Industry Profile: Chuck Morris
By Larry LeBlanc
This week in the hot seat with Larry LeBlanc: Chuck Morris
For a near half-century, Chuck Morris, president and CEO of AEG Live Rocky Mountains, has been a pivotal figure in presenting live music in America.
In 2006, Anschutz Entertainment Group opened an office in Denver, Colorado, wooing Brent Fedrizzi and Don Strasburg followed by Morris in 2007—the dynamic team that had spent 8 years building up Live Nation's Colorado franchise
Today, AEG Live Rocky Mountains operates in Colorado as well as Wyoming, Utah, Idaho and New Mexico.
It oversees The Blue Bird Theatre, and The Ogden Theatre--the Denver venues for which AEG has long-term leases. As well, AEG does shows at Red Rocks Amphitheater, and the Pepsi Center, two venues still open to all promoters.
In 2008, AEG Live Rocky Mountains inaugurated the first annual Mile High Music Festival at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City, Colorado. This summer the festival featured 50 acts including Widespread Panic, Tool and the Fray.
Also in 2008, partnered with AEG’s St. Louis office and with Denver-based Madison House, the company launched the Rothbury Music Festival in Rothbury, Michigan. This year’s lineup featured over 70 acts including the Dead (their only summer performance), Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Ani DiFranco, and Toots & the Maytals.
AEG Live Rocky Mountains was recently tapped by the City of Broomfield, Colorado to manage the 6,000-seat Broomfield Event Center along with Kroenke Sports Enterprises which also operates Denver's Pepsi Center, Dick's Sporting Goods Park and the Paramount Theatre.
Brooklyn-raised Morris became hooked on music the moment he heard the Kingston Trio perform at a summer pop series at the Chautauqua Institution in western New York. A pre-teen Morris can be seen in an audience photo on the trio’s 5th album “Sold Out” in 1960.
After graduating from high school at 16, Morris earned a college degree in political science from Queen’s College (The City University of New York). Then he moved to Boulder, Colorado to pursue a doctorate in political science at the University of Colorado. However, at 20, he dropped out of the PhD program and was soon managing and booking bands at a local club called The Sink.
Morris went on to operate the Tulagi nightclub in Boulder for 2 1/2 years, hiring such notables as the Doobie Brothers, Bonnie Raitt, the Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, ZZ Top and others early in their careers.
In 1974, staked by Barry Fey of Feyline Productions, Morris converted Marvelous Marv’s in Denver into the Ebbetts Field club, named for the ballpark that stood just ten blocks from his childhood home. For four years, he booked such leading acts as Lynyrd Skynyrd, Steve Martin, Carole King, Richard Pryor and others.
Morris then became Senior VP of Feyline Productions, responsible for running the booking and promoting departments.
In, 1986 Morris launched his management company—first as Chuck Morris Entertainment followed by Morris, Bliesener & Associates (with publicist Mark Bliesener) and then as Chuck Morris and Associates. Over the years, Morris has represented such artists as the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Lyle Lovett, Suzy Bogguss, Big Head Todd and the Monsters, Highway 101, Taj Mahal, and Leo Kottke.
Today, Chuck Morris Entertainment manages Kottke.
In 1998, Morris partnered with Bill Graham Presents, the San Francisco-based promotion house founded by the legendary concert pioneer Bill Graham, to launch Bill Graham Presents/Chuck Morris Presents.
Six months into the co-venture, Bill Graham Presents/Chuck Morris Presents was purchased by Robert Sillerman’s SFX Entertainment (that evolved into Live Nation).
Morris and his team built this company into being the Colorado market leader. The company went from 42 shows in its first year to more than 300 per year. The company developed the Fillmore Auditorium in Denver; and the Universal Lending CityLights Pavilion, a 5,000-seat amphitheater in Denver modeled after Harborlights in Boston. In 2005, the company took over the running of Denver's historic Paramount Theatre.
Morris arrived at AEG Live in June, 2007 after his non-compete agreement with Live Nation expired. By then Fedrizzi, (today COO AEG Rocky Mountain Region) and Strasburg (now VP and partner of AEG Rocky Mountain Region) had spent months setting up the regional offices for AEG in advance of his arrival.
You have worked at both Live Nation and AEG. Can you compare them?
It’s hard for me to compare and to contrast (them). And I hate to do it. All I can tell you is that I have very few complaints about my years at Live Nation and Bill Graham Presents/Chuck Morris Presents. We built the Fillmore Auditorium (in Denver), and we made them a lot of money. They treated us very well. I just had an opportunity (to come to AEG Live) that I couldn’t resist.
Anschutz Entertainment Group is a privately held company owned by Denver billionaire Phil Anschutz. AEG's live entertainment division AEG Live, created so that AEG could maintain a flow of content to its venues, remains second to Live Nation. Why make the jump?
