Wayne Newton has seen his fair share of controversy and financial problems over his nearly six-decade career. However, Mr. Las Vegas is still standing—and will be bringing his Vegas swagger to Morongo Casino Resort and Spa on Friday, Dec. 2.
During a recent phone interview, I asked him what makes him still love singing.
“I think it’s the fact I’ve done it my whole life,” Newton said. “When I was 4 years old, my parents took me to see a Grand Ole Opry roadshow that had come to Norfolk, Va., which is where I’m from originally. On the show was Hank Williams and many of the other greats of country music. We were way up in the nosebleed section, given my father was an auto mechanic, and we couldn’t afford better seats than that. I couldn’t even see the performers. I found myself looking around at the faces of the audience, and I saw the happiness that they were deriving from those performers and those songs. I turned to my mother and said, ‘That’s what I want to do!’ I wanted to bring that kind of happiness to people myself. I think that’s what’s always been my motivating force.”
What about days when Wayne Newton feels under the weather? He said experience helps him pull through.
“I think that from the work ethic that I had to develop at such a young age, singing in the lounges in Vegas at the age of 15—six shows a day, six days a week—I kept learning different instruments to provide me with some vocal relief,” he said. “The one thing I learned is that’s when you earn your money—when you go onstage, and you’re not feeling good. I’ve always had a rule with my musicians: Being sick is OK, but if you’re not in the hospital, you’d better be onstage. There’s no question that it’s taxing when you don’t feel well.”
Newton has been revered as a singer and entertainer, but he’s never been known for songwriting and putting out original material—and he’s OK with that. He mentioned a song that he did about Elvis, based on a letter written by Elvis that Newton bought through a Sotheby’s auction.
“That’s never been something that’s motivated me as much as doing songs that I love to sing, and songs that bring happiness to the people,” he said about songwriting. “I am not one of those performers who would be happy walking out on stage and going, ‘And then I wrote, and then I wrote, and then I wrote.’ I have always wanted to do what people wanted to hear. I wrote a song called ‘The Letter’ which went No. 1 on the country chart, and that was fun, and I still get requests to do that song, but it’s such a downer, because I wrote it after Elvis Presley died.”
Speaking of Elvis: Newton was not only a fan, but a close friend.
“When I met him, he was so unassuming and the first one to find humor in what people thought of him,” Newton said. “He never took himself seriously in any way. We became really good friends and remained friends until the day he passed away. His father called me the night that he did pass and told me when I was working at the Frontier in Vegas.”
There’s no doubt that Newton still loves Las Vegas, even with all of the changes the city has gone through.
“I think it will continue to change. It certainly has changed in the years I’ve been here since I came here in 1959,” he said. “When I came here, it was Frank, Sammy, Dean and Elvis. I got put into the mix somewhere in there. Then as some years passed, and those people passed, there were fewer real stars who could fill the showrooms. The shows and the management of the hotels turned to a different idea. The first idea was the magicians; that went on for about 10 years. Then it went through the impressionist stage with Danny Gans, Rich Little and people like that who were doing impressions of other performers. Now we’re going through the Cirque faze. But in the last four or five years, it has started to go back to star policy again. … Now we have Celine Dion, J-Lo, Britney Spears, Elton John and all of them are doing two weeks and coming back a year later doing another two weeks. They’re doing permanent stays in the hotels they’re in. The star performer is coming back, and it’s full circle. It’ll probably last five to 10 years, and they’ll move on to something else.
“Thank god there’s always been room for me! The thing I love about Vegas is that there’s room for every kind of show. It doesn’t matter what it is. Where else could you go around the world and find that many shows and that many stars on one street on any given night? The sound systems are great; the show rooms are great; and the lighting is great.”
Regarding his problems in the business and financial world, he offered some perspective.
“As I was coming up in the business and working as many nights as I worked, we had to depend on managers and business managers,” he said. “Those people took great advantage of the performers, including myself. There’s no one to blame but yourself in so many ways. On the other hand, when you are a performer who is recording, doing television and motion pictures, and performing in nightclubs, you don’t have the time to consider the true business end of it, and you have to turn it over to someone to trust—and finding people to trust when it comes to money is a very difficult thing to do.”
Wayne Newton will perform at 9 p.m., Friday, Dec. 2 at Morongo Casino Resort and Spa, 49500 Seminole Drive, in Cabazon. Tickets are $55 to $65. For more information, call 800-252-4499, or visit www.morongocasinoresort.com.