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OBIT: Walt Conley

GUEST,Mary Katherine 27 Nov 03 - 09:59 AM
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Subject: OBIT: Walt Conley
From: GUEST,Mary Katherine
Date: 27 Nov 03 - 09:59 AM

FROM: The Denver Post ~

http://www.denverpost.com/Stories/0,1413,36~11777~1790831,00.html

Denver folk musician Walt Bell Conley once explained a
detour into Celtic music by announcing that if the Irish
band U2 could get away with singing American blues, "then I
sure as hell can sing Irish folk songs."

A memorial service for Conley, who died Nov. 16 after a
stroke, will be at 3 p.m. Friday at Cameron United Methodist
Church, 1600 S. Pearl St. He was 74.

"He was Mr. Folk Music when I came into town during the
1960s," said his friend Harry Tuft, owner of the Folklore
Center and founder of Swallow Hill Music Association.

Conley's career as a musician began during a summer job at
Spanish folk musician Jenny Wells Vincent's dude ranch,
where Conley met Pete Seeger and other members of the 1950s
folk group The Weavers. His first guitar was a gift from
Seeger, who liked Conley's rich baritone and taught him to
use it to advantage in folk songs.

After graduating from college with degrees in theater and
physical education, Conley began teaching at a Weld County
junior high school. He lost that job when his superintendent
learned that he was also moonlighting as a musician at
Denver bars.

His debut as a professional folk singer coincided with the
popularity of calypso singer Harry Belafonte. Conley's gig
at the old Windsor Hotel required him to perform in all
three of the hotel's bars.

"I'd sing a few songs in one," he said on his website
http://waltconley.freeservers.com/ . "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."

Conley went on to work at Little Bohemia, a 1950s Denver
folk club where performers had to crawl through a cramped
passage to the small stage. He met Judy Collins, who also
sang there, and they both played at Michael's Pub in Boulder
and the Exodus Supper Club in Denver.

From 1959, when the Exodus opened, Conley spent six months a
year, alternating with Collins, as the warm-up act for
headliners, including Josh White, Bob Gibson, Mama Cass
Elliot, the Highwaymen, the Kingston Trio, Jimmy Driftwood
and others. Conley also did gigs in Aspen, where he met
Tommy and Dick Smothers, whose career as the Smothers
Brothers was just beginning to blossom.

His friendship with the Smotherses later brought them to the
Satire Lounge, where Conley worked as a manager whose jobs
included booking acts. The Smothers Brothers brought such
steady crowds to the Satire that Hal Neustaedter, owner of
the Exodus, offered to double their salary if they would
switch to the Exodus.

When the Smothers Brothers accepted the offer, the Satire
Lounge's owner took them to court, suing for breach of
contract. During the trial, Tommy Smothers' testimony left
the courtroom ringing with belly laughs. The judge found the
comedians guilty, fined them $1, and Conley followed them
when they left, returning to work at the Exodus.

He became close friends with the Neustaedters, and after Hal
Neustaedter died in a 1963 plane crash, Conley worked with
Liz Neustaedter until she closed the Exodus in 1966. They
were so close that when Conley married a woman who didn't
like children, Liz Neustaedter took in Conley's son Troy and
raised him when Conley was on the road.

During the 1970s, Conley continued performing at the Ice
House in Pasadena, Calif., and at clubs in Denver and
Chicago, but moved to Los Angeles to focus on his acting
career.

Conley played Dr. Lomax on the 1975 TV show "The Bionic
Woman," along with minor roles in "Get Christy Love," "The
Six Million Dollar Man" and "The Rockford Files." He did
voice-overs for commercials and some movies, including "The
Longest Yard," for which he supplied all the grunts and
groans during a rough football game. He also read the Indian
Lord's Prayer that aired when Denver TV stations signed off
at night, in a ritual that prompted a letter of praise from
President Nixon.

In 1984, Conley moved back to Denver and opened his own
club, Conley's Nostalgia. He brought in big-name
performers - Bob Gibson, John Fahey, Dave Van Ronk - along
with local talent. Swallow Hill held weekly open-mike nights
at the club for folk and acoustic musicians. Conley noticed
that the place was packed whenever he booked The Juice of
the Barley, which featured his longtime friend and bass
player Clark Burch. The Juice of the Barley played Celtic
music, and Conley found himself increasingly drawn to the
genre.

With its engaging rhythm and politically nuanced messages,
Irish music reminded Conley of the folk singers he
idolized - Seeger, Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, Merle Travis
and Doc Watson. By 1995, when Conley celebrated 35 years as
a professional musician by holding a fundraiser for the
Rocky Mountain Music Association, he was performing mostly
Irish music.

"I'm black Irish," he would joke.

The 1995 performance was meant to be his retirement party,
although he continued to play monthly, as Conley and
Company, at the Sheabeen Pub in Aurora, until shortly before
his death.

"What musician can afford to retire?" he liked to ask,
rhetorically. If someone pressed the question, he told them
something along the lines of the notes he published on his
album "After All These Years":

"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."

Survivors include his wife, Joan Holden of Denver; two sons,
Troy Conley of Denver and Joel Conder of Salem, Ore.; a
daughter, Michele Melnick Bond, last of Denver; a stepson,
Robert Holden of St. Helena, Calif.; and eight
grandchildren.


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