I have such great respect for both Phil and Tim (Tim Leiweke, AEG president and CEO). I just felt that their game plan--in the long run--was going to be the home run. I always wanted to work for Phil and Tim, but I never wanted to ask them for a job. Then, they asked me. But I couldn’t talk specifics until my contract was up (at Live Nation), and then I couldn’t start working with (them) until the non-compete clause was up.
Phil Anschutz is a long-time friend. How do you know Tim Leiweke?
I gave Tim one of his first (job) shots. When we (Feyline) opened the Sandstone Center for the Performing Arts (in Bonner Springs, Kansas, later renamed the Sandstone Amphitheater) in 1984, Tim and his brother were our publicists.
What were some of other attractions of going to AEG?
They were doing some really cool things. Like doing the King Tut Exhibit (King Tut and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs Exhibition) around the world. Building that theatre (the Colosseum at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas) for Celine Dion. They were building beautiful clubs and arenas around the world.
How did you specifically come to work at AEG?
I went to a Live Nation meeting (in Los Angeles) about three years ago. I called Irving Azoff (then founder & CEO of Front Line Management Group), whom I consider my oldest friend in the music business, to have dinner. He talked me into seeing the (Denver) Nuggets who were playing the (Los Angeles) Clippers in a playoff game at the Staples Centre. I couldn’t say no. During dinner at The Palm Restaurant, Irving BlackBerried Tim saying, “I’m here with Chuckles. He’d love to see you” which I did. Even though, we were competing, I hadn’t seen him for years.
Five minutes later, Tim walks into The Palms. We get to talking and he mentions that Phil hasn’t opened (an office) in Colorado yet, and that he didn’t want to do it without me. He also asked when was my contract was up (with Live Nation). It was up at the end of the year. I had signed a couple of extensions and I was ready to sign another one. I told Tim I was pretty happy (at Live Nation). He said, “We’re going to make you a lot happier.” That’s how it started.
It must have been difficult to make the jump?
It was a little scary being 62 years old and starting a new company. But I really feel rejuvenated again. Not like I got lazy or whatever. I’m one of those workaholic guys that likes to work every day and has fun doing it.
There’s a bunch of veteran guys in this company. As there are at Live Nation which I totally have respect for. But, I’ve really enjoyed myself here with Tim and Randy Phillips (CEO AEG Live). And Larry Vallon (Executive Vice President, Regional Booking, AEG Live in Los Angeles) worked for me at Feyline years ago.
Brent Fedrizzi and Don Strasburg came to AEG Live Rocky Mountains before you.
Yep. Then I made them partners here. If you want to keep good people, you got to take care of them. One of my assets is being a great cheerleader, and making it fun so people can do their best; showing loyalty by treating people right and paying them right; and keeping them.
Your philosophy in business is to hire great people.
I pride myself on hiring great people and having (a company with) a lot of loyalty. I am only as good as my staff. I can’t do what I do without them. I am more of an orchestra leader. I consider my best asset to be taking care of people and making a great working environment. Because of that I have a staff that has been with me a long time, and I work with some of the best people in the industry.
You have 16 people in the office.
(Executive assistant) Jan Martin has been with me almost 30 years. I worked with Brent at Feyline since 1990; he’s now my partner and COO of the company. He’s not only a great booker but probably the best numbers guy I’ve seen. He started off as a runner at Feyline. He was there with me from day one at Bill Graham Presents/Chuck Morris Presents. I also hired Don Strasburg,--the brilliant kid who started at the Fox Theatre when he was 23--the first week we were open. My production manager Tommy Hauser goes back to the Feyline days. Rob Thomas, head of Mile High Music Festival, started as GM at the Fox Theatre (the Boulder venue which Strasburg co-owns). Then he was GM at the Fillmore, and then moved to us.
How about your reputation as an eccentric?
I think that makes people laugh. I get total abuse from my whole staff. There’s laughter, screaming and camaraderie in our office. I still have a smile on my face when I walk in here at 9 A.M. every (week) day. Working with the people I work with today--from Phil on down--is such a pleasure.
The roots of you working with AEG began in 1988 with Phil in Moscow?
Absolutely. It actually goes back before that. Phil was a huge Nitty Gritty Dirt Band fan. I had worked with the Dirt Band since the ‘70s, first as their promoter and in the ’80s I was their manager. Phil used to come to all of the Dirt Band shows when they played around here and there were a lot of them. So we became really good friends.
How did you come to have 9 days in Moscow?
In 1988, Phil called me and asked me if the Dirt Band could come to Russia in the summer of ‘89 for (the opening of) the Anschutz Western Art Collection at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. Phil has the largest western art collection in the world and he tours it around the world to promote the West. He said he wanted to invite his favorite country band to play a half hour acoustic (set) in the entrance (of the museum) before they cut the ribbon (for the show). He’d fly me and the band, girlfriends or wives, and put us up; give the Dirt band their fee; and they could do a half-hour set to open the exhibit.
