”) by the Parisian crooner Claude Francois. Though the song shares a melody with its American cousin, the words have nothing in common. Written by composer Jacques Revaux and Gilles Thibault, the lyrics to “Comme D’Habitude” chronicle a couple whose relationship is disintegrating due to the boredom of everyday life — hence the title, “as usual.”

The gloomy number opens with the line, “I get up, I shake you. You don’t wake up… as usual” and closes with, the equally chilly, “We will make love as usual, we will fake it… as usual.”  Francois, who co-wrote some of the lyrics based on the dissolution of his own relationship with yé-yé star France Gall, died in 1978 after being electrocuted as he changed a lightbulb while standing in the bathtub.

A pre-fame David Bowie wrote an early version of the English lyrics.

It was common in the ‘60s for successful European hits to be rewritten with English lyrics and issued in the lucrative U.S. and U.K. markets. (That was the case with songs like “Beyond the Sea” by Bobby Darin, “It’s Now or Never” by Elvis Presley, “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me” by Dusty Springfield and “Seasons in the Sun” by Terry Jacks.) As such, inexperienced songwriters were frequently contracted to provide drafts of English lyrics for these European imports. One such scribe was none other than young David Jones, now better known to the world as David Bowie. Before scoring his first hit with “Space Oddity” in 1969,  the struggling singer tried his hand at writing lyrics to the tune that would become “My Way.” Bowie titled his version “Even a Fool Learns to Love,” which opened with the following verse.

There was a time, the laughing time, 

I took my heart to every party

They’d point my way, how are you today?

Will you make us laugh? Chase our blues away?

Their funny man won’t let them down, no, he’d dance and prance and be their clown

That time, the laughing time, when even a fool learns to love

The results were deemed less-than-impressive by the publisher and Bowie’s version was shelved. Though he would eventually agree with the assessment — later describing his lyrics as “god awful” and “terrible” in a 2002 interview with British TV host Michael Parkinson — he was understandably annoyed that his work had been elbowed. Adding insult to injury, he didn’t discover the truth until hearing Frank Sinatra’s version on the radio one day bearing a different set of words!

He would admit that the experience “really made me angry for so long — for about a year. Eventually I thought, ‘I can write something as big as that, and I’ll write one that sounds a bit like it.” The result was “Life on Mars,” which he would characterize as “my sort of revenge trip on ‘My Way.’” Bowie acknowledged the influence on the back cover of his 1971 album Hunky Dory, which bore the phrase “Inspired by Frankie” next to the song’s title on the track list.

Paul Anka bought the rights to the French song for a dollar.

William Lovelace/Getty Images Paul Anka in 1968.
William Lovelace/Getty Images Paul Anka in 1968.

The lyrics that Bowie heard Sinatra sing were written by Paul Anka. The Canadian performer hit it big in the States as a teenager in the late ‘50s with self-penned smashes like “Diana,” “Puppy Love” and “Put Your Head on My Shoulder.” The Beatles’ American arrival in 1964 pushed the old vanguard of pop stars off the charts, so Paul relocated to Europe, where his career flourished once again.

He was on vacation in Southern France when he first heard “Comme D’Habitude” on the radio and was captivated by the melody. “I felt there was something different in it,” he would later say. He quickly tracked down the publishers and, in a masterstroke of negotiation, convinced them to sign over the adaptation, recording and publishing rights to him for a dollar. This would have been at some point in early 1968, and for a few months Paul just sat on his new purchase. Then his buddy Frank Sinatra called him up one night and invited him to dinner.

Anka wrote it for Frank Sinatra's retirement — and to cheer him up amid his divorce from Mia Farrow.

<p>Bettmann</p> Frank Sinatra and Mia Farrow cut their wedding cake at the Sands Hotel following their wedding on July 19, 1966.


Frank Sinatra and Mia Farrow cut their wedding cake at the Sands Hotel following their wedding on July 19, 1966.

By the late ‘60s, Sinatra was at a low ebb. Professionally, he was feeling out of step with the times due to the prevalence of acts like the Beatles and the Stones. His personal life was no better, as his marriage to new wife Mia Farrow was falling apart after barely two years. Dejected and at his wits end, he decided he was going to retire. While in Miami making the noir thriller Lady In Cement with Raquel Welch, he called Anka, his friend from the Las Vegas performance circuit, who was staying nearby at the Fountainbleu Hotel.

