Chuck Morris arrived in Colorado planning to become a college professor. Instead, he made Denver a part of rock 'n' roll history. A look into the life and times of a music maverick.
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.
LIFE IN THE FAST LANE
Sporting longish brown hair and wearing a hockey jersey and jeans, a thirtysomething Morris sat in his South Cherry Street office, making small talk with a local news photographer while they waited for Morris' boss, Barry Fey. The photographer was there to shoot the two promoters for their annual release of "The Summer of Stars," a pull-out newspaper section fans plastered on their refrigerators to map out their concertgoing plans for Red Rocks and the Rainbow Music Hall. In those days, the dawn of the '80s, shows for established acts such as Willie Nelson or Bonnie Raitt cost $8.50, and gigs for obscure up-and-comers such as Blondie, the Police, and U2 set you back two bucks. Morris and the photographer, a quiet older gentleman who was about to take a giant step closer to retirement, could see Fey—big, bearded, and getting visibly agitated—talking on the phone through the glass partition that separated the two offices. Suddenly, Fey slammed down the phone with a roar: "Motherfucker!" before jumping up and storming into Morris' office.
Fey didn't see the photographer; it wouldn't have mattered anyway. Without another word, he stomped over to Morris' roll-top desk and flipped it over onto his protégé's chest—what Fey saw as a fitting response to Morris having overpaid someone. The photographer leapt from his seat and fled down the stairs. "I thought the guy was going to have a heart attack," Morris says. "We watched him out the window running across the parking lot, and we just started laughing." Fey, then the undisputed godfather of the Denver music scene, always was a pivotal figure for Morris, the guy he had the balls to partner with a decade earlier and the foresight to leave in the dust later on.
As a kid, Morris could never have imagined that the serenity of his childhood would lead him into the dramatic, combustible world of Fey. Every summer, Morris' schoolteacher father took his family from Brooklyn to the Chautauqua Institution, a wooded Eden in upstate New York that featured programs ranging from educational lectures by State Department officials to classical and folk concerts. "We didn't have much money, but we rented a house up there every year; it was a great musical, educational summer place," Morris says. He sold programs so he could see the concerts for free, and his love of music was forever fortified on the day in 1957 he snuck up to the front row to watch the Kingston Trio. "I spent every penny I earned from babysitting from the time I was 13 buying albums," he says. "I wanted to be in music, but I didn't know how."
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.
WHY CAN'T WE BE FRIENDS?
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.
"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."
For all the glamour associated with the music business, it's a grind for promoters. Fey and Morris worked late nights, took phone calls at all hours, and, when not massaging artists' egos, were sucked into the never-ending backstage parties. Details are sketchy. Morris and his old buddies freely allude to the era's excesses, but when it comes to the specifics they close ranks like a group of bleary-eyed husbands returning from a Vegas weekend. What happens backstage.... Fey gleefully recalls the "unspeakable" things he and Morris did together—and he leaves it at that. Morris' friends from his club days called him "Uncle Woody" for reasons he claims not to recall. "I had a bit of a notorious reputation back then, but everybody did," he says. "I mean, it was the '60s and '70s in Boulder, give me a break."
By the time Morris hit his 40s, the thrill was gone. Realizing that rolling into work hung over at 11 a.m. wouldn't get him where he wanted to go, he got his shit together. "I couldn't keep up continuing to do some of the abuses," he says. "I don't want to talk specifically about it, but the abuses in the rock business, which used to be rampant, have really cleaned up. It's become more of a business, and it's hard to keep your business if you're high." It's also hard to keep your family. Like Fey, Morris paid his own price for the rock 'n' roll lifestyle, tearing through two marriages before sobering up. Now, he's been married to his third wife for about 17 years and sober for about 20.
Morris' oldest daughter, Brittany, now a 27-year-old vice president at the local lobbying firm CRL Associates, was about eight when her father got clean. She recalls some of the times he was drunk, but "since it happened when I was so young, I tend to only remember him sober, which is a good thing from some of the stories I've heard.... I still call him Chuck a lot. He doesn't really respond to 'Dad,' so if you say 'Chuck,' he'll turn around. He also doesn't remember names sometimes. He'll call me Brenda, and I'll say, 'Dad, you have no children named Brenda.'"
TAKIN' CARE OF BUSINESS
It's late March, and I'm meandering through the hallways of the Anschutz Entertainment Group, Morris' new employer. AEG snatched Morris from Live Nation, where Morris had worked for more than a decade, when his contract expired at the end of 2006. AEG's new Denver office at Seventh and Santa Fe, a former Spanish-language radio station, is undergoing a makeover to ready it for the arrival of Morris' AEG colleagues in May. In a nod to the building's Latino heritage and the neighborhood's colorful surroundings, workers are painting the walls in bold Southwestern tones and laying ceramic tile and dark hardwood over the floors.
I'm on time for our 1:30 meeting, but all Morris told me was to be at the building, and now, not realizing it was still under construction and unoccupied, I'm wandering the labyrinthine corridors. I hear a voice near the front door at the end of a long hallway.
"May I help you?"
"Chuck?" I walk toward him. He has the man-purse and another bag slung over his shoulder and a motley armful of papers.