The band said fine but asked if Phil could get us a few more shows to play, even for free, because they were going half-way around the world
Is that how the Dirt Band got to play at the Moscow Variety Theater?
That’s exactly how. I called Phil back and asked him to see if we could do more shows there. He told me it took two days just to get a phone line into the Soviet Union. The country was a mess. The Russian Mafia was taking over then. But he said he would try.
[On Feb. 7, 1990, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union agreed to give up its monopoly of power. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) collapsed the following year.]
Three or four days later, Phil calls back to say that on the second night (following the opening) he had arranged for the band to play this opera house in downtown Moscow by invitation only. (For that show) he invited the staff of U.S. Embassy (in Moscow), various Soviet officials, and he gave away 1,500 tickets to Russian kids who love music.
For the show 25 kids came onstage to play with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.
I think there were more than that. (Officials) must have sent out Dirt Band music because we had 25 to 50 kids come onstage with banjos and violins, playing with the band impromptu. They just walked onstage. It was breathtaking. These kids were 6 to 18.
Were there any other dates in Moscow?
The third night Phil arranged a free concert for the band in Gorky Park. There were between 10,000 to 20,000 people there. They were the only act on the bill. (Fiddler) Mark O’Connor joined us on the tour. He lost his luggage and, for the entire trip and all shows, he had to wear Nitty Gritty Dirt Band T-shirts. Phil put everything together in three days, 18 months before the Russian Revolution. Even though I knew Phil was a big mover and shaker, that blew my mind. He took us out for dinner every night with his family, and we got to be close.
[In 1977, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band became the first American group selected by the Soviet government to tour the USSR, spending a month there playing to audiences. In response to the Soviet Union's military incursion into Afghanistan, Jimmy Carter’s administration ordered a U.S. boycott of the Summer Olympics in Moscow in 1980 and cultural exchanges between the two nations ceased.]
The trip to Moscow must have been quite emotional for you. Your grandparents were Russian immigrants who came to the U.S. at the turn of the century.
That’s very true. It really was emotional to me. I am fully Russian, really. Both sides (of the family). A ton of Russian Jews came (to the U.S.) in the early 1900s. Both of my grandfathers came in over in 1901 or 1903. They didn’t know each other. They came over separately.
My grandfather Harry once told me that one month he was Russian and the next month he was Polish because the border (where they were living) changed so much depending on the war. There was a lot of anti-Semitism then, so they came here. My grandfather Harry was a milkman. My other grandfather Mourice was a barber in a one-man barbershop in Brooklyn.
Your mother met your father and you grew up in Brooklyn?
I grew up in Brooklyn until I was 12 and not in a very good area. On Montgomery Street in Crown Heights. A rather poor area. My father was a school teacher and my mother was an assistant to a principal in New York. We had the smallest apartment. I shared a room with my brother. We didn’t have a family car until I was 12.
What was your original family name?
Moscowitz. My father was a Latin and Greek major at City College, and his brother Bernie was a genius who had PhD in accounting and economics and worked for the I.R.S. They were named Moscowitz but neither of them could get jobs in 1929 so they changed their names to Morris. My dad died four years ago at 95. My mom died last year at 96. My grandfather Harry died when he was 99. So I have some pretty good genes.
How were you introduced to music?
I went to my first concert at Lake Chautauqua, New York in 1957 and fell in love with music. We stayed there for the summer each year. My father was a camp counselor at the boys’ club and I would go to a lot of the shows. I loved the concerts there, and I fell in love with music.
I saw the Kingston Trio there in 1957. In fact, there’s that live album that has a picture of them at Lake Chautauqua, and you can see an 11-year-old Chuck Morris sitting on the floor in the first row. I’m an old folkie. I got started by loving folk music from seeing the Kingston Trio. I actually bought a Martin tenor guitar because Nick Reynolds played (a Martin 0-18T tenor guitar) with the Kingston Trio. So I learned how to play tenor guitar (a fretted four stringed instrument, most commonly shaped like a guitar, sometimes smaller than a normal guitar).
As a teenager you used to go on the subway to Broadway shows.
I started babysitting in New York when I was 12 and 13. I saved every penny I could and I’d go to Broadway musicals from about age 12 to 16. They used to sell $1 “Standing Room Only” (tickets) for matinees the day of the show. I saw “Okalahoma,” “South Pacific,” “My Fair Lady,” and I saw Jackie Gleason in “Take Me Along.” I saw all of the shows. I can still sing some of the songs from those shows. (here Morris breaks into the reprise of “Take Me Along.”)
[Gleason won a Tony Award for Best Actor for the show, which ran from 1959-60.]
It’s funny but I was just with Bonnie Raitt. She’s been playing for me since my first club Tulagi (in Boulder) in the early ‘70s. Of course, her father John Raitt was a star of a lot of those shows, including “Oklahoma!’ and “Carousel.”
