Fountains of Wayne

After 45 years of joy and pain, is it finally time to say ‘Danke Schoen’ to Wayne Newton?

Life has its David Lynch moments. It has its John Waters moments. But it’s the moments falling squarely in between that are the most special, the most uncomfortable.

Like the time a next-door neighbor invited me in for a glass of wine, fiddled with a small boom box and then began to dance, in what appeared to be a seductive manner, to the sounds of Wayne Newton’s “Danke Schoen.”

“Danke schoen, darling, danke schoen,” crooned the future Mr. Las Vegas (who will perform at Stockton’s Bob Hope Theatre on March 1) in a 1963 recording that would sound no less haunting four decades later as I backed my way out of a Midtown living room. “Thank you for all the joy and pain.”

Sure, there’s the over-the-top sentimentality of the song itself, with music by easy-listening icon Bert Kaempfert and lyrics, by Kurt Schwabach and Milt Gabler (Billy Crystal’s uncle), that careen into a mawkish lover’s lament the moment they slip from German into English. But it’s that voice—in his golden days, a full helium whippet above K.D. Lang’s—that somehow manages to get under your skin, and then, if you’re not careful, work its way toward whatever internal organ will have it.

The voice of Wayne Newton can cause an extreme variety of responses, even within a single listener. “In so many ways, I absolutely LOVE Wayne Newton,” wrote college-radio deejay Charlotte Walton in a January 23rd post entitled “Does Wayne Newton’s voice creep you out?” She went on to marvel at how well Newton’s “Strangers in the Night” segued from David Byrne’s “Concrete and Stone” when she played it on her WXYC Chapel Hill, N.C., radio show. “But in one way, his voice kinda creeps me out. He kinda sounds like a cross between Helen Reddy and an elf with a little bit of cotton stuck in his mouth. But even with these thoughts in my mind, Wayne Newton’s voice is still engaging, sexy and romantic.”

A listener named Christa responded in kind: “He is totally cheesy now, and I can understand why some people have an adverse reaction to Wayne Newton, but [back] in the day—‘Dream Lover,’ ‘My Kind of Girl,’ ‘Shangri-La,’ ‘Bill Bailey’—he could REALLY SWING. I wish more people would just give the poor guy a chance. Yeah, he’s got an odd voice, but so does (ta da!) David Byrne. Or Tom Waits, or that guy from the Decemberists. Everyone’s weird.”

More famously, Frank Sinatra, spotting Newton in the audience at a Caesars Palace show, introduced him to the crowd as “a guy who looks like a truck driver and sounds like a choir girl.”

But it was an ongoing string of late-night barbs from Tonight Show host Johnny Carson that finally pushed Newton over the edge.

During a recent Larry King appearance, Newton excoriated the late Carson as a “mean-spirited human being” who turned on his one-time friend by making jokes which, as Newton phrases it, questioned his masculinity. Newton told King how he personally tracked Carson down in his Burbank studio in order to set the record straight: “‘Mr. Carson,’ I said, ‘I don’t know what friend of yours I’ve killed, I don’t know what child of yours I’ve hurt, I don’t know what food I’ve taken out of your mouth, but these jokes about me will stop and they’ll stop now. Or I will kick your ass.’”

Where would Ferris Bueller be without Wayne Newton?

In retrospect, the preamble with which Newton led up to the threat sounds more ominous than the promised ass-kicking itself—even if, as a lifelong martial-arts practitioner, Newton may well have been able to back it up. As it turns out, Newton also laid blame on Carson for starting rumors that he was involved with the mafia and sued Carson’s network over news reports, shortly after Newton’s purchase of the Aladdin Hotel and Casino, suggesting links between the entertainer and organized crime. In 1986, a jury sided with Newton to the tune of $19.3 million, which the judge later reduced to $5.2 million; in 1990, a federal appeals court overturned the decision.

Over the course of his career, even Newton himself seems to have internalized his share of ambivalence. “I’m very much a fatalist,” he explains in Once Before I Go, an autobiography whose underlying darkness belies the blinding, boyish smile that’s been Newton’s trademark. While admitting to “immense dissatisfaction with most every show,” he recalls even more pessimism when it came to the recording industry: “I was sure I was never going to have a hit record, which is why I put so much energy and effort into stage performing.”

Still, Newton went along with it when friend and producer Bobby Darin, at the time flying high on the success of his own “Mack the Knife,” played him a demo of “Danke Schoen” from a German baritone singer, speeding up the acetate from 33 1/3 rpm to 78 rpm to demonstrate how it might sound in Newton’s voice.

Darin’s instincts proved right. But when a Los Angeles deejay introduced the 1963 hit with a quip about it really being ’40s pop singer Margaret Whiting recording under another name, Newton was hurt. “I had the number-one hit record in the country, I had Michael Jackson’s voice—I was a boy soprano—but back then all it brought me were attacks of vitriolic humor. I was the joke of the industry.”

Despite his more than 30,000 solo shows in Las Vegas, Newton still likes to think of himself as “an Indian boy from Virginia.” His working-class parents were both half-Indian—in fact, he claims a direct lineage to Pocahontas on his father’s side. (Newton has since made it a personal quest to bring Pocahontas’ remains from England back to the United States.)

Newton’s childhood fostered its share of abandonment issues. Both hyperactive and hypersensitive, he took to heart his mother’s threats to send him to the local orphanage. At the same time, he was also chronically ill from what turned out to be childhood asthma so severe that the doctor said he would die if the family didn’t relocate him to a dry climate.

A musical prodigy from an early age, Newton was finishing up his junior year in a Phoenix high school when an agent named Bookie Leven came through town, auditioned Wayne and his older brother Jerry and booked them into the Fremont in downtown Las Vegas. Newton dropped out of high school and began playing six shows a night. Being underage, he was barred from the casinos and ending up spending most of his time hanging out by himself in the coffee shop, tucking into the extra slices of pie that motherly waitresses would inevitably slip his way. A year later, when Jackie Gleason flew him to New York City to appear on his show, Newton had ballooned up to 270 pounds.

Like the gambling stakes on which his adopted city depends, Newton’s career has been a cascade of ups and downs ever since. He continued to make hit records, but claims that the only one from which he saw any money was “Daddy Don’t You Walk So Fast” (a 1972 hit that makes the trucker anthem “Teddy Bear” seem restrained by comparison). “It sold more than 5 million copies worldwide,” he writes, “and I received a total of eighty thousand dollars for it.”

Meanwhile, as a youthful counterculture became the marketing demographic of choice, the recording industry was shifting even further from Newton and his milieu. The traditional delineation between singer and songwriter was conflated, and a singles-driven economic structure gave way to an era in which recording artists were encouraged to make album-length statements reflecting their personal visions.

All of which made Newton’s aesthetic, coupled with his conservative political viewpoints, that much more anachronistic. “I was a fish of out water because my contemporaries were the Beatles and the Rolling Stones,” he writes. “I didn’t look like any of the hot recording artists. Musically, I would have fit in somewhere between the twenties and the thirties and certainly no later than the forties.”

Newton learned one of his most poignant lessons about show business upon walking into Bobby Darin’s dressing room and finding the singer crying for reasons that he would only understand after many more years: “I know the burden and the responsibility of having your own heart breaking and dying inside and yet knowing you’ve got to go out there and be a clown. You’ve got to make the world smile because people in the audience are suffering from the same thing.”

And for all that joy and pain, Mr. Newton, we thank you.