"Yeah...you're an hour early."
"We said 1:30 right?"
"I think I'm right on time."
He looks at his wrist. "Oh, wait...my watch stopped."
At AEG, Morris once again appears to be one half of an odd couple, working for and with Philip Anschutz. The media tycoon, who produced The Chronicles of Narnia and whose vast holdings include numerous sports teams, arenas, and theater chains, is famously reclusive and conservative. It's hard to imagine the devout Christian Anschutz and Morris just "hanging," but the two have known each other for about 20 years, fostering a friendship over numerous charity events. Then again, they won't often be working directly together; Morris' division is a mere sliver of the AEG empire, and besides, business is business—as Morris himself so shrewdly grasps.
"You could take [Morris] very lightly the way he sometimes portrays himself, but he's thinking all the time, usually way ahead of where everyone else is," Bohlander says. Morris has been a manager and a promoter. Leveraging his old poli sci interests—one of his primary sources of relaxation is reading political books—he's active in Democratic political causes and has aligned himself with powers that be and might be, doing benefits with and for the likes of Mayor Hickenlooper, Sen. Ken Salazar, and Al Franken. He's always kept a foot in country and folk music, managing different acts and cobbling together an all-star group of musicians to form Highway 101, which became one of country's top acts in the late-1980s. "Chuck's found ways to mutate in the different ways you have to do in this business if you're going to have a long career," says Doug Kauffman of Denver's Nobody in Particular Presents. "To be able to form the concept for Highway 101, put it together from scratch, and end up selling millions of records...not many people could do that."
Morris refers to nearly everyone as a "dear friend," and several people, whether they know it or not, can lay claim to being his best friend in the business. "I advised him to do what's best for him and his family, because loyalty is something that left the rock 'n' roll business long ago," the "rabbi" Boyle says. "Chuck was aware of that and has made upward moves in a way that everyone still respects him for it." His departure from Live Nation to AEG, however, might be a more challenging move than any Morris has made—the rock 'n' roller arm-in-arm with the holy roller—but it's also consistent with his M.O. "I've always hooked myself up with the big guns because I thought it was the best way for me to survive," he says. "'Workaholic' isn't the right word; it's way further than that. I often wake up in the middle of the night thinking about what I can do for my career, what's the next thing for me to conquer."
The seeds for Morris' latest unexpected turn sprouted last year over a dinner in Los Angeles with his old friend Azoff. The agent "Blackberried" AEG president and CEO Tim Leiweke, whom Morris befriended when Leiweke ran the Nuggets in the '90s. Leiweke was across the street at a basketball game, and Azoff was pinging him to ask if he wanted to get together afterward. Rather than respond electronically, Leiweke walked over to the restaurant and told Morris that once his Live Nation contract and noncompete agreement expired, AEG had a job for him. "As I understand it, he got the proverbial offer he couldn't refuse," Scher says. "He's not so much working for AEG as doing a co-venture with them, so he gets to sail his own ship to some degree." (To wit, Morris bought the building at Seventh and Santa Fe and is leasing it to his new company.)
The AEG showdown with Live Nation started even before Morris took the reins in June. AEG already has hired Morris' top two Live Nation promoters, Don Strasburg and Brent Fredrizzi, and Morris' longtime assistant Jan Martin. And AEG leased the Ogden and Bluebird theaters from NIPP and is promoting almost 30 shows at Red Rocks this summer. The upshot for Denver's rabid music fans: a record-breaking season at Red Rocks, fierce competition that should bring more music than ever to the Front Range—and (sigh) higher ticket prices.
Until his noncompete agreement with Live Nation ended June 1, Morris couldn't promote shows, book talent, cut deals, or even talk to anyone about coming to work for AEG. All of which might explain the intense anxiety in his voice the night in April he called me twice at home a few weeks after our first meeting. AEG had gotten wind of this story—a company spokesman already had said he couldn't comment on non- or prospective employees—and after consulting with his future bosses, Morris prepared the following statement. He insisted on reading it twice:
"I've agreed to go to work for AEG, and the actual starting date is an open question, but it won't be later than October 1. I will say that up until the last day of my contract with Live Nation, starting with my partnership with Bill Graham Presents, I've had nothing but pleasurable memories. Those guys gave me the tools to have a lot of my dreams come true. It was a great relationship, and I'm looking forward to my future with AEG because of my longtime friendship with Tim and Phil."
Morris has spent almost 40 years steering himself through the freewheeling, renegade era of clubs and coke to a more rigid time of balance sheets and bottom-line expectations. He wants this latest move to be the cherry on his giant sundae of a career; he appears to be intensely focused on not complicating this transition while still remaining the same old Chuck, no matter how irresistible the corporate tractor beam—with its button-down sensibilities and big paydays—might be. As we talked on that anxious night, wafting through the background I could hear the strains of Van Morrison's "Brown Eyed Girl," a favorite song from a favorite artist, composed in a simpler time:
To Tuesday and so slow
Going down the old mine
With a transistor radio
Standing in the sunlight laughing,
Hiding behind a rainbow's wall...
Luc Hatlestad is a senior editor at 5280.