[The late American singer/actor John Raitt starred in such Broadway musicals “Carousel,” “Oklahoma!,” “The Pajama Game,” “Carnival in Flanders,” “Three Wishes for Jamie,” and “A Joyful Noise.”]
Being in New York and loving music, it’s a wonder you didn’t end up working in the music business from there.
My father was a school teacher, and all my uncles were doctors, lawyers or teachers. Education was a big thing (in our family). I graduated from high school when I was 16. I went to Queen’s College (The City University of New York) and graduated from there when I was 20 taking political science.
Then you came to Boulder, Colorado to get a PhD degree at the University of Colorado?
I got a fellowship to study there in a PhD program when I was 20. I was a teacher’s assistant in Boulder in 1964 or 1965. I looked about 12 years old. I have always looked younger than my age. I was going for a doctorate in constitutional law. I love politics as much as I love music. Politics is my second love. I’ve spent a lot of time doing benefits for different politicians. I consider people like Ken Salazar (the United States Secretary of the Interior), Governor (Bill) Ritter and some other politicians good friends.
I read political books all of the time. I’m in the middle of reading a book by a Republican (“The Last Best Hope” by Joe Scarborough, host of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe”) that I’m enjoying. That scares me a bit. I don’t disagree with too many things he says (in the book) which is unusual for me (with a Republican).
You are a Democrat?
What do you think of these times? Aren’t you glad you didn’t go into politics given these times?
Yeah, I probably would have ended up a lobbyist.
Your daughter Brittany was a lobbyist at CRL Associates, one of Denver’s leading political consulting firms. She also attained a Masters in political science at the University of Colorado.
Yes. Now she’s (director) of economic development for Commerce City which is a big (northern) suburb here. She’s really got political chops. I think she learned that from my (political) side.
After studying political science at University of Colorado for two years, you left and worked in a Boulder club called The Sink?
I decided one day that I loved music more than I loved going for a doctorate. I was 22, and I was only 18 months away from getting my PhD and teaching.
This is when your parents went berserk, right?
Pretty much. My dad didn’t understand what the music business was. My mom sort of did. They were both very disappointed, of course. My mom died a year ago. Close to her dying days, she was hopeful I’d go back to graduate school and get my doctorate. Very Jewish.
Did your father ever come to terms with your career?
Every morning before my father went to school to teach—eventually he became a principal and then went on to be on the Board of Education—he would read the New York Times. It was his Bible. He would do the crossword puzzle and the (word puzzle) cryptogram in about three minutes and with a pen.
In 1978, there was a recession when I was at FeyLine. So there was a story in the Times, and I was quoted on the recession. My father called me. It was as if he’d seen the light because I was quoted in the New York Times.
How did you come to work at The Sink?
I was friends with Herbie Kauvar who owned The Sink which is a legendary 3.2 beer place across the street from the University of Colorado. I used to come in there at 11:30 P.M. and a have beer with him. We sort of became friends. One day, I told him I had dropped out of graduate school. He told me that his manager had just quit and asked if I could come in and manage The Sink. It was small. Just a beer and a hamburger type place. It is still open.
Did you book bands at The Sink?
I started booking local bands in the back room. But this was a place where on Friday afternoons it would take a half hour to get in the front door. There would be a line around the block. There was no cover charge -- you just had to show a (legal drinking age) I.D.
[The Sink, originally a European style restaurant named Summer's Sunken Gardens, opened in 1923. The trademark Sink Angel continues to watch over University of Colorado students. Robert Redford mopped the floors there as a janitor in the 1950s. He had received a baseball scholarship to the University of Colorado but lost the scholarship due to alleged excessive partying.]
How did you come to open the Tulagi club on University Hill in Boulder in 1970?
I managed The Sink for 2 1/2 years. Then I convinced Herbie to open Tulagi which was a dance club in Boulder for years on the same street as The Sink. It was bankrupt. I just felt that Boulder was ready for a national rock club. Boulder was becoming a real musical place. People like Joe Walsh, Stephen Stills, Chris Hillman were moving there and (producer) James William Guercio opened the Caribou Ranch studio. We had some underground magazines. I didn’t have any money but I convinced Herbie that we should go and buy the building. He gave me a piece of it and I started booking nationals bands.
[Caribou Ranch was built by producer James William Guercio in 1972 near Nederland, Colorado, some 17 miles west of Boulder. The recording studio was in operation until it was damaged in a fire in 1985. It gained international prominence when Elton John recorded his album “Caribou” there in 1974. Also passing through to record there were America, Badfinger, Jeff Beck, Chicago, Earth, Wind & Fire, Dan Fogelberg, Billy Joel, Michael Murphey, Rod Stewart, Stephen Stills, Joe Walsh, and others.]