“He called me up and he said, ‘Dinner, dinner — I want to talk to you,’” Anka recalled on an episode of his podcast Our Way. “He wasn't in a good mood — he was breaking up with his 21-year-old wife, Mia Farrow, so he wasn't in the best of shape. We were at dinner and he said, ‘Kid, I'm quitting show business. I've had enough. I'm tired, the Rat Pack's over. I'm doing one more album — and  you never wrote me a song.’  I'd always wanted to write for Sinatra because he was, like, the guy.” (Editor's note: Farrow was actually 23 when she and Sinatra divorced in 1968 after two years of marriage.)

The request from his hero brought a certain amount of pressure, and Anka mulled it over after returning home to his New York City penthouse. It was just after 1 a.m. one stormy night when Anka sat down at his old IBM electric typewriter and began putting words to the French melody that he loved so much. “It was a spiritual moment for me,” he said. “I knew that it was different than everything else I'd ever written. I was kind of metaphorically writing it with [Frank] in mind because I was moved by the fact that he was leaving. So I wrote it as if he were writing it.”

The lyrics went from being about a dead love affair to a man looking back fondly on a life he’d lived on his own terms. Even the word choice was steeped in Sinatra’s own unique dialect, with distinctive lines like “I ate it up and spit it out.”

Anka finished the song as the sun came up at dawn. “I called Frank at Caesar's Palace and I said, ‘I've got something for you,’ which I didn't have the balls to do years prior to that. I flew out to Vegas the next night and he said, ‘Kid, I love it.’ Two months later he called from a studio in L.A. and said, ‘Kid, listen to this.’ Then he played it over the phone. That was the first time I heard it. I started crying because my life changed.”

Sinatra recorded the song in a single take — and a Beatle might have been present.

Sinatra reportedly recorded “My Way” on Dec. 30, 1968, at Western Records in L.A., where so many classic ‘60s pop tunes were cut. It was a favorite haunt of Brian Wilson, who worked on the Beach Boys’ seminal album Pet Sounds there. It’s also possible that a member of the Beach Boys’ friendly rivals, the Beatles, was present as Sinatra recorded his signature song. This story comes from George Harrison’s wife Pattie Boyd, who’s discussed it both in her memoir and in a 2022 photo book, which contains a photo of her, Harrison and Sinatra at a recording studio control booth.

“While in Los Angeles, George and I were invited to go and meet Frank Sinatra in his recording studio,” she writes in the caption. “Thrilled, we were ushered upstairs to the control room where Frank was surrounded by many guys at the mixing desk. We briefly met him before he disappeared downstairs. We then watched as he proceeded to sing ‘My Way’ with a full orchestra. Wow, it was extraordinary. He listened back to this one take and said, ‘OK, that’s it, let’s go.’” With that, the group went to dinner with their sizable entourage in tow. “We pulled into limos to a club,” Boyd continued. “When we got there, George quite rightly thought he would sit next to Frank, but the big guys from the Bronx moved him down the table.”

Unfortunately, some rock historians have cast doubt on the story, saying that the Harrisons visit to Los Angeles took place months before the Sinatra session that yielded “My Way.” Evidence suggests that Harrison and Boyd dropped in on Sinatra on Nov. 12, 1968, during which time he recorded the songs “Little Green Apples,” “Gentle on My Mind" and “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” for his album Cycles. It’s possible that Sinatra performed a version of his show stopper for the visiting Beatle and his wife — or she’s just misremembering.

But in a cute coda to the Beatles/Sinatra connection, Sinatra would later perform the Harrison composition “Something,” calling it “one of the best love songs written in 50 or 100 years.” He also made the point that, "It never says I love you in the song, but it really is one of the finest.” (Sadly for Harrison, Sinatra would often mistakenly introduce it as his favorite Lennon/McCartney song during concerts — oops.)

Sinatra grew to dislike "My Way"

Released in March 1969, “My Way” would be Sinatra’s last Top 40 hit in the U.S. until 1980, when he returned with "New York, New York.” But the song’s commercial success didn't stop him from growing to dislike “My Way.” He performed the tune for his farewell concert held at Los Angeles’ Ahmanson Theater in 1971 along with 10 other songs that he felt summed up his life. But when Sinatra came out of retirement two years later, his return to the stage meant that audiences would come to expect what had become his signature song — and Sinatra started to resent it.

