“I’ve been a folk singer, or should I say, a singer of folk songs, for most of my adult life. My idea of folk singers is men like Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, Pete Seeger, Merle Travis, and dozens more who worked and traveled through the hardships and joys of the folks they wrote about. The music I choose to interpret is really a vicarious expression of my life, because for every song I sing I have a memory from my own travels. That’s what keeps this music alive-the shared association we all have with these songs.”
–Walt Conley, from liner notes of After All These Years
A stroll through the gallery of pictures of those inducted into the Colorado Music Hall of Fame makes one long to see all of these artists gathered on stage for just one night, perhaps at the Red Rocks Amphitheatre, inducted into the Colorado Music Hall of Fame on April 1, 2011. What a sight to see. What sounds to hear. And maybe that evening would close with all those famous faces gathered on stage for one last number. Perhaps an ode to Colorado. Perhaps Colorado Queen of the West. But something isn’t right. Someone is missing from that chorus of voices and from that gallery of pictures. Like a skipped over section of road on a map or a lost puzzle piece. What that song needs is some rich baritone and the strum that can only come from a 9-string Ovation guitar, or perhaps a 12-string Guild. And what that gallery needs is the picture of the man that can provide these things, and provide them well. And that man is Walt Conley, the founding father of the Denver Folk scene.
Walt Conley was born Billy Robinson in Denver, Colorado on May 20, 1929. Perhaps it was the unfortunate act of being born the last of many children to parents who realized they simply could not afford one more mouth to feed, but whatever the reason, Billy’s parents placed him up for adoption. Billy was eventually adopted by Wallace and Ethel (Bailey) Conley, a couple in their early 40s from Scottsbluff, Nebraska, a town in western Nebraska located along the North Platte River.
Although sitting in the shadow of the majestic Scotts Bluff Monument, a 19th century landmark on the historic Oregon Trail, Scottsbluff must have seemed a long time from anywhere. Wallace Conley, originally from Georgia, worked as a porter and janitor. Ethel Conley worked as a housewife. The couple owned a home at 907 E. 7th Street along the Burlington railroad tracks where they raised their new son who they named Walter Bell Conley. Hard to say how Walt spent his days in Scottsbluff. There is no record that documents it and no history was ever taken from Walt. What is known is that being born in Denver and growing up in Scottsbluff makes Walt a true man of the West. His world was mountains, bluffs, windy plains, great big skies, and blowing dust.
In February 1944, Walt’s father died. Sometime thereafter Ethel decided to move 200 miles southwest to Denver, the birthplace of her then 15-year-old son. After mother and son arrived, Walt began attending Manual High School, located in the now historic Whittier neighborhood on the east side of Denver. Manual was one of the first schools in Denver to educate African-American children. It prided itself in furnishing its students with programs and subject matter that pupils find essential in meeting their everyday problems of living, according to Left Back: A Century of Battles Over School Reforms by Diane Ravitch.
As a student Conley was active in politics and sports. A Rocky Mountain News article dated March 6, 1948, shows an 18-year-old Conley photographed among other students representing Denver’s five high schools at the annual International Relations Conference at West High School. At the conference, students swapped views on universal military training and the Marshall plan, among other matters. Regarding these issues, and being one of the people who would have to live in the world long after the elder statesmen of the United Nations were gone as noted by the Rocky, Conley is quoted as saying, “Youth will decide the future.” Later that year, after graduating from Manual, Conley received a football scholarship to Northeastern Junior College in Sterling, Colorado. He was one of only four black students who attended at that time.
During summer breaks from Northeastern, Conley worked at a ranch in San Cristobal, New Mexico, owned by Jenny and Craig Vincent. Jenny Vincent was, and remains, a well-respected folk-singer and social advocate who championed Native American rights, farmers rights, and Chicano rights, among others. Jenny performed with and hosted such folk luminaries as Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Malvina Reynolds, and Earl Robinson at the ranch. She was also a teacher and Walt was one of many students, including the actor Alan Arkin, who worked summers doing dishes, busing tables, and making improvements on the property, all under the Vincents’ tutelage. It was during one of those summers that Conley met Pete Seeger and other members of The Weavers, a popular ’50s folk group. According to Joan Holden, Conley’s widow, it was Pete Seeger who assisted Walt in buying his first guitar and convinced him to use his rich baritone to perform as a folk singer. Jenny Vincent’s passion for folk music as the People’s stories certainly had an effect on Walt and clearly influenced the direction his life would take.
George Nyberg’s notes on the record sleeve of Walt’s first full length album Passin’ Through date his first professional gig as a folksinger at Denver’s B’Nai B’rith in 1950. He performed in a program honoring Mayor Quigg Newton for his work in the Human Relations Council. In December of that year, Conley enlisted in the Navy during the Korean War conflict serving as a chaplain’s yeoman and as an aviation boatswain’s mate on the flight deck of the Coral Sea. Walt was one of almost 100,000 African-Americans who were on active duty in the U.S. armed forces during that time and the 600,000 African-Americans who had served by war’s end.
