My fascination with Wayne Newton began in early 1980. I was sitting in my grandmother’s living room in Mt. Savage, Maryland, watching The Merv Griffin Show with my dad. This is when he had a nighttime show (Merv Griffin, that is, not Dad). Merv introduced “my friend, who’s going to sing his new hit single, ‘Years,’ Wayne Newton.” Dad said something like, “Well, it’s been years since Wayne Newton HAD a hit single!” He may have also said something about Wayne singing like a girl.
That’s all I remember about that odd father-son bonding-through-Wayne Newton jokes night 20 years ago, but a seed was planted that would eventually grow to full-blown fascination. (Incidentally, “Years” did scrape its way up to Number 35 on the pop charts.)
Wayne Newton popped into my life again a few years later, when then-Secretary of the Interior James Watt axed a July 4th Beach Boys concert on Washington D.C.’s Mall since he thought the Boys would attract the “wrong element.” Watt’s idea of a replacement? Mr. Wayne Newton himself. Ironically, the Beach Boys (or at least that creepy Mike Love) had been longtime supporters of Watt’s boss, President Ronald Reagan. Anyway, since Watt’s move seemed so anti-rock’n’roll, I was angry about it, but now it’s obvious to me that Wayne Newton is just as cool as the Beach Boys. And sometimes cooler. I mean, of course Pet Sounds clobbers practically everything Wayne Newton’s ever recorded, but “Kokomo” vs. “Danke Schöen?” You make the call.
It was during college, a time of new experiences, when the complete world of Wayne Newton began to unfold for me. The thing is, I don’t really remember how or why this happened. I just know that I began to pick up Wayne Newton albums at flea markets and from the dollar boxes at the Book Trader, a legendary used book and record store on South Street in Philadelphia. I was encouraged in these pursuits by my friend Greg who gave me a copy of the only Wayne LP that was still in print at the time, The Best of Wayne Newton.
Of course, when I would listen to albums like Wayne Newton Sings Hit Songs or the classic Best of…, I’d laugh to myself and to anyone else who would listen. After all who could take Wayne’s hyperkinetic versions of tunes like “Wives and Lovers,” “Shangri-La,” and “Call Me Irresponsible” seriously?
But then a weird thing happened. While I still thought Wayne was just good, campy fun, I also started to actually like the man and his music. It might have been because of his appearance in that awful Andrew “Dice” Clay movie and its accompanying Billy Idol video; or because of the way he handled himself in various interviews I watched faithfully on shows like Donahue and Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous; or maybe it was because, not only does Ferris Bueller lip-sync to “Danke Schöen” on his famous Day Off, but also that various other characters in the movie can be heard humming the very same tune prior to the parade scene.
Ultimately though, it is simply THE SONG itself that put me most truly on The Path of Wayne. It just hit me like the proverbial ton o’ bricks one day that the songwriting, arrangement, production and performance of “Danke Schöen” all kick serious ass and take names. Listen to it sometime. Listen without prejudice. You’ll see what I mean. It’s got strings, it’s got horns, it starts out slow and quiet, and then builds up to an amazing crescendo, before ending the way it began. And don’t forget those lyrics, which tell an intriguing story, both through traditional narrative and through what’s left to the listener’s imagination: “You tore your dress/What a mess!/I confess/That’s not all.” “Danke Schöen” is, without a doubt, one of my top 20 favorite songs of all time.
After my “Danke Schöen” revelation, my pursuit of Wayne Newton albums hit high gear, and not just in the Philadelphia area. While at least eight of the 20-some Wayne albums I own came from the Book Trader boxes, I’ve also picked up vintage Wayne in Norfolk, Virginia; New Orleans, Louisiana (the seminal Wayne Newton in Person!, which I bought for nine bucks (!?) in the French Quarter. I basically did two things during my first visit to the Big Easy in 1988: get hellaciously drunk on hurricanes at Pat O’Brien’s and bought Wayne Newton in Person! And not in that order, either.); Kansas City, Missouri (the autobiographical concept LP, How I Got This Way); and San Antonio, Texas (The Long and Winding Road, a good example of Wayne’s attempts to record a hip, more “mature” album while in his mid-twenties).
Back here in Philadelphia, I picked up the star-shaped, picture disk single, “You Stepped Into My Life” (a Bee Gees-penned disco tune), at Third Street Jazz and the Summer Wind LP at the Wooden Shoe, an anarchist bookstore in Center City. Take it from me: if you want to experience worlds colliding, buy a Wayne Newton album for a buck on your lunch hour in an anarchist bookstore. You’ll be glad you did.
I think the apex of my love of Wayne had to be the night Donna and I, then just on our third date, went with Greg and his wife Kim to see Mr. Newton live onstage at Donald Trump’s fabulous Taj Mahal in Atlantic City in 1991. Wayne gave us all a show that was just the epitome of Newton-osity, singing “Danke Schöen,” complete with its original sassy, brassy arrangement, as well as the classic “Bessie the Heifer, The Queen of All the Cows,” that he sang on a Lucy Show once. In addition, Wayne told lots of jokes involving the names of certain small towns in Pennsylvania’s Amish country (I’ll give you a hint—the towns are named Blue Balls, Intercourse, and Paradise—now you can figure out the jokes). Man, oh man, what a night and to top it off I won 136 semolians at the roulette table.
Interestingly, I married into a family with a Wayne Newton story of its own. It seems that, when he was a boy, Donna’s brother Michael scrimped and saved to buy his grandmother a holiday present, Wayne Newton’s Songs for a Merry Christmas album. On Christmas Day, Gramm opened the gift and, apparently hoping for a nice sweater, said, “Oh, I’ll look great wearing this!” But the album became a family favorite and has been played every holiday season since. On hearing this story, I knew Donna and I were meant to be.
For the most part, my admiration for Wayne Newton is harmless, although to celebrate his birthday in 1989, I did make a now-lost tape, mixing my personal best of Wayne tunes with comments from various interviews I’d videotaped. The tape culminated in a 15-minute-long montage I called “Revolution # Wayne.” Like John Lennon’s notorious musique concréte experiment from which its title is paraphrased, “Revolution # Wayne” featured bits of music and dialogue looped over and over, the highlight of which was Wayne incessantly repeating the mantra, “They’re having parades and burning effigies of Wayne Newton.” OK, so maybe I didn’t have much to do in 1989, but I swear to you, I’m better now. The only sicker thing I’ve ever committed to audio tape is the 90-minute compilation of Telly Savalas songs I recorded a week or so after the Man Who Was Kojak shuffled off this mortal coil.
These days, it’s getting harder and harder to find Wayne albums I don’t have (although Newton said on Donahue that he had released over 80 LPs) and, honestly, I don’t always look as hard as I used to. It is still my policy, though, that if I see a Wayne album I don’t have and it costs a buck or less, I buy it (the album I bought in New Orleans was the outrageous exception to this price rule). I saw the soundtrack to a Wayne television special for four bucks at a flea market once, but held out until I found somewhere else for just a dollar.
Why Wayne, you ask? I’ve asked that myself. After all, it could have been Jack Jones, Engelbert, Bob Goulet…they’re all OK and I’m also a big Tom Jones fan, but Wayne is the Lounge Singer I Love Best. I love Wayne Newton and if I ever get a chance to meet him, I’ll say, “Hiya Wayne! Danke Schöen for all the great music.”
(Please feel free to email to others who may be interested or to print a hard copy for them but remember: The Dichotomy of the Dog is copyright 2000 by Rich Wilhelm. If you plan on making a bazillion dollars from this piece of writing, please let me know so I can sue you or something.)