At Tulagi, you booked Bonnie Raitt, Randy Newman, Miles Davis, the Doobie Brothers…
I booked everybody. Every blues musician who ever lived played there including John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Lightnin' Hopkins, Mance Lipscomb, Charlie Musselwhite, and the Siegel-Schwall Band. There were the folkies. I had Eric Anderson, the Earl Scruggs Revue, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (that’s how I got friendly with them), Leo Kottke (who I still manage) and Mimi Farina 4 or 5 times. I also had ZZ Top and Ry Cooder. From San Francisco, I had Cold Blood, Stoneground, Dan Hicks & the Hot Licks, and Sons of Champlin which was one of my all-time favorite bands.
In those days, many of these acts didn’t cost much to book. You booked the Doobies for a week for a $500 guarantee.
Oh you are right. It was $500 versus 50% of the door. They walked out with about $10,000. It was their first tour. Fred Bohlander (today senior VP at Paradigm Talent & Literary Agency – Monterey) was their agent. He turned out to be one of my greatest friends.
The Doobies were originally a Hell’s Angels biker band.
They were a biker band, and their first album had totally stiffed. Unlike today, labels then would let acts do three or four records (before dropping them). I booked them when (the single) “Listen To The Music” had just come out (in Aug. 1972). I booked them because I thought it was a great record. In those days, I could take a record down to KRNW which was then an underground station in Boulder (to become KBCO in the mid-70s). If a disc jockey liked it, they’d start playing it. They started playing it, and we sold out for 10 shows in five days. The week they played for me the band was on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. A month or two before the show I had expected Fred to call and cancel because they were getting so big. But he didn’t.
[The Doobie’s self-titled 1971 debut album, The Doobie Brothers failed to click but the subsequent album “Toulouse Street” in 1972 featured "Listen To The Music" that reached #11 on the Billboard singles’ chart.]
Starting out at Tulagi, how did you get major booking agents to take your phone calls?
If you say, “I’m a promoter in a new club in Boulder, Colorado. I’m interested in your acts” they take your phone calls. Their business is to sell acts. They want to sell acts. The first (agent I worked with) was Fred Bohlander who was then at IFA. I called him about Leo Kottke and the Doobie Brothers, two of the first acts that I had at Tulagi.
Did you have to fight for acts over the three years of running Tulagi?
Like nuts. And I fought against Barry Fey. He really owned Denver then as a major promoter. I lost four or five bands to him.
One of the acts you lost to him was the Eagles.
I had booked the Eagles for the second show that they ever played. Irving (Azoff) was then working for David Geffen and Elliot Roberts at Geffen-Roberts (the booking agency which then handled the Eagles) Irving or Elliot (who then managed the band) called and asked if I would book this band for five nights for $100 a night. They wanted to play in front of somebody before they recorded. It was two weeks before Christmas 1971. I said, “It’s two weeks before Christmas. Nobody is in Boulder. School is out. Everybody is skiing or back home. I usually take my vacation then.” It was either Irving or Elliot who said, “This band is going to be huge. We’ll come back and play for you when the (first) album comes out.”
Now, Don Henley, Glenn Frey, Randy Meisner, and Bernie Leadon had been in some pretty famous bands (including Longbranch Pennywhistle, Poco, and the Flying Burrito Brothers). Boulder was so hip that everybody knew those bands, for sure. Also, I had Linda Ronstadt and the band (backing her) play a couple of times before.
So I booked the band at Tulagi. They were incredible. But they only drew about 12 people a night. Nobody came. (Producer) Glyn Johns flew in from London and took notes while they were performing because he was producing their first album (“Eagles” in 1972). It was great being at the bar watching him watching the show and taking notes, and then talking to the band after the show. It was history.
[Billed as Teen King and the Emergencies, the Eagles’ first dates were in Aspen where they played four nights at the Gallery. At Tulagi, the band was paid $500 for 5 nights. British producer Glyn Johns had agreed to fly over from England to listen to them play. It was a horrible, cold, snowy night, and nobody was at the concert since it was also school finals week.]
So “The Eagles” album comes out.
Yes, several months later (July, 1972) it comes out. Of course, Irving and none of the guys at Geffen-Roberts would take my phone call when I called about the Eagles playing for me. They played (a date) for Fey. That (debut) record took off (with the single “Take It Easy” reaching #12 on Billboard’s single chart) and they immediately became a concert act.
About 18 months later, I decided that if I am ever going to get in the big leagues I better join Barry Fey. I had never met him in person. We had fought over the phone a few times. So I decided one day to call him. I didn’t think he’d take my phone call but he did. He asked, “What the fuck do you want?” I told him I was interested in opening a club in Denver. At that point there was no Denver rock club. His old Family Dog club had been dead and gone for years (since 1968). There really wasn’t anything. I told him I wanted to work with him and that I wanted to build a club in Denver.
To my honest shock, he said he’d come up the next night and talk to me which he did. He told me to find a club and he’d put the money up. So I found a place called Marvelous Marv’s (with leopard or zebra skin on the walls) and Barry bought it. We opened up Ebbetts Field because I grew up 10 blocks from Ebbetts Field in Brooklyn.
