By Brian F. Johnson
Concert promoters are a rough and tumble type of crowd. Some of the more legendary ones in the business have egos that overshadow the artists they promote.
But Chuck Morris, who last year left Live Nation and just recently took over the position of president and chief executive officer of AEG Live, Rocky Mountain Region, defies that stereotype.
Sure, he’s eccentric, continually juggling countless pairs of glasses with an almost obsessive compulsive drive and sure, he’s got some been-there-done-that slickness to him, but talk with Morris for more than a minute and there’s an immediate understanding and recognition that this is a humble man who loves his work.
That work has taken him from CU Boulder, where he dropped out of a Ph.D program to manage The Sink, on University Hill, which he grew to be the number one 3.2 bar in the state. He reminisces fondly about lines that wrapped around the building in The Sink’s heyday.
Going through his extensive resume would take pages, but the quick rundown is that he opened and ran the renowned Ebetts Field club, named after the Brooklyn Dodgers ballpark that was eight blocks from his childhood home. He served as senior vice-president of the famous — and-infamous — Barry Fey’s Feyline Productions. He ran his own management company, representing bands like Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Big Head Todd and the Monsters, Lyle Lovett, Leftover Salmon, and Leo Kottke, and in 1998 he started Bill Graham Presents/Chuck Morris Presents. After a few purchases, the company finally became Live Nation. During that time he also transformed the then-Mammoth Gardens into one of Denver’s finest rooms, the Fillmore Auditorium, with whom he now competes.
Marquee: What was the first concert you ever attended?
Morris: I found God when I saw the Kingston Trio. It was in 1956.
Marquee: What was the first album you ever bought?
Morris: The Kingston Trio.
Marquee: One of your first jobs in the industry was running Tulagi, in Boulder. Does it kill you that it’s a sandwich shop now?
Morris: I guess it should, but it doesn’t. I don’t really live in the past. The business has changed and if you live on condemning how the business has changed you’re never going to stay in the business. I’m still involved in some of the greatest music in the world, so I shouldn’t complain, and frankly, the club business almost killed me. I was certainly part of the 1970s and early ’80s partying time in the rock and roll business, but that’s all changed and so have I.
Marquee: You’ve said that your senior V.P. of promotions, Don Strasburg, is like a son to you and that your chief operating officer, Brent Fedrizzi, is ‘one of the most together promoters’ you’ve ever seen. How have you always been able to be the coach to your team?
Morris: I never took any of those courses, but I have a very serious work ethic, having grown up in a lower class area in Brooklyn. My father was a school teacher and principal and had a lot of jobs to support his family and I learned that it was important to work hard and treat people right. In the old days, part of my job was to make sure people didn’t quit Feyline. Barry, God bless him, was one of the greatest promoters of all time, but was still difficult to deal with and one-fifth of my job was making sure people didn’t quit. One of my better features is I’m a good coach. I’ve always been a good orchestra leader. There may be a few people I didn’t get along with, but not very many. I always hear — without bragging — that I’m one of the most likeable people in the music business and I’m very proud of that. This is a business where a lot of people don’t like a lot of people.
Marquee: You told me you always idolized musicians so you were never comfortable trying to live like one. What do you mean by that?
Morris: I grew up loving music and going to Broadway shows for a dollar, where they’d let you sit in the back or give you standing room only on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. I went to all the famous musicals in the 1950s. And so I grew up idolizing musicians and was very humble when it comes to musicians, and I think that’s an advantage because I’ve never forgotten that I work for them. When your ego gets too big and you feel like you’re more important than the artists, you have a lot of problems.
Marquee: You’ve booked some of the biggest acts in the world, broken bread with the biggest stars. What stands out in your mind as your best time in the business.
Morris: Well, maybe the best night of my life in the business was when I had Earl Scruggs play at Tulagi. He had left Flatt and Scruggs and was touring with his sons and at the end of the night as we were settling up (and I’m all excited because I love Earl Scruggs) he said to me, with tears in his eyes, that he wanted to thank me for giving he and his sons a chance to play the club. I’ll never forget that.
Marquee: You’ve been a big supporter of politicians and have a love for politics that runs deep. Will we ever see you run for office?
Morris: Maybe. I’ve thought about it. Maybe when I’m done here I’ll run for city council.
By Brian F. Johnson