Introducing it in 1984 at a concert at Carnegie Hall, he told the audience, "We have a song we haven't done in a long time, and we're gonna drop it in here now. I think we did it for about 10 years, and it got to be a real pain you-know-where." During a gig at London’s Albert Hall that same year, he muttered under the instrumental outro, “I can’t stand the song myself.”

Sinatra's youngest daughter Tina explained her father’s frustration with “My Way” in a 2000 interview on the BBC show Hardtalk. “He always thought that song was self-serving and self-indulgent. He didn't like it. That song stuck, and he couldn't get it off his shoe.”

Meanwhile, Frank Sinatra Enterprises Vice President Charles Pignone soft-pedaled the singer’s feelings about “My Way" in an interview with Songfacts. "I don't think he hated it as much as he disliked it — I don't think he hated any of these songs. I just think he probably may have gotten tired of people yelling for it and singing it. [“My Way”] is a fan favorite, but I wouldn't say it was a Sinatra favorite.”

Elvis Presley covered "My Way" against Paul Anka's advice.

It might not have been a Sinatra favorite, but it was certainly a favorite of many other singers. The list of artists to record “My Way” include Aretha Franklin, Tom Jones, Dionne Warwick and Andy Williams.

Elvis Presley began performing the song in concert during the mid-1970s, despite protests from his old friend Anka, who felt the song didn’t suit him. “‘My Way’ meant so much to him as a song, so he was going to do it.” Anka wrote in his 2013 memoir. “And I’d say, ‘Elvis, it’s not really your kind of song.’ And he’d say, ‘Nooo, Paulie, but those words, they mean so much to me. Boy, I want to do that song one day.’”

Presley included the tune in the setlist for his famous Aloha from Hawaii satellite concerts in 1973.  After his death in August 1977, a live version of “My Way” was released as a single, going to No. 22 on the Billboard Hot 100 — higher than Sinatra's original. “In the end, that song and those words had resonance for him, but not in the way I intended,” Anka continued in his book. “Given Elvis’s pathetic state at the end, it was in the opposite sense that the words had had for Sinatra. There was nothing defiant or heroic about Elvis at that point.”

Sex Pistols' bassist Sid Vicious performed an obscenity-laden version — and Paul Anka loved it.

Arguably the most unusual cover of the song is the version recorded in 1978 by the Sex Pistols for the Julien Temple mockumentary The Great Rock ’n’ Roll Swindle. Lead singer Johnny Rotten had left the band at this point, so bass player Sid Vicious took over vocal duties — one of the last things recorded before his death in February 1979. The lyrics were lightly altered by Vicious and his girlfriend Nancy Spungen to include obscenities and a dig at ex-bandmate Rotten, who is referred to as a “prat who wears hats.”

The punky makeover received praise and damnation in equal measure. Dorothy Squires, a Welsh singer who’d had a U.K. hit with the song herself was quoted as saying of Vicious, “He should be crucified. He should have been crucified before he crucified that song.” On the flip-side, Anton La Vey, the founder of the Church of Satan, had nothing but nice things to say about it in his memoirThe Secret Life of a Satanist. But possibly the greatest fan of Vicious' version was Leonard Cohen, who spoke eloquently about it in a 1988 interview with Mat Snow.

“When Sid Vicious did it, he provided that other side to the song; the certainty, the self-congratulation, the daily heroism of Sinatra's version is completely exploded by this desperate, mad, humorous voice," Cohen said. "I can't go round in a raincoat and fedora looking over my life saying I did it my way — well, for 10 minutes in some American bar over a gin and tonic you might be able to get away with it. But Sid Vicious's rendition takes in everybody; everybody is messed up like that, everybody is the mad hero of his own drama. It explodes the whole culture this self-presentation can take place in, so it completes the song for me.”

Paul Anka had never heard this version until Martin Scorsese called him seeking to license it for the closing credits of his 1990 film Goodfellas. Unfortunately, the name “Sex Pistols” didn’t exactly ring a bell for Anka. “I said, 'I don't know who the hell that is,'” he recalled to the Arizona Republic.  “So [Scorsese] sent it to me and I was jolted. I [initially] said 'No,' to be honest. And then I started thinking, 'Who am I to tear down somebody's right in terms of interpreting a song that meant a lot to them?’... I called Marty back and told him, ‘Do it. I don't care. It's music. It's art. Art has no time. You put it in the hands of someone that believes in it. It's just what music's about, to get it out there honestly.’” 

"My Way" is a favorite of politicians and dictators alike.