You ran the club for four years?
Yeah, and everybody in the world played there too. Lynard Skynard, Steve Martin, Richard Pryor. You name an act from that time, they played there. We opened up with the Mark-Almond Band which Frank Barsalona (founder of Premier Talent) booked. I’ll never forget calling him for the booking. He sent me flowers when we opened. So did Bill Graham.
How did you come to work at Feyline Productions?
Feyline was then getting so big. Barry was doing the Rolling Stones in 10 cities, and doing tours with The Who. He really needed me at the main company. We had decided the club wasn’t making any money. So we sold the club and I became the senior VP at Feyline from 1976 to 1986. Then I decided to leave. I was managing a bunch of bands and doing well.
Feyline did U2’s famous show at Red Rocks Amphitheatre in 1983.
One sad thing about leaving Live Nation is not being able to work with U2. I love (manager) Paul McGuinness and the whole band. We did the “Under the Red Blood Sky” at Red Rocks. It was a breathtakingly unbelievable show that helped to break the band in America.
But the afternoon of the June 5 show it looked it was going to be canceled or be moved inside.
Bono said “No way.” We used to move shows indoors (due to poor weather). It was 31 degrees (F) and snowing. I didn’t want to cancel it. Bono refused to move (inside). Because of the cold, the (steam) coming out of their mouths and the fire on the side of the rocks, it turned out to be one of the greatest videos ever.
[The show was chronicled in U2’s “Under A Blood Red Sky” CD/DV which reportedly costs the band $250,000 to record and film]
Despite teaming up with Barry Fey, you continued to have run-ins with Irving Azoff.
There are so many stories about Irving. I have plenty of stories where he bull-shitted me I will tell you. Some really funny stories.
At the end of any deal with Irving, when the smoke clears he is the survivor.
No question. I will tell you the best Irving story. Barry and I did the Eagles at Mile High Stadium (Aug. 8, 1976). We had the Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, Pure Prairie League, all of the country rock stars at the time on the bill. We did 28,000 (people) which was good but we paid the acts a lot of money. I can’t remember the guarantee, but it was a lot. The day of the show we asked Irving for some of the (guarantee) money back. He told us, “I love you guys. I know you got killed” and said he’d talk to the band.
So, of course, you don’t hear from him.
Right. A month or two later, Barry tells me to call Irving and ask him what was going on. Irving says that things were looking good. Henley was probably going to say yes and Frey was in. There were just the other three guys to give their consent.
Two months later, I call him again. He says things are even better. Meisner had said yes and the new guy (Don) Felder had said yes. Irving says he’s waiting for Joe Walsh. I don’t call Irving for two months. When I do, he says that “Joe is leaning toward saying yes. So we’re really close. Don’t worry.”
Almost a year from the date, Barry comes into the office in an angry mood and says, “Get Irving on the phone. It’s been a year.” Then he says, “Instead of getting Irving on the phone, get Joe Walsh on the phone.” Joe was living in Boulder at the time. I said “Barry, are you sure you want to do this?” because you don’t phone manager’s acts. Certainly, you don’t call Irving’s acts. Barry said, “I don’t care. Get Joe on the phone.” But I wouldn’t do it. Barry calls Joe and asks him if we are getting the money back from the show. Joe doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Irving hadn’t talked him about a reduction.
The best part of the story is that five minutes later Irving Azoff is one the phone screaming at Barry for having the audacity to call one of his acts. I thought that was hysterical because that’s so Irving.
Irving never talked to any of them?
That‘s a little game that Irving plays. That’s just they way he is. Irving can be the toughest mother in the world but if I was dying of something and I needed a doctor, and the doctor was from India, the doctor would be on a plane knocking on my door the next day. And Irving would have paid the ticket. That’s the way he is with his friends. I love Irving even though he’s competing against us now with Ticketmaster.
At what point did Michael Cohl’s Concert Productions International buy into Feyline?
It was in 1986. By then, I had decided to leave (Feyline). I was managing a bunch of bands and doing well. I didn’t leave entirely. Barry was having some financial problems and Michael (Cohl) decided to help him out by buying half the company. But Michael and Barry asked me to stay on as a consultant part-time which I did. I was already managing the Dirt Band, Leo Kottke, and I had just signed Lyle Lovett. I was having a lot of fun managing. I would be in the office about one day a week. I’d book certain shows and certain acts. The agents would rather talk to me. So I stayed on for 10 years part-time while I was managing a bunch of bands.
Michael Cohl was really the first to start consolidating the U.S. concert market.
You are absolutely right. Michael is just brilliant. When I was consultant for him and Barry, I’d go up to Toronto and have a meeting with him four or five times a year. He’s just brilliant.
I wonder what his next step will be now that he’s not with Live Nation?
Anything he wants.
Why did you go into management?
