The Absent-Minded Promoter
Chuck Morris arrived in Colorado planning to be a college professor. Instead, he's spent nearly 40 years making Denver a part of rock 'n' roll history. He's worked hard and at times played even harder. Now, backed by a conservative billionaire, Morris is singing a new tune.
On a pleasant spring day, a late-model Volkswagen hatchback, black and mud-streaked, careens through Denver. Zigzagging by the Cherry Creek Country Club and Colorado Boulevard strip malls, the VW is dirtier inside than out, its floors strewn with crumpled papers, empty water bottles, stray CDs, and a beat-up leather man-purse bursting with bills, a checkbook, and a handful of eyeglass cases. The owner of the man-purse and the car is self-described "lousy" driver Chuck Morris, the brilliant flake who's helped make the Red Rocks Amphitheatre such a legendary venue and, for that matter, put Colorado on the rock 'n' roll map. ¶ The ride isn't as unnerving as it otherwise might be because of the precious cargo in the back seat: Zach, the youngest of Morris' five children. The skateboard-cool-looking eight-year-old with a bed-head cowlick quietly distracts himself with one of those
handheld gizmos while his father, responding to a single "tell-me-about-yourself" question, breathlessly rambles through his four-decade career. There are the legends he's worked with and befriended: Lynyrd Skynyrd, ZZ Top, the Eagles, Willie Nelson, John Lee Hooker, U2, and the Police, to name just a few. And his clubs. Back in the day, Morris oversaw local rock 'n' roll cubbyholes—Tulagi's, Ebbets Field, and the Rainbow Music Hall—that garnered nationwide acclaim. His name-dropping is self-promotional, but it's also just what happened. Like the song says, it's been a long strange trip. Morris ventured to Denver with hopes of becoming a college professor and ended up stumbling, sometimes literally, into the role of the absentminded promoter extraordinaire. Now, at 62, he's forged an unlikely partnership to keep the music playing. "I've managed to bridge the gap from the old days of doing lines when you paid the band to being surrounded by accountants and lawyers," Morris says, abruptly cackling as he jerks the wheel of the VW into another unexpected turn.
"Hello?" Morris shouts, the wind in the background roaring like a jet engine. A few days after our daredevil ride through Denver, he answers my call from his car, which triggers that Pavlovian cell phone instinct to holler even though I'm indoors.
"I'm driving back from the airport on I-70!"
"OK. We were going to set up that next meeting!"
"Is this story about Red Rocks or about me?"
For the fourth or fifth time, I tell him, it's both. After all, the two are inextricably linked.
"How about the Monday the 12th at 1 p.m.?" he says.
"OK, let me write that down."
I cringe for his fellow I-70 drivers as I hear him fumble for a pen; sounds like he dropped the phone. "This pen's out of ink. Do me a favor and send me an e-mail."
Even in the music business, it seems remarkable that a rumpled, neurotic figure like Morris could ever accomplish anything, let alone be the driving force behind such a wealth of musical riches. He has no discernible organizing system (he owns at least a few valises but usually carries around his "Rolodex"—a wrinkled sheaf of papers buried in an amorphous stack of files—as if the briefcase had never been invented). His thoughts dart down unexpected tangents and repetitiously circle back around, making linear discussions impossible. He always wears colorful specs, usually switching between two or three pairs at a time, and four chunky, silver rock star rings, two on each hand. With his vaguely Warholian mop of salt-and-pepper hair and a mismatched, Big Kahuna wardrobe, he looks more like a Jimmy Buffett Parrothead than a business mogul.
Yet it was this offbeat dude, along with his infamous mentor, Barry Fey, who helped turn Denver from a flyover outpost into a must-play destination for musicians of all genres. "Part of the reason Denver has been such a good concert market is because he nurtured that from the first Eagles gig at Tulagi's," says Irving Azoff, longtime manager of the Eagles and others. "He's kept it a very pure music market, which is why a lot of acts mean so much there more than elsewhere."
This summer, Denverites can look forward to a star-studded and eclectic summer concert lineup. Pepsi Center shows featuring Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, and the Police reunion tour. Joss Stone and Lucinda Williams at the Fillmore. The Neville Brothers and Indigo Girls at the Chautauqua Auditorium. The countless cutting-edge acts at Denver and Boulder's smaller venues. And up at Red Rocks, more than 50 shows this season, including old favorites such as Blues Traveler, Widespread Panic, and Big Head Todd; icons such as Buddy Guy, Lyle Lovett, and Bob Dylan; and new talent such as the Killers, Spearhead, and local heroes the Fray. All part of a lineup that only enhances Red Rocks' nearly mythical status. "It's just a magical place," says Fred Bohlander, a West Coast-based talent rep who has managed acts including Aerosmith, the Black Eyed Peas, and the Doobie Brothers. "It's one of the few venues that artists continue to ask to go play at." And none of it would have been possible had Morris not had the prescience to take that first job with the volcanic, take-no-prisoners promotions shop that was Feyline Productions.