Newton: Music's Wilt Chamberlain
Newton: Music's Wilt Chamberlain

Public Utility

It must be hard for Wayne Newton, having to deal with constant astonishment over the fact that he has played 25,000 concerts. For him this is old news—a record smashed in 1994. The man clocks 40 weeks a year onstage—an average of 625 shows annually—meaning he has played at least 9,375 times since his 10-kilo silver jubilee. The sexual records of Wilt Chamberlain pale in comparison.

Having just turned 64 years old, Newton has only spent a little more than 23,000 days on earth. Even if he had been forced to perform in front of a paying audience once a day since birth, he would still be four years from retirement. As it is, he was a late starter, squandering six precious years before hitting the road as a first-grader with his older brother. There is a word for someone who spends six years of their life loafing around and freeloading off Mommy and Daddy: lazy. The specter of those wasted days must haunt him still.

It looks like he's making up for lost time. By 1948, young Wayne had taught himself piano and guitar. His bio reminds us that "when Elvis Presley was still driving a truck, Wayne . . . had already sung before a president." That would be Truman, 11 administrations ago. And by 1948, Wayne had also "toured with a Grand Ole Opry road show and released his first record." By the mid-1950s he was putting in six shows a day.

More math: Wayne claims to know how to play 13 instruments—piano, drums, guitar, banjo and fiddle are live staples—which means he has more than 62 billion musical combinations available to him for any given performance. His publicity varies as to lifetime attendance figures, ranging from 15 million to 30 million people entertained, which has him conservatively earning three-quarters of a billion dollars at the door. If he drank even one can of Diet Pepsi during each of his 25,000 shows, you would be able to fill more than 200 Olympic swimming pools with the soda he has ingested.

Okay, I made that last one up. I was excited. Contem-plating the achievements of Mr. Las Vegas is like watching an episode of Cosmos: you can get sucked into the numbers. But staggering numbers lead to strange questions. Does Newton ever just go through the motions? His official bio tells us that he "simply works harder and digs deeper than anyone out there, sizing up audiences as he goes, tailoring shows to fit their moods, until he's given them their money's worth."

This seems an impossible feat to replicate night after night. All humans will have that moment at least once in their lifetime—while eating, brushing teeth, on the toilet—where they suddenly find themselves wondering, "What the hell am I doing?" Does Wayne have these moments onstage, waking up mid-song after weeks or months or years of walking through his act?

A true Wayniac will tell you no. They are a loyal bunch, borderline belligerent when Mr. Las Vegas is accused of kitsch. To them, work trumps art—is the art—and 25,000 shows elevate the performer to a plane higher than mere performance. It is performance art. His work ethic goes beyond Protestant, beyond human, into the realm of public utilities. It is not hard to believe that Wayne Newton will always be there for us, like running water or electricity.

But utilities can be taken for granted. On a recent trip to Las Vegas, I couldn't help noticing that his functional 30-foot vinyl banner on the Flamingo wasn't quite as large as the block-sized marquees down the strip. Wayne Newton can be seen from blocks away; the lesser visages of Rita Rudner and Carrot Top can probably be seen from space. And yet Newton's face was by far the most confident. The banner is of his famous pose—tuxed and tanned, left hand lightly gripping his side, right hand holding a microphone as if it were a small ice cream cone. That warm smile, ageless, seemed to peer down at us all with a secret knowledge. He seemed amused by our human weakness; all of us soft, running in and out of bars and casinos, while he just stands perfectly still.



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