The Music Begins! A Look at Wayne Newton’s Early Musical Career

March 15, 2016
Top photo: A collage of Wayne Newton’s early days with family and friends. Right photo: A framed 78 rpm single recorded in the late ‘50s the Rascals in Rhythm.
Top photo: A collage of Wayne Newton’s early days with family and friends. Right photo: A framed 78 rpm single recorded in the late ‘50s the Rascals in Rhythm.

Known worldwide as “Mr. Las Vegas” and “Mr. Entertainment” alike, Wayne Newton has been a part of Las Vegas’ cultural pulse for nearly six decades. But there’s a time before Newton arrived in this Mojave Desert neon oasis.

The story begins in Norfolk, Virginia, where he was born. There was plenty of music surrounding him from the very beginning. Raised by parents Patrick and Evelyn Newton, the burgeoning artist attended a Grand Ole Opry show when he was just four years old. There he was entranced by country music greats like Hank Williams and Kitty Wells. His life’s direction was clear.

Inspired by his musical heroes, Newton was playing guitar, piano and steel guitar by the age of six. Even more incredibly, he played them all by ear! In fact, to this day Newton does not perform to sheet music.

Within a few more years — accompanied by his older brother, Jerry — he was performing at regional Opry shows and being broadcast on the radio. The duo was known as “Rascals in Rhythm,” and even performed in front of then President Dwight D. Eisenhower at a USO show (giving birth to a dedication to the organization ever since). In fact, Casa de Shenandoah visitors can see a rare framed 78 rpm shellac recording by the pair — the humorously titled late-1950s single, “If the Easter Bunny Knew the Fun He’d Have on Xmas” — in our Museum collection.

In Newton’s youth, Las Vegas was a very young town, small and far away from the East Coast and Midwest where he and his family had been residing. But, he had severe allergies that triggered asthma. So, as many Americans were encouraged to do in the post-War II, dawn of air-conditioning era, they moved to the great American Southwest in search of fresh air. Notably, they made a first homestead in Phoenix, Arizona.

The “Valley of the Sun” is relatively close to Las Vegas, even in the 1950s when Highway 93 was a brand new asphalt ribbon snaking through the rugged wilderness to eventually cross Hoover Dam. And though Newton was broadcast on radio and even television in Phoenix, the entirely different limelight of Las Vegas beckoned to him. Soon enough, Wayne and Jerry were performing in the famous Fremont Hotel & Casino, even though they were technically too young to be on stage! What was supposed to be a two-week gig was extended, due to rapt and thrilled audiences, to a nearly a yearlong run of performances.

Even more fortuitously during Newton’s early years performing in Las Vegas, he became acquainted with “The Great One,” Jackie Gleason. Famed from the groundbreaking “The Honeymooners” program, Gleason was at the center of the entertainment industry. He brought Newton on his live television show a dozen times, and also became a mentor to his young protégé. This was invaluable to Newton in the rough-and-tumble world that is professional entertainment.

Gleason makes an important showing in Casa de Shenandoah’s collection to this day, including his pool cue from the classic film, “The Hustler.”

As Newton grew as a performer, he had other valuable professional friends and teachers, including none other than the comedic genius and business icon Lucille Ball. In addition, stars like Jack Benny, Danny Thomas and George Burns were supportive of the youthful multi-instrumentalist and vocalist.

It was yet another luminary, however, that helped him usher in an incredible new young-adult phase of his career — Bobby Darin. In 1963, Darin gave Newton the song “Danke Schoen” and helped him record it. It was an indelible smash hit!

From this time on, Wayne Newton and Las Vegas became forever linked. More on that later …