Walt Conley, Folk Singer
Walt Conley is a Denver native, raised in Nebraska, who has been called Denver's "grandfather of folk music." And he's now leading one of Denver's most popular Irish bands, Conley & Company. Walt, a regular at the Sheabeen Pub in Aurora where his band most often plays, is now doing all Irish.
How did a black man become a singer of Irish rebel songs? As Walt tells it, "If the band U2 from Ireland can sing American blues, then I sure as hell can sing Irish folk songs!" As far as Walt is concerned, singing Irish songs is just another phase in his long and successful folk singing career. "I don't want to be Irish, I just want to sing Irish songs."
Walt was born in Denver and adopted by a couple from Scottsbluff, Nebraska, where he grew up. When his father died, he and his mother moved to Denver, where Walt graduated from Manual High School, A Catholic priest helped him get a football scholarship to Northeastern Junior College in Sterling, Colorado, one of four black students. During the summers, he worked at a dude ranch outside Taos, New Mexico, where he met Pete Seeger and other members of The Weavers, a popular 50s folk group. From Seeger, he got his first guitar and learned his first folk song.
After junior college, he went active in the Navy during the Korean War. Following his discharge, he got a job with a film crew shooting in Silver City, New Mexico; the film became the classic, "Salt of the Earth." He enrolled at the University of Northern Colorado, then called Colorado State College of Education, where he majored in Theater and Physical Education. Upon graduation, he took a job as a junior high school teacher in Weld County, but left teaching after his other career - entertainment - clashed with the rigorous morals demanded of teachers. "Someone reported to the superintendent that I was singing folk songs in Denver bars on Sundays," explained Walt, "and they quickly suggested that I resign from my teaching position."
Walt's first professional folk singing gig was at the old Windsor Hotel in Denver where he entertained in three different bars. "I'd sing a few songs in one. Then I'd race up the stairs to another and do a show there; then on to the third bar. It was the Belefonte 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."
His next job was at a place called Little Bohemia where he had to wear a suit and tie. "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." Little Bohemia was the folk club in Denver. There he met Judy Collins. Both of them also played at a club in Boulder, Michael's Pub. Hal and Liz Neustaedter, opened the Exodus in 1959, located at 19th and Broadway. The Exodus brought in headline acts such as Josh White, Bob Gibson, The Terriers, Jimmy Driftwood and many others. Neustaedter asked Walt to be the opening act for six months of the year and Collins for the other six months.
When he wasn't playing the Exodus, Walt spent a lot of time in Aspen, where the folk scene was exploding with new groups, such as The Limeliters. It was there that Walt met the Smothers Brothers. For a short time, Walt managed the Satire Club in Denver. He booked in the Smothers Brothers for their first appearance in Denver. Neustaedter came to hear them and offered them twice the money that the Satire Club paid them. They quickly moved to the Exodus, which prompted the owner of the Satire Club to sue for breach of contract. After a court trial in which Tommy Smothers had the entire courtroom laughing, the judge fined the brothers One-Dollar ($1.00) Following the trial, Walt gave up his job at the Satire and returned to the Exodus, too.
Walt had become a fast friend with the Neustaedters and the Exodus became Walt's home base. Hal Neustaedter died in a plane crash in 1963 while returning from Oklahoma City where he planned to open a folk club. His wife, Liz, kept the Exodus opened for three more years. Bignamed folk stars started appearing in larger venues and folk clubs began disappearing, "The College Inn was probably the last folk holdout in Denver," reminisced Walt. "It stopped using entertainment in 1971" Meanwhile, Walt and Liz Neustaedter remained good friends. When Walt's ex-wife remarried a man who didn't like kids, Liz took in Walt's son, Troy, and raised him as her own while Walt followed his career on the road.
During the sixties, Walt teamed up with bass player, Clark Burch. The two performed together in clubs and at colleges throughout the country for over thirty-three years. Walt moved to Hollywood in the early '70s to fulfill his acting ambitions. He picked up minor roles in some of the top TV shows of that era - "Get Christy Love," "The Six Million Dollar Man," "The Rockford Files" as well as appearing in a few movies. With his deep baritone voice, he also made a living doing voice-overs for TV and radio ads. Throughout his acting years, he maintained his folk-singing career with regular appearances at The Ice House in Pasadena, and gigs in the Chicago area and back in Denver.
In 1983, Walt returned to Denver to open his own club. He wanted a place with a show room -where one could really appreciate the music. Conley's Nostalgia quickly became a Mecca for folk musicians in Denver. Swallow Hill, a Denver acoustic music appreciation society, ran weekly open stages at the club and Walt booked in national -- Bob Gibson, Dave Van Ronk, and John Fahey -as well as local talent. "The club was a success artistically," explained Walt. "Musicians loved playing in the room and our patrons loved being able to hear good music without a lot of distractions. It was at the club that I really started getting into Irish music."
Tony McAleavey had long been a fan and friend of Walt's. He formed a group, The Juice of the Barley, with Walt's bass player Clark Burch, amateur musicians Michael Kent and the late Frank Moore. "When I booked The Juice of the Barley into the club, I could always count on the Hibernians to fill the room," recalls Walt.
McAleavey opened the Sheabcen Pub in 1991. Walt's folk singing combo was a regular act, along with many other good local bands. In 1995, Walt celebrated 35 years in entertainment, holding a fundraiser for the Rocky Mountain Music Association, a non-profit group that promoted original music, at The Mercury Cafe in Denver. That was supposed to be Walt's retirement party. But, "...what musician can afford to retire," protests Walt. "Besides, I love performing."
Burch dropped out of the group shortly after that. Walt invited McAleavey and Kent to join him and his lead guitarist, Ted Sherman, on stage, and a new group was formed - Conley & Company. After Sherman quit, Walt, Tony and Mike decided to form an Irish group. Walt knew they needed a bass player and invited Carl Brunell to join the group. Brunell left the group due to conflicts with his day job and Bill O'Donnell, a high school math/computer instructor, became the group's bass player. Conley has since added a fiddle player, Susie Lewis. "What an Irish band," crows Walt. "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."
"That's what I love about folk music," says Walt. "It's international. Every country has its folk songs. They're sad, they're happy, they tell a story. Music can be so emotional, so personal. I've made it my career and I've had a great one."