While stationed in New York City, Walt made it a point to see and meet such folk artists as Cisco Houston, Josh White, and Woody Guthrie. Walt was discharged in January of 1953 and soon after joined a film crew in Silver City, New Mexico shooting the now classic 1954 film, Salt of the Earth. The film was inspired by the Mine Mill Strike of 1950 when union wives picketed in place of their husbands due to a judge’s restraining order which gave the mine workers the option of ending their strike or going to jail. The film tells the story of what those women endured and their eventual triumph.
That same year Conley began attending the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, Colorado, then known as the Colorado State College of Education, where he majored in theater (drama) and physical education. The 1954 Colorado State College of Education yearbook Cache La Poudre shows a picture of Conley, then of Wheatridge, Colorado, with a contagious smile. The yearbook also lists him as cast member in the college’s summer stock theatre known as The Little Theatre of the Rockies. Walt played the character of Joe in the theatre’s rendition of the 1951 Broadway play “Point of No Return,” written by Paul Osborne and based on the novel of the same name by John P. Marquand.
Walt was also performing as a folk musician while at Colorado State. In 1955 the May 17th issue of the Greeley Daily Tribune notes that Walt Conley, a folk singer, will follow “Miss Atomic Energy of 1955” Karen Keeler’s singing “Rosalinda” on Ladies Night at the Annual Spring Ding at the American Legion. Keeler was also a contestant in the Miss USA and Miss Universe competitions in 1956, representing Colorado. That same year in the December 22 issue, the Greeley Daily reports that Walt provided entertainment, among other entertainers, for a crowd of hundreds of children and adults at the Elks Christmas Party.
After graduating from the Colorado State College of Education in 1957, Conley had a brief stint as a bass player in a jazz trio and a career in Weld County, Colorado as a teacher, perhaps driven to the latter profession by his own experiences at Manual High School or inspired by the passion for teaching displayed by Jenny Vincent while spending summers at her ranch. Whatever the reason, Walt’s teaching job was short-lived when the school superintendent learned of his moonlighting as a musician at various clubs in Denver. Known as Mr. Conley, the junior high school teacher to the students, he left Weld County and became Walt Conley, the full-time entertainer.
The Windsor Hotel was Denver’s first true luxury hotel, opening for business at noon on June 23, 1880. On opening day the Rocky Mountain News called it a “monument of enterprise and architectural skill.” The hotel, located on the northwest corner of Eighteenth and Larimer Streets, was built by Denver Mansion Company, LTD., and was financed by the well-known millionaire and silver king Horace A. W. Tabor, at a cost of $175,000. The detailed article declared it “one the grandest and most magnificently furnished hotels on the continent.”
It seems fitting that the founding father of the Denver folk scene should get his start at such a renowned place. Of course, by the time of Walt’s gig at the Windsor, which required him to play not one, but three, different bars located in the hotel, the Windsor was far past its glory days. At the Walt Conley & Company website, Walt reflected on his experience at The Windsor saying, “I’d sing a few songs in one [bar]. Then I’d race up the stairs to another and do a show there; then on to the third bar. It was the Belafonte era. I was barefooted and wearing cut-off pants. It was a crazy way to perform, but I sure learned a lot of calypso songs.” For Walt the Windsor was one of many rungs on the musical ladder.
The late ’50s gig at The Windsor was short lived, either by choice or due to economic circumstances related to the wrecking ball that eventually landed on The Windsor in 1960 turning the once lavish hotel into a parking lot. Regardless, the opportunity at The Windsor was just a stepping stone to where Walt was heading. He was a “Denverite climbing the musical ladder,” declared the Denver Post on September 19, 1958. Post staff writer Shirley Sealy described Walt, along with fellow Denverite and trumpet player Gene Disalle, as “talented dedicated young musicians who are trying to work their way to the top and stay there.”
THE LITTLE BOHEMIA AND MICHAEL’S PUB
In 1958, Walt was also playing other venues such as the rathskeller (basement) in the Red Ram in Georgetown, Colorado, and the Little Bohemia in Denver, whose opening was announced in the August 18, 1958 issue of the Denver Post. The Little Bohemia, formerly operated by John Garramone as Garramone’s House of Louigi was owned by Louis C. Constant and was located at 1230 W. 38th Ave., in North Denver. Features of the restaurant, according to the Post, included a continental menu, a strolling violinist, a bar decorated with travel posters from all over the world, and a wall display of original paintings by regional artists. Suggesting that food and liquor can be purchased at any store and entertainment found on the TV, Constant set out to make the Little Bohemia a unique experience. He’s quoted in the Post saying the Little Bohemia will “endeavor to achieve something beyond this by attempting to personalize the entertainment and create a unique atmosphere.” The Little Bohemia quickly became a Beatnik headquarters and the folk venue in Denver. Walt Conley’s balladeering provided much of the entertainment. Walt described his experience saying, “I would be sitting in this small cubicle and they would open the curtains. I’d do my show and then the curtains would be drawn. I had to crawl in and out of the cubby hole.”
