Wayne Newton has been playing Las Vegas since 1959, when he was just 17. He started off in a duo act with his older brother Jerry, playing six shows a night, six nights a week at the Fremont Hotel. Newton has performed more than 30,000 shows in the city that he helped to turn into an entertainment destination.
When Newton was in his 20s, he made countless TV appearances with such legends as Jackie Gleason, Lucille Ball, Jack Benny and George Burns. He even had some hit records. The late, great Bobby Darin produced his 1960s hits “Danke Schoen” and “Red Roses for a Blue Lady.” Newton landed his biggest hit in 1972 with the tear-jerker, “Daddy Don’t You Walk So Fast.” The ballad made the top five on Billboard’s Hot 100.
Newton will play The Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills on April 8th—five days after he turns 75. He’ll perform his show Wayne Newton: Up Close and Personal, which he created for an ongoing engagement at Bally’s Las Vegas. Newton spoke to The Tolucan Times from his home in Las Vegas.
Your current show is said to be unlike any you’ve done before. How so?
It’s a very personal kind of show. I answer questions and take requests. When Bally’s asked me to come in to their Windows (showroom), they said the room isn’t like a theater. The people are close to you. It’s kind of like they’re in your living room. And so I wrote a show that was reminiscent of Vegas entertainment when I came here in 1959. I didn’t know if it was going to be accepted or not. It has been a tremendous success.
You made a lot of TV appearances early in your career with such legends as Jackie Gleason and Lucy. What did you learn from them?
I learned a lot from them. Both of them were as gracious and nice as anyone could ever be. Both of them were perfectionists. There’s no question I put every lesson I learned from them to work.
In 1999, you signed a deal with the Stardust, which called for you to perform there 40 weeks out of the year. That was among the first “headliner in residence” arrangements, something that is now the norm with such superstars as Celine Dion, Cher, Bette Midler and Elton John.
The acts that are now playing long-term engagements here wouldn’t play here years ago because they were traveling throughout the world. They didn’t want to get stuck here. Actually, this is the perfect place to get ‘stuck,’ because you can go home after the show instead of checking into a hotel.
And audiences from all over the country come to you.
Actually, they come from all over the world. When you think about an audience in Las Vegas, it is made up of every ethnicity (and nationality). Where (else) can you go anywhere in the world and find this much diversity?
The street leading to Las Vegas’ McCarren International Airport was renamed Wayne Newton Blvd. How do you feel when you see that sign?
I always get a kick out of it, needless to say. I’m proud to say it was the first street in this entire town that was named after a performer.
Bobby Darin produced your early hits. That’s a noteworthy pairing because you’re two of the most renowned live performers of your generation.
Bobby saw me on The Jackie Gleason Show and came to see my show at The Copacabana lounge. He said, ‘Are you recording?’ I said no. He said ‘You are now. I will be producing your records from this point forward.’ I think Bobby was one of the most talented people I’ve ever met.
Matthew Broderick lip-synched to your recording of “Danke Schoen” in a memorable scene in 1986’s Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. What did you think of that scene? Did that movie introduce you to a younger audience?
I loved it. I watch it every time it’s on TV. I realized in the ‘80s that I needed to direct my attention to a younger crowd. Thank God the older generation and the ‘mid generation’ remember some of my songs. But (I realized then that) we have to bring along the younger generation if we’re going to continue to have a career. (As a result,) the TV shows and movies that I agreed to do were geared to a younger audience.
You’ll turn 75 next month. Everybody approaches a milestone like that in their own way. How are you dealing with it?
I have never thought about age. It’s not something that enters my mind.
So many performers have succumbed to the pressures associated with stardom. Especially in popular music there have been many examples in recent years: Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Prince. It’s obviously a difficult path. It’s not for the faint of heart.
No it isn’t. I figured out something a long time ago by working with people who kind of took me under their wing, like those who we’ve been discussing today. Lucy asked me one time, ‘Do you adjust to change easily?’ I said, ‘I think so.’ She said, ‘For future reference, I have learned in my life that to be happy one must have the ability to adjust. If you can do that, you will be a much happier human being.’ I think truer words were never spoken. I think of the people that you just mentioned—and some of them were dear friends of mine, like Michael Jackson. Adjusting was very difficult for him. Whereas with me, I kind of went with whichever way the wind blew. If what I was doing wasn’t working, I was ready to change it.
I think a lot of those artists couldn’t handle not being No. 1. Once you get accustomed to being No. 1, it’s hard to be No. 5.
That’s right. And those numbers don’t mean a whole lot. If you can walk on stage and still fill the room and have people there that want to see what you do and you can bring happiness to them, that’s all that matters.
Newton will perform at The Saban on April 8th at 8pm. For more information visit SabanConcerts.com/events/wayne-newton.
Paul Grein writes regularly about pop music for such outlets as Yahoo.com and HitsDailyDouble.com. He was friends with the late jazz pianist Mike Melvoin, who, among his hundreds of other credits, arranged Newton’s recording of “Daddy Don’t You Walk So Fast.”