One of the most impressive performers on Sally Jesse Raphael's Sally's Most Talented Kids show last January was a 12-year-old boy from Louisville. Danny Wayne walked out with a shy smile and then transformed, at the first guitar lick, into a polished showman.
In a purple suit spangled with rhinestones, he belted out Aretha Franklin's version of Respect, dazzling the audience with a few quick dance steps, singing lines such as "Give me my propers when I get home" with an authority he couldn't have learned through experience.
Now 13 years old, Danny Wayne already has a career-live performances (more than 40 in the past year or so), a show on Louisville's public access cable, auditions in Las Vegas, meetings in Nashville, and a compact disc. There is even an entity called Danny Wayne Enterprises.
Small in stature, with lively brown eyes and a sprinkling of freckles across a snub-nosed face, Danny's still very much a kid who likes to go to the movies or the skating rink with his friends, who runs just about everywhere he's going. At shows, he sits at a table coloring with crayons until it's time to sing. Then he hits the stage like an 85-pound Tom Jones.
Danny Wayne was a premature baby-he weighed just under 5 pounds, and spent his first weeks in a hospital incubator. While he was still in the hospital, his birth mother gave him up to the family's babysitter, who later adopted Danny and his brother.
Although he's never met his birth mother, Danny says he understands that she was a good singer. He thinks he may have inherited her voice.
From about age 4, Danny liked to stay up watching the singers on MTV. He remembers he had a karaoke machine and would sing "to thin air." When he turned 8, he asked his mom to take him to karaoke nights in local clubs.
Bob Alberhasky, president of a Louisville demolition company, first saw 11-year-old Danny performing in a Shepherdsville bar. When Danny sang Unchained Melody, Alberhasky-a gruff, white-haired 64-year-old-started crying. "The song doesn't make me cry-there was something about his voice and his delivery."
After seeing Danny perform a few more times, Alberhasky revived a long-held dream of dabbling in entertainment and started managing the young singer-booking performances, paying for dance and music lessons, buying him performing outfits, working the phones to reach the likes of Sally Jesse.
Now it's as if Danny has three full-time jobs-going to school, being a kid, and pursuing his musical career.
Jan Calvert, his principal at Farnsley Middle School, says Danny is "an all-around kid" who's on the technology team (that's AV squad to us older folks) and is "a capable student." He sings The Star Spangled Banner before basketball games "and brings the house down," Calvert says. "We all like to say we know the next Elvis Presley."
While he takes it easy during the winter months, from April through November Danny's on the road. His mother says she regrets not seeing him more, but that "he's old enough to know what he wants, and this has been a dream of his forever."
"We try not to burn him out," says Josh Blancett, a young Tennessean who books Danny's appearances and serves as stage manager of his shows, citing some of the fun things Danny's gotten to do while on the road-going to the Six Flags amusement park after a date in Atlanta, or bungee-jumping in Las Vegas.
"It's a privilege to me," Danny says about the energies Alberhasky and the others exert on his behalf. "Most kids my age who sing don't even get what I get."
So Danny accepts the work he has to do, even when he doesn't relish it: "If I wasn't pushed, I guess I wouldn't be here right now talking to you...I'd be home sitting on the couch."
Danny got on Sally Jesse after his mother, watching the show, saw a notice seeking talented kids. The appearance generated more than a thousand phone calls and feelers from big-time music attorneys and major record labels.
While his singing is highly proficient-he sounds a little bit like another child performer, Wayne Newton-it's Danny's showmanship that's most uncanny, the way he draws and directs your attention, the way he feeds off the energy of a crowd.
Alberhasky says, "When he performed New Year's Eve (at Kentucky Dam Village), at one moment 60 people quit dancing to stand on the floor in utter amazement while he sang Proud Mary. When you get that reaction from people, you know it's not just you hoping or thinking you got somebody-you know you got somebody."
Choosing What Danny Wayne Sings
Danny Wayne's compact disc, Heart with Your Name on It, was released late last year.
Danny selected the songs from a group of about 40 suggested by Chris Oglesby of BMG Entertainment in Nashville. Most are classics such as Bill Monroe's Blue Moon of Kentucky, and Elvis' I Can't Help Falling in Love with You, spiked with more recent country numbers such as the Judds' Drops of Water and the title tune, which has been recorded by Garth Brooks. Danny tends to prefer up-tempo tunes. "I don't want my music to be slow and too country," he says.
Although his managers have been promoting him as a pop country artist, they acknowledge that the strongest songs in his act are rhythm-and-blues-not only Respect but Disco Inferno and, in particular, Ike and Tina Turner's version of Proud Mary.
It's an adult repertoire, which makes it difficult to find songs that suit him-they don't want him recording the getting-drunk, slippin'-around songs that make up so much of country music. And they don't want him to record children's songs. Danny speaks with scornful incredulity about a promoter who presented him such titles as My Lunchbox. "Danny isn't a kid entertainer," says stage manager Josh Blancett. "He's a kid, but his audience is