The Dirt Band asked me. I was very close to the band because I had booked a million Dirt Band shows. They were living in Colorado. One day Bill McEuen their first manager (and John’s brother) called me with John, and asked me up to Aspen to talk to them. They took me out for dinner and Bill said he was so busy—Steve Martin, who he was managing, was exploding then— and that I was one of the few people that understood these guys.
Frankly, their career was then peaking because rock radio wasn’t playing them anymore. I said I would manage them but I wanted to take them to Nashville. I felt that country was the only (radio) format that would play them. We got them off United Artists (owned by Capitol Records) and then got on Warner Brothers Nashville.
That resulted in Irving Azoff refusing to talk to you for over two years in the early ‘80s.
Irving was president of MCA, and he wanted the Dirt Band. He was trying to build a country division in Nashville. So he wanted them. But Mo Ostin (chairman) at Warner Bros. wanted them too. So Irving made an offer and (Warner Bros. Nashville president) Jim Ed Norman made an offer. Irving’s offer was $100,000 less a record. That’s a lot of money for a band that aren’t no superstars. So I asked Irving to come a little closer but he wouldn’t raise the offer by one penny. He just expected me to sign with him because he’s Irving. The band decided to go with Warner. Bros. I called Irving and he called me every name in the book and hung up on me. I sent him about 50 letters and his secretary Susan (Markheim) said that he wouldn’t talk to me.
This lasted for about a year.
A year later I read in Billboard that Irving was speaking at the NARM convention in Miami at the Fontainebleau. So I decided I was going to fly down for one day, wait in the lobby of the hotel, and see if I could find him. I knew if I saw him in person he’d remember how good friends we were, and how much he cared about me. I fly down and sure enough I’m in the lobby and Irving comes walking in 10 minutes later comes with Don Henley and an entourage. He sees me and he starts smiling. Then he remembers he hates me. He comes over to me and, in front of Henley, says, “You are the last guy I thought would ever screw me.” So I left.
About a year later, I get a hockey puck in the mail, and it says, “From the desk of Irving Azoff, MCA Records.” I called his office and his secretary Susan says, “Irving woke up yesterday and decided he really missed you. So he bought a hockey puck. This is his way of saying you are out of the penalty box. Starting tomorrow, your friendship is back on.” I have the hockey puck framed in my office.
You also then began to manage Leo Kottke.
Leo called me one day in 1986. He had just signed with Private Music. I had promoted a 100 dates with Leo, and we were also best friends. He called me and said he wanted to meet with me. I was worried sick. I thought he was dying or getting divorced. Why would he call and want to come in from Minneapolis for the night? I asked, “What’s the bad news.” He said, “No bad news. But I haven’t had a manager in 10 years. I just got a new record deal and (my agent) Fred Bohlander, and my wife think I should get a manager again. You are one of the few people that get my jokes.” I said the same thing to him that I said to the Dirt Band. If it was going to hurt our friendship, I didn’t want to do it.
You have been managing Leo since.
He’s the only act I still manage. When I joined AEG, everybody wanted me to concentrate on promoting. So I got rid of my (management) clients. I had Leo, the Dirt Band, and Taj Mahal who is now managed by my nephew Kevin Morris (at Red Light Management). I just had to keep Leo.
Is being manager the worst job in our industry?
It all depends on how you train your acts, and what they expect. It all depends on what the act wants and needs. I’ve managed probably 25 acts in my career and they all want different things. Some of them I have been able to help musically. With the Dirt Band, I would find songs. But when I managed Lyle Lovett, music was his thing and he did it all. We did more administrative work and bookings.
Do you like managing bands?
I prefer managing bands even though it’s four or five calls instead of one because band (members) fight with each other so much that they forget about me. It’s true.
You famously beat out Bill Graham in 1983 to work on Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak’s US Festival headlined by David Bowie, Van Halen, Ozzie Osbourne, Judas Priest, U2, and Berlin. Wozniak put up all the money?
Oh yeah, we just got a fee. He didn’t care how much he paid (acts). It was his party. He wanted David Bowie so bad. Bowie was playing a festival two nights before and he’d only play with his own equipment. The only way to get all of his equipment, including sound and lights, out to Santa Barbara, basically in Wozniak’s back yard, was to rent a 747 (airplane) which we did. Wozniak couldn’t have cared less. He wanted what he wanted. When you have that kind of money, you can do that.
You also worked directly with Bill Graham. What is your take of him?
We co-promoted some Dead dates. Of course, we booked some of the acts that he managed. There will never be another Bill Graham. He was the Dean. He was the King. He was an amazing guy. I had a lot of respect for him. He was as tough as nails. But they all were (then). Jack Boyle was no slouch either. Nor were John Scher, Don Law or Ron Delsener. Barry used to say that Bill Graham’s idea of his hometown is any town where he changed planes. That’s funny.
How did your co-venture with Bill Graham Presents come about?
