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

"I dressed up for you," he says.

Ravenous yet self-aware, before he digs into his Oriental chicken salad he sends me to fetch him a second napkin to tuck into his shirt collar, but occasional bites still spill down into his lap. He retrieves them. As he Hoovers up the salad, leaving the white plate bare except for a faint film of dressing, Fey compares Morris' relative lack of voraciousness to his own appetites.

"In the '70s, Chuck wasn't ruthless enough," Fey says. "He's great, he just didn't have the ruthless part that you needed to hold onto something," he says. "But I wasn't as ruthless as people think. A lot of people blamed me for their undoings when it was just sloppiness on their part. 'Barry Fey muscled me, Barry Fey hands out all the coke.' Ridiculous. I've never been a pimp, and I've never been a dealer. I put the asses in the seats.... I was a dictator, but I was a benevolent dictator."

Now 68, Fey is semiretired, working on a few theatrical and museum promotions he says he can't talk about. Morris, Fey says, seems content to keep him at a distance. Fey thinks it has something to do with him coming out of retirement in 2001 to work for House of Blues, a rival of Clear Channel/SFX, which had recruited Morris years earlier to be its brand-name promoter in Denver. (Clear Channel eventually spun off its promoters, including Morris, into the Live Nation organization, which, until now, has had a stranglehold on much of the concert promotions business nationwide.) "Chuck used to have a line that he was the Ed McMahon of rock 'n' roll, indicating that I was Johnny Carson and he was number two, and he was fine with that," Fey says. "I heard that Chuck felt that it was his time in the sun and that my coming back took away some of his sunshine."

Old colleagues remain mystified about what could cause such a lingering rift between two men who were great friends as well as business partners; Fey was the best man when Morris married his third and current wife, Becky. "I've said to both of them, 'Guys, get over it,'" says John Scher, a New York-based promoter who has worked with Simon and Garfunkel and the Grateful Dead. Jack Boyle, who calls himself Morris' "semi-official rabbi," says, "They both need each other."

Fey recaps snippets of his glory days, glowing at the memory of the 900 or so Red Rocks shows he promoted, lamenting the changing nature of a business that "won't allow Barry Fey to be Barry Fey anymore," and making the chest-puffing (and dubious) claim that he still needs to carry a Sharpie with him around town because of all the autograph seekers, old fans thanking him for the memories. As he reminisces, his mood swings sharply between joy and melancholy. The crazy, colorful experiences he so greedily devoured back then came at a cost. Now, as the conversation and the reflections of that past come to an end, Fey sits alone. "You know what I'd like the name of your story to be?" he says. "Chuck, please come back."