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.

July 2007

Morris graduated from high school at 16 and from Queens College at 20, earning a fellowship to study political science at CU Boulder. "I went to grad school because my father was a principal, my brother was a dentist, my cousins were doctors," he says. "You know, when you're Jewish middle class, you become educated, and I didn't know what else to do." About a year shy of his Ph.D., Morris bailed. "One day I just realized I didn't have it in me to keep going and teach poli sci," he says, fiddling with a pair of rose-colored glasses. He quit school and got a job managing the Sink, the low-ceilinged, graffiti-walled Boulder dive. "My mother, God bless her, is 94," he says, "and she still thinks I'm going to go back to school someday and get my doctorate."

By the early 1970s, Morris had moved from the Sink to Tulagi's and was turning it into a nationally recognized club by booking acts such as ZZ Top, Linda Ronstadt, and the Eagles. It was the dawn of the post-Beatles era, spawning then-unknown acts that today fill stadiums. Morris knew them all when they were still living in vans, happily playing gigs for beer money. But running small clubs, no matter how successful, doesn't make a promoter rich. "I decided I wanted to get into the big leagues when I started losing bands to Fey," Morris says, "because he was the man."

Their only previous contact had been one, as Morris puts it, "very intimidating" phone conversation, when Fey had called Morris in a bellowing rage because Morris had refused to pay a Fey band its full fee after they'd showed up two hours late. Showing hints of the ethos that would carry him throughout his career—it's not personal; it's just business—Morris realized that the only way to move up the food chain in Denver was to ally himself with the godfather, and he made the call. Fey greeted him with a "What the fuck do you want?" Morris told him he wanted to start a club, and Fey was the guy who could make it happen. "You're the best young club kid I've ever seen in my life," Fey said. "Go find a club and I'll put the money up." The result was the now-defunct Ebbets Field, which twice became Billboard magazine's national club of the year.

Now united in what Morris' old friend and promoter Jack Boyle calls "the odd couple's odd couple," Fey and Morris were in business. If they were auditioning for This is Spinal Tap, Fey would get the part of the British band manager berating record execs and bashing the hell out of hotel rooms with a cricket bat, while Morris would be cast in the Paul Shaffer role, the hyper-conciliatory promoter bending over a record rack, imploring the band to literally kick his ass. "When they were together they each had their separate way of doing it, and it all came together as one," Bohlander says. Dave McKay, a longtime Feyline employee who's now vice president of United Concerts in Salt Lake City, spent years witnessing their peculiar chemistry firsthand. "It lent itself to some real creativity," he says. "Barry would threaten some pretty absurd things, probably for effect, and Chuck, believe it or not, would become the voice of reason at some point." The combination worked. In a seminal moment for their partnership, Fey and Morris successfully fought city hall in 1976, winning the right to bring rock 'n' roll back to Red Rocks after local officials had banned it following a 1971 riot at a Jethro Tull concert. (See "On the Rocks") The Colorado music scene would never be the same.

Before companies such as SFX Entertainment and Clear Channel got into the concert business in the late-'80s, consolidating regional promoters into a cabal that never quite clicked, promoters like Feyline were much freer to wing it on shows or festivals that today are dictated by The Suits. In the old days, once Fey and Morris knew who a headliner was going to be, they could tailor the rest of the show to Denver's unique tastes. "They'd know which supporting acts were more popular in Denver than in Phoenix or San Diego," McKay says. "They knew the market so well, they could custom-make a stadium show that would work for the local audience."

It was a low-tech endeavor, the intelligence gathered through years of "breaking" bands like the Outlaws in local clubs and watching their fortunes soar. Part of the Lynyrd Skynyrd/Molly Hatchet Southern rock craze, the Outlaws rode into town in the mid-'70s for their first local appearance. Rather than host the anonymous band for a single night, the accepted practice then and now, Morris had them play for a week at a small club while promoting them with radio station appearances and record company parties. "The first night they played for about 20 people, but by the fifth or sixth night there were lines around the block," McKay says. "From that point on, the Outlaws were huge in Colorado."

This gonzo approach has gone the way of 8-track tapes and FM radio album-side weekends. "In the beginning, it was just a lot of people having fun. Record sales were big, it wasn't that expensive to be on the road, and it was locally based," the talent rep Bohlander says. "Then something caught the eye of the financial world, and now shooting from the hip and taking gambles on shows or festivals that might pay off in the long run is harder to do, because you have to run it by so many people first."

Morris adapted through the changing eras. He started managing folk and country acts, further enhancing his reputation as someone who treated the artists well. "The first job I played for him, I dropped an amp on my guitar," says folk guitarist Leo Kottke, the only musician Morris still manages. Morris went down the street in Boulder, bought a 12-string guitar from his friend Nick the Greek, and brought it back to Kottke, who was happy with it even though he hated the sound of most 12-strings. "He's the guy I go to when I have a problem," Kottke says. "A lot of folks you work with in show business aren't that fond of [working with the artists], but Chuck loves it." The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, another onetime Morris client that has remained close, grew to rely on him for more than just pre-show coddling. "He's a great cheerleader," says Jeff Hanna, one of the band's founding members. "If you were feeling crappy about yourself, you'd just pick up the phone and call Chuck."

This freewheeling congeniality could share the stage with Fey's snarling intensity for only so long. By the mid-'80s, sensing the opportunity to make a name for himself and growing weary of smoothing all the feathers his boss had ruffled, Morris began breaking free of his old mentor.

Barry Fey lumbers into a Platt Park restaurant, the long, untied laces of his sockless sneakers dragging along the floor. His khaki cargo shorts reveal the relatively spindly legs that support his Humpty Dumpty physique. He's a lot heavier than he's looked in some old pictures but a lot lighter than in others, his close-cut gray hair and moustache framing his jowly face, and a diamond stud nestling in his left earlobe. He's wearing a psychedelic Grateful Dead T-shirt, the one with the skeleton driving a New York City cab, underneath a blue, open, button-down shirt with the band's iconic skull logo on the breast pocket—the symbol of the Dead worn over his heart.