If you go
What: Wayne Newton concert
Where: The American Music Theater, 2425 Lincoln Highway East, Lancaster
When: 7 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 10
Details: For more information, visit the American Music Theater at amtshows.com .
It's all about the audience.
It's a lesson that Wayne Newton learned at a very tender age. He was 4 when his parents took him to a Grand Old Opry touring show at a theater in Roanoke, Va. The bill included legends Hankshaw Hawkins, Kitty Wells and the great Hank Williams.
As he sat in the nosebleed section with his parents — the only tickets his parents could afford; his father was a mechanic — he found himself looking around at the faces of the people in the seats around him. He saw happiness. He turned to his mother and said, "That's what I want to do."
And so he started down the path. His mother enrolled him in piano lessons, which ended after the first session when the teacher found out he didn't know the alphabet, something that's needed to read music. She was harsh about it, leaving him on her porch with a note tied around his neck chastising his mother for signing him up for lessons before he even knew the alphabet. It left him with a distaste for the piano, which lasted until he was 20 and returned to the instrument.
He turned to the guitar. The guitar teacher was kinder, translating the notes to numbers for Newton. Still, Newton never really learned how to read music. He would listen to what his teacher was playing and would pick it out by ear. To this day, he said, he doesn't "read a lick" of music, playing, and mastering, 13 different instruments, all by ear. He learned to sing in church, accompanying his mother on hymns.
He began performing when he was six. He played theaters and clubs. He had a radio show. He performed on TV shows, including Ted Mack's "Original Amateur Hour." When he was 15, he audition for a Vegas booking agent, which led to a gig that lasted five years, doing six shows a day, six days a week, 46 weeks a year.
Through it all, it was about the audience.
Even now, at age 73 and an icon of American pop culture, he takes that to heart. When he takes the stage with his 22-piece touring band — which he will do Saturday, Oct. 10, at the American Music Theater in Lancaster — he never has a set list. He'll start out with three songs, one a country song, another a standard and a third a rock'n'roll tune, and gauge audience reaction.
"We do three numbers and then, it's 'hang loose,'" Newton said in a phone interview the other day. "We tailor the show to the audience. People never know what to expect."
It's a testament to his vast and varied repertoire, and the talent of the musicians in his band.
One staple, though, is "Danka Schoen."
He got the song from Bobby Darin. The publisher had sent it to Darin, intending it to be a follow-up to his hit "Mack The Knife," but Darin thought it would be a good tune for a then-young Newton. The publisher balked, telling Darin that he couldn't have the song if he planned to give it away to the relatively unknown. Darin stood his ground, telling the publisher that if he didn't allow Newton to record the song, Darin would never record any song the guy ever published.
That was in 1963. And now, 52 years later, Newton still performs the song on a nightly basis. He said he never gets tired of singing it, that audiences love it. "There is nothing more exciting that looking out into the audience and seeing people singing along," he said. "They know all the words."
His career has spanned decades and has elevated him to the rarified status of legend. He has acted in movies and on TV shows. (He says the hardest part of acting is "playing Wayne Newton.") He had performed all over the world, for millions of people. He is known as Mr. Las Vegas and has a street in that city named for him.
He said he never thinks of it.
"Making money for what I did never crossed my mind," he said. "Whether I became a success at it never crossed my mind. It doesn't to this day. I really don't think about that, never have and probably never will.
"I put my energies into performing," he said.
And thinking about what his audience wants.