On February 18, 1959 the Denver Post reported that the Little Bohemia had been sold to Leigh Barron and Walter Callaway. Barron, an entertainer at the Profile Room, noted in the Post article that changes would be made to the Bohemia that would “leave it bohemian, but not too bohemian.” When asked what would happen to the talented Walt Conley Barron responded, “we still have Walt singing, you bet.” Unfortunately the beatniks didn’t fare as well with Barron who said the “one thing we don’t have though – the Beatniks. We don’t want ‘em, and we don’t care who knows it.”
Another Denver folk musician by the name of Judy Collins was also making a name for herself and performing at the Little Bohemia. She and Walt became friends after finding themselves often playing the same venues such as Michael’s Pub located at 1122 Pearl in Boulder, Colorado, owned by Mike Besisi. The pub was known for providing “fine food and finest entertainment.” Walt and Judy shared the stage at Michael’s Pub with other rising stars such as the Smothers Brothers, The Serendipity Singers, and The Limeliters. The musical legend and “entertainer’s entertainer” Al Fike was also known to have graced the stage at Michael’s. Walt and Judy soon found yet another gig at a brand new folk club in Denver.
In the summer of 1959, Hal Neustaedter, an area real estate broker, opened the Exodus, a folk music venue that also described itself as being bohemian. The club was located on the garden level of the Raylane Hotel, on the southwest corner of 20th Avenue and Lincoln Street. The Exodus surpassed the Little Bohemia as being the place to go in Denver to hear folk music and was a favored booking for folk musicians, such as Don Crawford and Bob Gibson, touring between Chicago and the West Coast. Walt was hired to be the opening act (and booking agent) at the Exodus for six months of the year while Judy Collins was hired to headline for the other six months.
At the Exodus, patrons drank 3.2 beer served out of buckets; enjoyed the atmosphere, particularly the walls, which were plastered with “high-camp” posters and impressionistic paintings; and, of course, listened to the music. The Exodus was known as the place where Denver’s most interesting characters hung out. In a September 6, 1959 article in the Rocky Mountain News, Bob Whearley writes about the girl in the black eye patch sitting in the “smoky half-lit room” enjoying the music of Walt Conley. On October 16, 1959, the Exodus hosted the The Folk Festival at the Exodus, Denver’s first Folk Music Festival. Josh White was the headliner. The line-up included Walt Conley, Judy Collins, the Harlin Trio, George Downing, The Travelers, and Dave Wood among others. A recording of the event called The Folk Festival at the Exodus, and now a rare LP, includes Walt singing “900 Miles,” “Worried Man Blues,” “Passing Through,” and “John Henry.”
1959 was also the year that the Colorado “Rush to the Rockies” Centennial was celebrated. In honor of the occasion, a 45 record was produced on the Band Box label called “The Colorado Story, an “official state souvenir commemorating 100 years of progress.” On the flip-side was the song “Colorado, Queen of the West.” Walt provided spoken word and vocals on the record while guitar was done by both Walt and Dave Wood. The narration and words were written by George Nyberg who would later provide the notes on Walt’s album Passin’ Through. During this time Band Box also released, “Passin’ Through,” a single 45 backed with “Worried Man Blues.”
In 1960, the film Colorado Legend was made by Western Cine Production Denver for the State of Colorado Public Relations. The film was written by George Nyberg and directed by Stan Brakhage. A sticker on the inside of the 16mm film-can describes the film as “A tale of two gold miners of the old west who struck it rich. The lonely life made them heavy drinkers and one night when the heavy, silent Dutchman wouldn’t talk to the feisty little Irishman, he was knifed to death. The Irishman was hanged and the whereabouts of the mine lies buried with him.” Walt provided guitar, vocals, and narration for the film and Dave Ricker provided banjo. The film is now located in History Colorado’s historic moving image collection.
