Born April 3, 1942, in Norfolk, Va.; son of Patrick (an automobile mechanic) and Evelyn (Smith) Newton; married Elaine Okamura (a flight attendant), 1966; children: Erin. Addresses: Office-- Flying Eagle, Inc., 3180 S. Highland Dr., Suite 1, Las Vegas, Nev. 89109-1042. Other-- 6629 S. Pecos, Las Vegas, Nev. 89120.
"Pound for pound, day for day, Wayne Newton is the highest-paid cabaret entertainer ever," writes Robert Windeler in People magazine. Newton has graced the stages of Las Vegas resort casinos for more than twenty years, performing two high-energy shows per night, seven nights a week, as many as forty weeks per year. His popularity in the nightclub setting is unprecedented; not even Johnny Carson or Frank Sinatra can command the high fees and lengthy engagement contracts that have become commonplace for him. "Nostalgia fans remember Newton as a pudgy, baby-faced, adenoidal tenor with three big hits: 'Heart,' 'Danke Schoen,' and 'Red Roses for a Blue Lady,'" notes Betsy Carter in Newsweek. "Today, Newton has ... cultivated a silky baritone and outfitted himself in sequined cowboy suits--an image that has earned him the Las Vegas billing of 'The Midnight Idol.'... His mellow blend of pop, rhythm-and-blues, country and rock wins no fewer than five ovations each night from the predominantly middle-aged, Middle American audience." Esquire contributor Ron Rosenbaum observes that Newton "has built an entertainment empire out of what was once a lounge act, transformed himself into a Tom Jones-type sex symbol, [and] become the highest-grossing entertainer in Las Vegas history" because he "has somehow captured and concentrated, become an emblem of, the essence of Vegasness."
Wayne Newton was born in 1942 in the Virginia seaport town of Norfolk. Both of his parents were half American Indian--his father Powhatan, his mother Cherokee. When Newton was still young his family moved to the Shenandoah Valley, just west of Norfolk. There, in the town of Roanoke, he began a singing career at the age of five. "By the time I was 6 I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life," Newton told People. Sometimes alone and sometimes with his brother Jerry, Newton performed on the local radio stations, quickly becoming a minor celebrity.
When Newton was ten, his family moved again, this time to Phoenix, Arizona. His parents thought the desert climate would help his bronchial asthma, and they were proven correct. Newton had his own radio show in Phoenix as a teenager, and at sixteen he dropped out of high school to perform in lounges with his older brother. They began at the Fremont Hotel. According to Windeler, "Wayne was too young to go through the Fremont's front door, much less into the casino. In the lounge, however, the Newtons were an instant hit. Their two-week contract stretched to 51. They abandoned their Spartan digs in a fleabag motel for an apartment, then a house."
The brothers realized that lounge singing could become a dead-end street, so in 1963 they took their show on the road, opening for Sophie Tucker and Jayne Mansfield. While they were performing at the prestigious Copacabana Lounge in New York City, the Newtons met Bobby Darin, who offered to produce some records with Wayne. Newton scored a million-selling hit with "Danke Schoen" and propelled that success into top bookings in New York and Las Vegas. Both "Danke Schoen" and his other big single, "Red Roses for a Blue Lady," were performed in "an eerie, post-pubescent soprano," to quote Windeler, marking Newton as an adolescent singer even after he reached twenty-one.
Two factors helped to change Newton's image from that of a pleasant teen to that of a stage idol. First, he disbanded his partnership with his brother and began to perform solo. Second, he became a favorite of the aging Howard Hughes, who saw to it that Newton always had the best Las Vegas bookings. "For Wayne," writes Windeler, "the split with his brother was a kind of watershed, a declaration of professional independence that coincided with a hard-won sense of personal freedom.... With Jerry gone, Wayne was his own man at last and anxious to prove it. Having already sweated off his baby fat, he scaled his voice down to a plausible tenor ... clipped off his ducktail and pompadour and laid in a flamboyant new wardrobe." He also settled into the Las Vegas showrooms like no one had ever done before, selling out night after night and eventually earning one million dollars per month.
Although Newton denies that he is dependent upon Las Vegas for his fame, the fact remains that town and performer are inextricably entwined. Rosenbaum has analyzed the element that contributes to Newton's domination of the nightclub stage. "At the heart of Wayne's mesmeric mastery over his audience is the notion of Suspending the Rules," Rosenbaum writes. "...From the very opening minutes of his act Wayne begins playing on the expectation of something special happening, the dream that tonight some magic suspension of the rules is in the offing--the ultimate unpurchasable Vegas experience.... Having established the illusion that there's something extremely special going on tonight, some magical show-biz chemistry between himself and his audience, unique to this evening, unique perhaps to his three decades in show business, something so great that he's ready to keep singing till dawn or till his throat gives out, he then proceeds to Step Three: creating the illusion that the rules have already been violated.... Everyone leaves The Show feeling totally satisfied, thinking how hip, how simpatico, how special the whole evening was; how they've been present at one of those rare moments when the rules went by the board; how Wayne drove himself past his own limits, knocking himself out for them.... It take a shrewd and talented showman to pull off an illusion of this sort night after night, show after show."
This is not to suggest, however, that Newton's show is founded solely on deception and hype. Newton is not only extremely sensitive to his audience, he is also an able musician who can play eleven instruments--all by ear--and who is equally at home singing pop, country, folk, and big band standards in his three-octave range. In addition, he takes full responsibility for song selection, costumes, lighting, and staging. "There isn't anything up there onstage that I wasn't totally involved in," Newton told People. "I have to take all of the blame and some of the credit. People may dislike Wayne Newton, but they're never gonna be able to say Wayne Newton didn't work hard."
In his spare time, Newton raises Arabian horses and flies light airplanes. He lives outside Las Vegas on a fifty-two acre ranch called Casa De Shenandoah with his daughter, Erin. For a time he owned the Aladdin Casino, but he sold his interest when adverse--and unproven--publicity linked him to organized crime. Finding his reputation sullied by the unsubstantiated charges, Newton sued NBC Television in 1986 and eventually won a settlement. He has since concentrated on performing, and his is still the most coveted ticket in Las Vegas. "I have to entertain," Newton told People. "If nobody paid me, I'd do it on a street corner."
by Anne Janette Johnson
Wayne Newton's Career
Singer, 1947--. With brother Jerry, singer for radio stations in Roanoke, Va. and Phoenix, Ariz., 1947-58; lounge singer in Las Vegas, Nev., and New York, N.Y., 1958-71; solo performer, principally in Las Vegas, 1971--. Has staged shows at the Sands, Caesar's Palace, Desert Inn, Flamingo, Frontier Hotel, Harrah's, the Aladdin, and Tamiment International Resort. Earned first number one hit, "Danke Schoen," 1963. Has entertained in numerous nightclubs in the United States and abroad; sang for U.S. troops in Vietnam, 1966, and for troops in Beirut, Lebanon. Television appearances include "Red, White & Wow," "A Christmas Card," and "North and South: Book II," 1986.
- Selective Works
- Best of Wayne Newton Capitol.
October 26, 2004: Newton was the inaugural honoree on the Las Vegas Walk of Stars. Source: USA Today, www.usatoday.com/life/people/2004-10-28-wayne-newton_x.htm, October 29, 2004.
- Esquire, August, 1982.
- Newsweek, January 12, 1976; June 2, 1980.
- People, April 30, 1979; November 17, 1986.