When people heard Wayne Newton was coming to town, an old question surfaced: Just what has the guy got that makes him so popular? He looks like a Mafia boss named Diamond Somebody, he hasn't had a hit in a decade and he's starting to get some miles on him.
But while singers come and go in Las Vegas, Newton and the Energizer keep going . . . and going . . . and going . . .It all has to do with showmanship.
People go to see the show, not the celebrity. After 20 years with Don Vincent and his orchestra, the singer knows within three minutes what kind of crowd he has, what they'll want to hear and just what he can get away with. He works hard. He has a variety of skills (guitar, trumpet, violin, etc. etc.)
But more than all that, he's a professional. He's like the guy who can toss 52 cards into a hat, or the guy who runs 250 balls in a row on the billiard table. You might not think what he does is so important, but you have to admire how well he does it.
Saturday night Newton wasn't in good health, for instance. He spent most of the show coughing into his fist, drinking water and mopping his brow - like a man in a cold remedy commercial. But it didn't seem to take an edge off him. No, it was "show time." And show people - according to Ethel Merman - smile when they are low.
All that banter and spontaneity on stage, for instance. Was it real? Or was this just a pro working the crowd?
The patriotism, the self-effacing humor, the humility, the fun. Was it real?
The truth is you never know, and after a few minutes it doesn't seem to matter. Like a camp preacher, Newton gets you out there between shadow and reality, where he can make you see spirits and things.
Newton jumped back and forth between musical genres almost as much as he jumped around stage. Opening with Neil Diamond's "Coming to America," he then turned "Bridge Over Troubled Waters" into a gospel number, flipped into a couple of saloon singer standards ("You're Nobody Till Somebody Loves You") jumped into country music for "Good-Hearted Woman" and other songs, leaped into Latin rhythm for "Spanish Eyes," and jetted back 35 years for "You Send Me" "Unchained Melody" and a pretty good knock-off of Elvis on "Heartbreak Hotel" and "Are You Lonesome Tonight."
He then brought the show home with a patriotic set featuring "Dixie," "Battle Hymn of the Republic" and "America the Beautiful."
Throughout, he kept a chatty rapport with the 16-piece band - much like Carson keeps with Doc and the orchestra. And he worked the crowd like a musical grifter.
But what is Newton really like?
He's a lot of energy - like Tony Bennett on speed . . . no, like Tom Jones with a personality . . . no, like Donahue with pipes.
All that and none of that. He's Scott Joplin's "Entertainer." He's Wayne Newton: showman.