That same year a folk musician living near Blackhawk, Colorado named Lingo the Drifter (Paul Lezchuk aka T.D.A. Lingo) convinced business owner and ex-DU football player Sam Sugarman to revamp and rename his sports and live entertainment bar, “Sugie’s Lounge,” located at 1920 E. Colfax, into a folk venue and hire Lingo as the house act and booking agent, according to an interview for this article with former Denver resident and banjo player Dave Hamil. The bar was renamed the Satire. According to Hamil, who had been performing at the Blue Noodle (later the Abbey Cellar) in Aspen and began playing the Satire, Lingo and Sugarman had a falling out. Hamil briefly became Lingo’s replacement as booking agent and began living in the apartment above the Satire. Believing Walt could do a better job booking acts at the Satire, as he was more acquainted with the Denver folk scene, Hamil suggested Walt take over. Walt agreed. Hamil continued as a house act and Walt quickly began booking entertainment and performing as the Satire’s opening act. One of the first acts that Walt booked were the Smothers Brothers who Walt had met in Aspen, Colorado earlier in the year. The duo was finishing up an eight week gig at the Limelite, a small folk club owned by musicians Glenn Yarbrough and Alex Hassilev. Walt offered to book the duo at the Satire, offering them the same pay they were getting at the Limelite, $200 per week. Hamil noted that, “it was decided that Dickie [Dick Smothers] and his wife (and boat) would stay at Walt’s house and Tommy [Smothers] would stay with me in the apartment above the Satire.”
At the time Walt was living within walking distance of the Satire in a house located near the corner of E.17th Avenue and Williams Street and shared his residence with many musicians passin’ through town.
Dick Weissman, later a member of the group The Journeymen, recalled arriving in Denver in 1960 from NYC and meeting Walt after being to directed to his house where Weissman says Walt “seemed to have presided over a 24/7 party.” Walt asked Weissman if he wanted to play at the Satire. Weissman described the Satire as a rough bar with rough patrons that included prostitutes but regardless, he began playing opening sets for the Smothers Brothers who quickly turned the Satire into one of Denver’s most popular night spots.
While working at the Satire one summer day in 1960, Walt was approached by a young man wearing worn-out clothes, looking like a character out of The Grapes of Wrath. The young man said his name was Bob Dylan and he asked Walt if he could play at the Satire. Conley, well known for giving struggling and unknown musicians who were fresh off the street a chance to prove themselves, agreed to let him do some short afternoon sets before the Smothers Brothers went on, as he did for Weissman. Likewise, Walt also agreed to let Dylan stay at his house nearby, though he would have to sleep on the floor, as all of Conley’s rooms were occupied by other musicians in need. According to author Bob Spitz in his book Dylan: A Biography, the young Dylan lectured Walt on the importance of rediscovering the folk past and not spoiling the music. Walt is quoted as saying that he “felt guilty because he knew Dylan had all the commitment to the music that he lacked.” Walt continued, “Dylan was thoroughly disappointed in me. Because I was black he expected me to be a young Bill Broonzy or a young Leadbelly. Instead he encountered a singing actor who knew his on stage commercial worth. It was obvious to me that Bob thought I had sold out. To him I was just another white nigger with a guitar.”
Dylan’s stay in Denver that summer was brief. When he left town he took a little more than what he came with, provided to him by Walt, among others. That was a taste of anonymity, some reality, and a few new songs.
Weissman returned for another summer in Denver the following year and immediately went to a party at Walt’s house where he met musician Karen Dalton, who Weissman believed may have been Walt’s girlfriend. Dalton was a folk blues singer, guitarist, and banjo player. Both Weissman and Dalton would perform on Passin’ Through. They also began dating and both headed for NYC that same year. Weissman went on to fame with The Journeymen, while Dalton made a name for herself in the Greenwich Village folk music scene.
1961 PASSIN’ THROUGH – THE DEBUT ALBUM
Walt’s first full length album Passin’ Through with Walt Conley, was released in 1961 on the Premiere label, a division of Western Cine Service Inc., Denver. The cover photo of the LP was taken by Marshall Faber and shows Walt holding an acoustic guitar. The album is filled with many traditional songs that captured Walt’s ability to improvise. He could sing hymns with grace, ballads with sadness, and blues with struggle, and each he made uniquely his own. The song “Passin’ Through,” as noted on the back cover of the album, had become Walt’s own adopted trademark as he made his way from gig to gig across Colorado, and beyond. Also appearing on the back cover is a quote from Walt stating that “a folksinger must have heart. The truth of folk music is the story told.” Passin’ Through proves Walt a true storyteller, and heart is clearly evident in each track. Accompanying musicians Dave Wood, Butch Wilkerson, Dick Weissman, Barbara Shure, and Karen Dalton were essential in making that possible.
In 1963, Walt’s second album Listen What He’s Sayin’ was released by the Minneapolis label Studio City Records. The album cover photos by Dave Graham show Walt in front of a mic with his big 12-string guitar appearing just outside of a shadow hanging behind him. Two of the ten tracks capture the life of the traveler, a way of life Walt had been experiencing like many folksingers at the time. Those tracks are the Travis Edmunson song “I’m a Drifter (I’m a Loner)” and the song “I’m a Wandering (Wanderin’),” the latter perhaps taken from Carl Sandburg’s, “The American Songbag.” On other tracks Walt sings about settling down, war, and a man with a long chain on. Perhaps Walt was relating to the common experience that exists in such folk songs, regardless of who they are or where they come from, that all people feel. As is noted on the back cover, Walt “is all the songs on this album.” Walt’s deep and big voice can only be matched by his 12-string, yet there’s something gentle that runs throughout each track. Listen What He’s Sayin’ is proof, as if any were needed, that Walt had earned the right to be called a folksinger.