It should come as no surprise that this anthem for unrepentant chest-beating exceptionalism has become extremely popular with politicians. For example, it was a favorite of former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic, who often played it in his cell at a loud volume during his trial for crimes against humanity in 2002. Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder requested "My Way" as his final send-off prior to the inauguration of Angela Merkel in 2005, when some seven million television viewers watched tears well up in his eyes as a military band played him off.

Anka has noticed that the song appeals to a very specific kind of person — including Vladimir Putin. "He's an egomaniac," Anka told the Arizona Republic in 2022. "When I went to Russia, he's walking me through the museum and giving me caviar out of tubs, loving 'My Way.' You've got every malignant egomaniac loving it.”

Donald Trump chose the song as the first dance at his Presidential Inauguration in 2017. He danced to it with his wife Melania at the Liberty Ball, his second of the evening. Two days earlier, Nancy Sinatra was asked on Twitter what she thought of Trump using the song. Her reply: "Just remember the first line of the song." That first line is: "And now, the end is near, and so I face the final curtain.”

"My Way" has (supposedly) triggered a rash of murders.

“My Way” has been linked to a number of murders — so many, in fact, that there’s an entire Wikipedia page dedicated to “‘My Way’ Killings.” According to a 2010 report from The New York Times, it’s been estimated that in the space of  a decade at least 12 people were killed after singing it at karaoke bars. Though an immensely popular song choice, it's been known to provoke booze-fueled fights that occasionally turn fatal. Some have been killed for singing out of tune, while others killed for hogging the microphone, and yet more were killed for singing the song on repeat for hours on end without stopping.

Most of these incidents occurred in the Philippines, where karaoke is a national pastime, and even the smallest barangays (or villages) have upwards of a dozen karaoke bars. As an article in Esquire Philippines explains, “Life in the Philippines is hard, especially for the predominant sector of society living under the poverty line. It makes sense that karaoke, which is only about P5 [or a dime] per song, became a sweet escape to forget life's struggles for a while. It also makes sense why they’d be angry at people who inadvertently ruined that sliver of peace.”

For that reason, many bars don't offer it on their playlists. Even if they do, many customers won’t dare to sing the song without getting a private room so that their off-tune vocals won’t trigger violence. (A bill was filed in the Philippines government to propose a karaoke curfew to lessen alcohol-induced crimes.)

Some critics and sociologists have postulated that the “triumphalist” bravado of “My Way” paired with alcohol makes for a uniquely combustible situation. Butch Albarracin, the owner of a Manila-based singing school, elaborated on this in a 2010 interview with HuffPost. The lyrics, he explained, "evoke feelings of pride and arrogance in the singer, as if you're somebody when you're really nobody. It covers up your failures. That's why it leads to fights."

In 2007, a 29-year-old man was reportedly shot to death by a karaoke bar’s bouncer when he accidentally got off rhythm while singing "My Way" and struggled to get back on track. When he wouldn’t stop singing, the guard pulled out a .38 pistol and killed him. Three years later, in 2010, a chairman of a Tondo village was shot and killed while singing the song during a Christmas party by gunmen on motorcycles.

The “My Way” killings struck again in 2018, when a 60-year-old man was stabbed by his neighbor, 28, during a birthday party. According to reports, the victim had grabbed the mic from his neighbor just when “My Way” was about to play. A fistfight ensued, ending with the neighbor stabbing the older man. He was pronounced dead at the hospital. 

And it's also a favorite at funerals.

“My Way” is sung from the point of view of someone looking back on their life, presumably at its end. Hence, it’s become a very popular song at funerals. A 2005 survey by Co-Operative Funeralcare put this tune at the top of a list of songs most requested at funerals in the U.K. Spokesman Phil Edwards said, "It has that timeless appeal — the words sum up what so many people feel about their lives and how they would like their loved ones to remember them.”

Nipsey Hussle had it played at his funeral; performance artist Marina Abramović has requested that it be played at hers; and Warren Buffett has recorded his own version himself featuring new lyrics from friend Paul Anka, who is well aware of the song’s reputation as a real perspective check on mortality.

“People get married to it and get buried to it,” he told Variety in 2023. “Guys write me letters from death row to say they identify with it. I’ve sung ‘My Way’ for Putin, for Trump. Narcissism runs rampant, but when it’s under control, this is the perfect song in terms of wrapping up one’s life. We’re all ego-driven. Read Freud enough and you get that.”

For more People news, make sure to sign up for our newsletter!

Read the original article on People.