In 1997, when Barry announced his retirement (and Universal purchased the remaining 50% it didn’t already own of Feyline Presents) I decided it was time to go back to start my own promoting company. So I called my friend Gregg Perloff at BGP. We had co-promoted a lot of dates with BGP with Bill. I had almost taken the House of Blues’ job. They had bought out Michael Cohl and they offered me the job to take over when Barry was retiring. Then they changed their mind about hiring me. So I called Greg and he and Nick Clainos who ran BGP—Bill’s two sidekicks—were on a plane here the next day and we started Bill Graham Presents/Chuck Morris Presents.
My first thing was that I wanted to buy Mammoth Gardens (which had once presented such acts as Jimi Hendrix, the Doors, the Who, and the Grateful Dead) and make it a Fillmore. And that’s what we did.
Was there a natural alliance between your two organizations?
Yes, it worked unbelievably well. It was a great partnership.
In the late 1990s, consolidation hit the concert business when Robert F.X. Sillerman, under the SFX Entertainment banner, spent about $2.5 billion rolling up promoters in North America and Europe. That included your co-venture.
When we were signing the co-venture deal Greg said that they might be selling BGP to Bob Sillerman. They would buy my part too. He said we’d all get long-term contracts and I said, “This guy is going to give me a bunch of money; pay me more money than I am making now, and I still am going to run the company the way that I want?” He, “Yeah.” I said, “Well, that sounds okay to me.”
Did you receive a good payout from SFX?
We were only open for a year. I got one of the smaller (settlements) but it put three of my kids through college. We didn’t have any buildings except the Fillmore which we had just opened. But I can’t complain.
Have you had a good summer this year?
We are having a real good Red Rocks year. We did 32 shows at Red Rocks and have a few more left. We sold out a brunch of (shows). We’re averaging about 85% capacity and I can’t complain.
Without having to lower tickets?
Nope. Well, we have been a little more careful. (A ticket) is really band-based and based on how much the guarantee is. People always forget that. They always blame the promoter. But is really based on how much you have to pay the band.
The Mile High and Rothbury Festival are intricately tied to your switch from Live Nation to AEG Live. AEG, of course, is involved in everything from Coachella to the New Orleans Jazz Fest. A festival is something that was missing form the Denver market.
I had been thinking about that for about five or six years. Actually, Coran Capshaw (Starr Hill Presents and founder of Red Light Management)--he’s one of the founders of Bonnaroo (Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival)—and I had been talking about doing a festival. Phil and Tim were unbelievably supportive about doing one in Denver.
What are your plans for the Broomfield Event Centre with Kroenke Sports Enterprises?
We just took it over. We will be spending about three months fixing it up. It is a wonderful three-year-old building that needs some soul, some ambience. They sort of ran out of money when they built it. It was built by Tim Romani (Romani Group) who builds most of Phil’s buildings. Its 6,000 reserved seats and 7,000 GA. It is 15 minutes from downtown Denver, and 15 minutes from downtown Boulder. We hope to open around February (2010). We’re going the change the name and put a whole bunch of color into the place.
My plan is to build a Colorado Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on the Concourse with all of the famous people who either grew up here or moved here like Dan Fogelberg, Joe Walsh, Chris Hillman, and Stephen Stills.
You have a long relationship with Kroenke Sports.
I do. I made a deal when I ran Live Nation that we partnered a whole bunch of stuff. We shared a lot of stuff. They have some great buildings. They have their own power base. I real like Stan Kroenke. I just think that 1 + 1 some times equals three.
Do you still get a thrill walking out to a full house?
Yep. And I still get a thrill meeting certain artists. I still get a thrill having success when I do. I still get a thrill talking to old friends who have survived the business like me. And I get a real big thrill trying to advise some of the young kids coming up. The young kids of today are going to run our business tomorrow. I love trying to be a mentor to some of them.
You often speak at colleges about the music business, but you try to convince kids not to get into the music business.
It was tough enough when I got into it. You had to be lucky and smart and all that. Today it is almost impossible but, if you won’t give up and have some good instincts, it might work out. I do think there are opportunities. But I try to be realistic to kids who want to get into the business because it’s show business. I know how tough it’s going to be. I used to mop floors at Tulagi’s I know. Glam gets old really quickly. You have to love the music and love the people to stay in (the business) and to thrive. It is a business where most people are underpaid and you work 24 hours a day. So you better love it which I still do.
What acts have you had a buzz out of meeting recently?
There are a couple of great bands that have come out of Colorado in the past two years. There’s the Fray, and Flobots (both from Denver) and 3OH!3 (pronounced "three-oh-three") a hip hop band that is exploding. They just graduated from Boulder CU two years ago. They are my 10 year old’s favorite band. Mind you every second word is a curse word, but that’s life. I’m sure that is what my parents said about my music growing up too.
What about the promoter truism that almost any agent or manager will screw you somewhere down the line?
Absolutely true. No question. And I have been a manager. How that’s for the second part of it?
Larry LeBlanc was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-89. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record. He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, the London Times and the New York Times.