Also in 1963 All American Records released the single Ballad of a the Walking Postman, written and produced by Buck Ram, a noted songwriter, arranger, and producer. On the record Walt tells the story of William L. Moore backed by the Stephen Foster minstrel song, “Oh! Susanna.” William L. Moore, a postal worker who protested against racial segregation, was assassinated in Attala, Alabama, during a protest walk from Chattanooga, Tennessee to Jackson, Mississippi. Moore was planning to deliver a letter to then Governor Ross Barnett supporting civil rights. Tribute was later paid to Moore in April 2008 when Ellen Johnson and Ken Loukinen completed his march. They walked the 300 miles from Reece City, Alabama all the way to Jackson to deliver Moore’s letter to Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour on May 6, 2008. The governor, citing a scheduling conflict, was not on hand to accept the letter. Moore’s letter still remains undelivered.
Walt was also doing shows in and around Minneapolis during this time as well. In a November 22, 2013, article on MinnPost.com written by former folk singer Michael Fedo titled, A folk singer remembers Nov. 22, 1963, the author recollects running into Walt at the Padded Cell, a folk venue located at 925 W. Lake Street at Colfax Ave. in Minneapolis, the day after the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy. Fedo notes that Walt, and the late Native-American singer-actor Floyd Red Crow Westerman, had both performed the previous night. Fedo writes, “It was really rough,” Conley reportedly said, “I mean this room was jammed, but people felt guilty about enjoying themselves, so they didn’t. They just kind of hung out and hoped maybe Floyd and I could make them feel better. Which we couldn’t, of course. Maybe tonight will be different.”
It wasn’t. Fedo and his partner’s schtick was comedy and parody and the crowd wasn’t ready for it. After their first set they exited the stage, running into Conley who said, “Tough crowd. Tough on us too. But, this is what we do. And they expect us to do it,” Fedo recalled. Fedo also noted, “The most memorable moment that night, which appeared to break the uneasy tension, was when Dan and I joined Walt and Floyd for a multi-versed rendition of ‘This Land Is Your Land.’ It may seem maudlin now, but at the time it was deeply moving for us — and the audience.”
HO! FOR CALIFORNIA: 1967 THE ICE HOUSE
Between 1960 and 1978, The Ice House, located at 24 Mentor Avenue in Pasadena, California, was a club run by Bob Stane that hosted folk musicians and comedy acts from around the country. Walt shared the stage at The Ice House between 1966 and 1970 with folk musicians Don Crawford and Casey Anderson, and comedians Steve Martin and Larry Wilde, among many others.
Walt also continued to travel around the country doing shows including shows at Playboy clubs, the folk venue Bitter End in New York City’s Greenwich Village, and, as is evidenced in the Iowa newspaper Fayette County Leader on April 17, 1969, college gymnasiums. The newspaper announced, “A negro folk singer to appear in concert. Walt Conley will appear in concert at Upper Iowa college on Sunday, April 20 at 8pm in Dorman Memorial Gymnasium.” The announcement continued, “Conley sings authentic folk and accompanies himself on a 12-string guitar. He has sung with or been on the bill with such people as Judy Collins, Josh White, the Pair Extraordinaire, the Smother Brothers, Odetta and Bob Dylan. Appearing with Conley will be Clark Burch providing accompaniment on the bass and some vocal harmony. Conley had radio and TV shows in Denver, Colo., and has toured the country appearing at the Ice House in Los Angeles, the Abbey in Aspen, Colo., the College Inn in Denver and numerous college campuses. The week after his Fayette appearance he will be playing in a nightclub in Pittsburgh.”
The article gives insight into some of the road Walt had already travelled and the pace at which he was working during this time. A pace that had been going steady since his first professional gig at Denver’s B’Nai B’rith, almost twenty years earlier.
FOLK REVIVAL COMES TO A CLOSE
The American Folk-Music Revival that had began around 1940, and peaked during the 1960s, was coming to a close. Dick Weissman notes in his book Which Side Are You On? that most of the books about the folk revival date the end of the urban revival and the beginning of folk-rock from Bob Dylan’s Newport Folk Festival performance in 1965, the night Dylan went electric. Perhaps it was Dylan going electric. Perhaps it was the Beatles bursting on the American scene. Regardless “the folk scare,” as folksinger Utah Phillips called it, was real, and the curtain was closing on the American Folk Music Revival as a phenomenon during the latter half of ’60s.
On the back of Walt’s album Passin Through, author Nyberg writes that Walt’s first love was drama. He writes, “He hopes someday to do some serious acting, perhaps in television.” Before that a 1958 Denver Post article notes that Walt’s ambitions lie in New York’s legitimate theatre. The article continues that, “With sincerity and showmanship evident in his singing Walt Conley’s dream may not be so remote.”
But, it was not New York that Walt immediately headed for in the early ’70s though, it was back to California, Hollywood in particular, though he would continue to perform across the country as a folksinger, storyteller, and play actor during that decade, the latter included two Colorado productions: Eugene O’Neill’s “Emperor Jones” and Shelah Delaney’s “A Taste of Honey,” in which he played a sailor. Walt also appeared in William B. Branch’s off Broadway play “A Medal for Willie.”
His busy schedule inevitably made getting acting jobs in Hollywood very difficult due to conflicts. That didn’t keep him from at least getting a taste of the world of Hollywood acting as he appeared in various well-known television series such as “The Rockford Files,” “Get Christy Love,” and “The Six Million Dollar Man.” He also appeared in the motion pictures “Prison for Children” with John Ritter and “Flashback” with Dennis Hopper and Kiefer Sutherland, and also did voice-over work on the film “The Longest Yard.” In 1972 a short film, produced for the Appaloosa Horse Club by Denver’s Marshall Faber Productions, was broadcast on 430 TV stations worldwide as a daily station sign-off featuring the Lord’s Prayer read by Walt. The film also shows hereditary Chief of the Mi Ashi Ton Gaxas tribe and well-known silver and turquoise artist, Shatka Bear-Step performing the prayer in sign language.
Walt continued to travel. The following excerpt from an announcement in the October 24, 1972 issue of the Harbinger, a student publication for the Harper College campus community in Palatine, Illinois, captures Walt’s schedule. “He [Walt] has done countless college concerts in the US and Canada. His night club dates are too numerous to list completely. Some of his better clubs are the Hungry-I in San Francisco, Mr Kelly’s’ in Chicago, Ice House in LA, and Playboy Clubs. He has appeared on the Joey Bishop Show, The Steve Allen Show and Pat Paulsen Show and the Dating Game. He also did a pilot for television with a supporting role to Robert Culp. He will return to Hollywood next month to star in a Huntington-Hartford Production, a play called “Rats .”” By the 1980s, Walt was ready for a new adventure that would take him back to his hometown of Denver.
Having collected and performed folk songs for so many years Walt wasn’t willing to just fade away with passing phenomenons, such as folk revival eras. Walt felt that folk music was not just entertainment but a heritage to be preserved, respected, and passed on. Walt was a man who was constantly trying to improve himself and not only for his own development, but for others, too. So it is no surprise that in 1983 Conley co-opened the music venue Conley’s Nostalgia, a nightclub and showroom back in his hometown of Denver located at 554 S. Broadway, that had once been The Last Resort, a folk venue Conley performed at in 1958.
On July 6, 1984 the article “Folk Troubadour Corners Nostalgia Market” appeared in the Rocky Mountain News. The article’s author, Bill Husted, described Conley’s Nostalgia as a restaurant and bar, “but mostly a listening room for music that takes you back to the days of yesteryear.” Settling back in Denver Walt is quoted as saying, “I’m doing this club because I can longer take going to play someplace and having the owner say, ‘Well we don’t have any lights, but I can turn the chandelier around.’ They left the TV set on while you were playing. I just couldn’t take it anymore.” Husted continued, writing that “the kitchen is dishing out italian food for lunch and dinner. The music room is dishing out memories.”
“Everyone in Denver is serving food,” said Walt, “but no one else is serving folk music. I’m looking for an era, a time. I don’t think that folk music is coming back. There aren’t going to be more ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone.’ All I want to do is eulogize the era. I love folk music. I know one thing – you can’t go back to stay. I can take you back for an hour. I can take you back for a night. I can sing the old songs, but I can’t make you young again.” The crowds that Walt was looking for were, according to Husted, “Survivors of the ’60s, the people for whom folk music was important and helped define their attitudes and protests.” Many of those people filled the venue’s music room each weekend to watch Walt and his long-time bassist Clark Burch perform. On the marquee at Conley’s Nostalgia appeared the names of many national acts such as Bob Gibson, Dave Van Ronk, Casey Anderson, and John Fahey, along with local talent such as Turner & Crowley, and crowd favorite, Bill Buckley. Conley’s Nostalgia also served as the venue for Swallow Hill Music’s open mic nights. Swallow Hill Music was an outgrowth of the Denver Folklore Center, owned by another Denver folk icon, Harry Tuft. Its objective was and remains connecting people to diverse music traditions on the stage and in the classroom.
One local musician that performed at Conley’s Nostalgia was Castle Rock, Colorado native Stuart Martz. Martz recollected walking into Walt’s place with a demo tape of his duo group, Hearthside. Martz remembers the bar being to the right running along the wall, and to the left another wall with a burlap type curtain draped in a doorway that led to the music room. Walking through the curtain the stage was across the floor on the opposite wall. The stage was surrounded by tables with checkered cloths and a single candle on each, with chairs that only faced the stage. “No back was ever turned toward the performance,” recalled Martz. Martz was impressed with the venue having an actual sound booth and professional lighting, as many venues didn’t provide these. Martz also notes that Walt paid performers professional wages.
Martz was immediately given the opportunity to prove himself on stage and was one of the first locals, beyond Walt and Clark, to perform there. One thing that wasn’t allowed at the venue was dancing, due to a licensing restriction. Martz remembers Walt having to occasionally get on the PA system to repeat this to folks who had found it hard to refrain from kicking up their heels. Walt was not only a friend, but also a mentor, Martz said. He fondly recollects Walt’s professional standards and expectations from performers that continue to influence Martz along his path as an actor, musician, composer, and voice actor in Los Angeles to this day. “He was all about the music, keeping the tradition going, and truly believed in giving a good show,” said Martz.
Another local group of musicians that played Conley’s Nostalgia was a band called Juice of the Barley. Walt took notice that the venue was packed with customers whenever he booked the band, whose members included Walt’s bass player Clark Burch, Tony McAleavey, Mike Kent, and Frank Moore. The Juice of the Barley played Celtic music, a genre Walt found himself increasingly drawn to. Martz recollects that Walt eventually stopped doing traditional folk standards and began playing Irish songs almost exclusively. As noted in Walt’s obituary, “With its engaging rhythm and politically nuanced messages, Irish music reminded Conley of the folk singers he idolized.”
Professional entertainer Duncan Tuck also recalls Walt and Conley’s Nostalgia. Tuck knew about Walt long before he ever met and became friends with him. Tuck, a traveling folk musician back in the ’70s played a number of the same clubs around the country that Walt had played. Tuck’s home base was Denver. Tuck recalls, “One night while I was playing at the Loading Dock in Aurora (located at Havana and Alameda), Walt and his wife, Joan, came in. It was just about when he opened his club on South Broadway across from the old Montgomery Ward Building, now the Design Center. He asked me to come check out his club and a few weeks later he had me playing there.”
Tuck continues, “Over the years many restaurants and bars offered music: Brittany Hill, Sam Wilson’s, Loading Dock, Baby Doe’s, The Broker Restaurants, and Top of the Works (street level of the Comedy Works), but Walt had an acoustic music showroom that entertainers loved to play. He brought in a number of national acts, but he was great to local musicians. It was a tight knit group and everybody seemed to know and support each other. I have great memories of Conley’s Nostalgia, in fact, I met my wife there.”
“Walt was supportive, encouraging, and a great entertainer who absolutely loved performing,” recalls Tuck. “Only guy I knew that played a 9-string guitar. People use the term legend, and he really was a folk music legend. He had fans that followed him his entire career, and he had a knack of making those people feel special and appreciated.”
Husted asks in his article, “Will a folk club make it in cosmopolitan Denver?” Many musicians, known and unknown, graced the stage of the one venue, run by the one person, that could make it happen, and Walt did.
CONLEY & COMPANY
Between 1987, when Walt closed Conley’s Nostalgia, and 1991, Walt had been preparing and recording his third album, Walt Conley & Company After All These Years, and performing whenever and wherever he could. Walt Conley & Company appears as the group name on this LP. As is noted on the Walt Conley and Company website, “Throughout his career, when not performing solo, Walt has chosen to surround himself with an assortment of outstanding sidemen (and side ladies). Company is the term which is used to describe any configuration of fine musicians who accompany Walt.” It would also later be the name of a group formed by Walt in 1995. Tracks on the album include the Stan Rogers’ song “Mary Ellen Carter,” Bob Gibson’s “Mendocino Desperados,” and the Gordon Lightfoot song “Early Morning Rain,” among others. The cover photo shows Walt in blue jeans and a red short-sleeved shirt at Cranmer Park in Denver holding his dog Mai Ling. It is his first album cover photo that doesn’t have a guitar in it. In the liner notes Walt wrote, “”I’ve been a folk singer, or should I say, a singer of folk songs, for most of my adult life. My idea of folk singers is men like Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, Pete Seeger, Merle Travis and dozens more who worked and traveled through the hardships and joys of the folks they wrote about. The music I choose to interpret is really a vicarious expression of my life, because for every song I sing I have a memory from my own travels. That’s what keeps this music alive-the shared association we all have with these songs.”
In 1991, Juice of the Barley’s Tony McAleavey opened the Sheabeen Pub in Aurora, Colorado. Walt and Clark, along with other local talents, performed there regularly. In 1995, Walt celebrated 35 years in entertainment, holding a fundraiser for the Rocky Mountain Music Association, a nonprofit group that promoted original music, at The Mercury Cafe in downtown Denver. Walt’s friend, the late “godfather of the Denver comedy scene” and Comedy Works founder George McKelvey was among the many guests that attended. McKelvey performed the songs “Aim for the Middle” and “Amazing Grace,” the latter which he performed with his daughter Fawn.
What was intended to be a retirement party turned out to be another musical endeavor for Walt that he called Conley & Company. The band, formed from remnants of the then defunct Juice of the Barley, Conley & Company consisted of Walt, McAleavey, Kent, and guitarist Ted Sherman. Sherman soon left the group and Walt decided to go full Irish pub band. Carl Brunell was added on bass but was soon replaced by high school math/computer instructor Bill O’Donnell. Fiddle player Susie Lewis was also added to the group. Regarding the lineup, Walt said, “What an Irish band. The leader is black, the mandolin and penny whistle player is Jewish, the fiddle player is Welsh. But, we have an Irish bass player and Tony, our tenor, is from Belfast. Only in America could you find such a diverse group playing Irish songs.”
According to a Walt Conley biography on Ocatch.com, he once responded to the question of “What made a black man become a singer of Irish rebel songs?” He responded that, “If the band U2 from Ireland can sing American blues, then I sure as hell can sing Irish folk songs!”
Conley and Company performed at various events in the area including the Manitou Springs Mountain Music Festival. Duncan Tuck recalls, “Walt was instrumental in getting a number of the Denver acts on the program for the Festival. Every August it was a weekend of music featuring acts from Colorado Springs, Manitou Springs, and the Denver acts Walt recommended. One year I remember Turner and Crowley, Conley and Company. Juice of the Barley, Cripple Creek, Ruthstrom and Robertson…it was nice being included in that group of talent.”
Conley and Company also continued doing regular shows at the Sheabeen in Aurora and in 2001 released the live album Conley & Company Do The Sheabeen Pub. That release was followed up in 2002 with the live album Black and Tans.
A COLORADO LEGEND
Walt Conley died on November 16, 2003 after suffering a stroke. He was 74 years old.
His children lost a father, his wife lost her husband, and many, many entertainers, both local and across the country, lost a long-time friend and supporter who respected them as they respected him. And, of course, Colorado lost a legend.
A memorial service for Conley took place at Cameron United Methodist Church, 1600 S. Pearl St. The service was emceed by Sam Arnold (founder and co-owner of the Fort Restaurant in Morrison, Colorado) and opened with a performance of Bob Gibson’s song “Farewell Party.” Additional performances included “Daisy A Day” by Bill Buckley and “Bristlecone Pine” performed by Harry Tuft. In an interview for this article, Tuft recalled Conley as a “natural performer and great entertainer who put on no airs, whose total presentation was terrific.” Tuft concluded Conley was, “a pioneer in folk music that had blazed the trail for him [Tuft] and others.” Walt’s final resting place is the Fort Logan National Cemetery in Denver, Colorado.
Each year around the anniversary of Walt’s death, his former band mates, friends, and fans gather for Waltfest at the Sheabeen Irish Pub to pay tribute and raise money for the American Diabetes Association. It wouldn’t be a Walt Conley event without unannounced, but welcomed, musicians stopping by to play as well. At a previous Waltfest, the owner of the Sheabeen, Andy Schmidt, took note of the size of the crowd saying, “Walt has been gone for years, but he can still pack the place.” This year’s Waltfest will be on Saturday November 19th. The Sheabeen is located at 2300 S. Chambers Rd, in Aurora, at Iliff. Don’t you dare miss it!!
LISTEN WHAT HE’S SAYIN’ – SOME LAST WORDS FROM WALT CONLEY
“I’ve spent many sleepless nights trying to figure out what move to make next: where I was going in folk music, what type songs I could sing, and how to sing them. I listened to, and talked with ‘folk people’ from New York to Alaska, and back down to Mexico. All across Canada I looked for new songs, different styles and methods of presentation.
Then I tried talking with people indirectly associated with the field: the listeners, the hip folksters, the ‘hootenanny housewife,’ and even those who refuse to dig. My purpose was to keep up with this raging new thing called folk entertainment, and I plan to keep on trying.
But one morning I nosed my Ford car and tired body into my hometown of Denver after a 1000 mile trek from Chicago. As I threw my junk on the lawn, in the process of unpacking, the thought suddenly hit me – What the hell am I looking for?
My style and presentation were set thirteen years ago when I sang my first song around a campfire at a ranch in New Mexico. That song had a phrase in it, ‘A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.’ And I guess what I’m trying to say is I will always be trying to improve, but I set a pattern at that time, and it’s my own – and I hope you like it.” – Walt Conley (1963).
“If I’m the Godfather, Walt is the Grandfather,” -Harry Tuft (Founder, Denver Folklore Center)
An edited version of this article appeared in Westword on November 16,2016.
Walt Conley was inducted into the Colorado Music Hall of Fame on November 9, 2019.
A documentary film made for the Colorado Music Hall of Fame about Colorado Folk Musician Walt Conley, 2019.