Barry Fey is dead: Towering figure in Denver music scene passes away

Categories: News

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More photos below.
We've just learned that Barry Fey, a larger-than-life figure who helped put Denver on the music-business map, has died.

At this writing, the circumstances of Fey's death have not been made public, but he has been ill of late. His personal Facebook page features a March 11 post that reads, "I am happy to tell you that Barry's surgery was a success. He is now in recovery and wants to thank you for your thoughts and prayers," with an April 24 followup noting "Barry is now home and doing well."

Whatever the specifics of his passing, there's no denying that Fey was among the most fascinating, and most controversial, figures in Colorado for decades. He more or less built the Denver concert scene with his own two hands, and his incredible will -- but he also had rageaholic tendencies that made him plenty of enemies during his time in the spotlight. Still, there's no denying that he was a born showman who put an indelible mark on Colorado for decades.

To get a sense of the man, here's the appropriately titled "The Long Goodbye," a 1997 warts-and-all feature article I wrote about him when he sold his shares of Fey Concerts to Universal Concerts, Inc. The move was seen at the time as a precursor to retirement, but Fey wasn't a sit-around-and-do-nothing kind of guy. Only death could silence him.

"The Long Goodbye: After thirty years, Barry Fey is stepping down. Sort of."
By Michael Roberts
August 14, 1997

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A photo of Barry Fey with a portrait of Barry Fey, from his Facebook page.
Barry Fey: genius. The last of the old-time rock promoters. A man with a legendary ear, terrific taste and an unmatched ability to hype a concert into an event. A bit rough around the edges, maybe, but a good-hearted fellow who single-handedly saved Denver's symphony orchestra in 1989 and set aside a percentage of ticket sales from shows staged under his Fey Concerts banner during the past three years for a "Safe Summer" fund intended to decrease violence among young people. Barry Fey: monster. A greedy, venomous sort whose business dealings are notable for their lack of ethics and utter absence of fairness. A verbal abuser of longstanding whose addiction to food and mania for gambling are just the most obvious of his personal foibles. Mean and dangerous, yet so powerful that many of those who've witnessed his actions or suffered at his hands are too afraid to say anything about what they've seen.

Which of these portraits is accurate? Perhaps both of them, but it's nearly impossible to tell for certain. The former claims are made by city officials and selected Fey intimates, the latter by ex-employees and onetime business associates who, in the main, will speak only under the cloak of anonymity. But there's one thing upon which all parties agree: Fey, 58, has been the most important figure in the Denver music community for thirty years--which is why the August 11 announcement that he has sold his share of Fey Concerts to Universal Concerts Inc., a onetime rival that's been his partner since 1991, is so intriguing. Fey is not disappearing from the scene; he has agreed to serve as an "active consultant" to Universal for the next five years and expects to be intimately involved with the planning of the annual Summer of Stars series, which he calls "a labor of love." Moreover, he notes that Universal has "carved out" the Las Vegas market for him, thereby allowing Fey to promote between twelve and fifteen concerts a year there as Feyline, the name of his original company, which was dismantled by a bankruptcy court in early 1987. But for the first time in well over a generation, he will not be promoting performances in the state that he put on the rock-and-roll map. Vocabulary-challenged pundits will refer to his decision as "the end of an era," and for once they may be right.

As might have been expected, Fey handled the announcement itself with aplomb, hosting a media roundup at the site of the Family Dog, the West Evans club where he began his reign as Denver's rock guru. That the Dog closed ages ago and is currently PT's, a strip bar, appeared not to have bothered him in the slightest. Many observers in the room could not help but see irony in the setting, but Fey is a sentimentalist. To him the room will always be the Dog, where he introduced listeners from the Rocky Mountain West to musical glories about which they had only dreamed.

Fey's Cherry Hills Village home overflows with mementos from the Dog days to the present. Over a sofa in his front room is an Andy Warhol painting of Mick Jagger, and the airy entranceway is lined with oversized works typified by a genuinely tacky rendering of Jimi Hendrix by splatter artist Denny Dent. The walls of the nearby den are hung with vintage posters and guitars autographed by the Eagles, the Who and U2, the most contemporary act represented. A half-filled vinyl jukebox offers a window into the songs Fey adores most: The most recent 45 is Don McLean's "American Pie."

Dressed in a dark T-shirt and shorts held up by a belt, Fey weighs a trim 192 pounds (he once tipped the scales at 320 pounds), and although his hairline has that store-bought look, he otherwise seems younger than his years. His son Tyler, who celebrated his sixth birthday this week, is padding around the house in bare feet, and Fey scoots after him, doling out advice. "Wash your face, Tyler," he says in reference to a red, sugary-looking substance smeared across the boy's face. Later, Fey helps him lace up his shoes in advance of a trip to practice hitting golf balls. After learning that there are no holes on a driving range, Tyler asks, "So what are you supposed to do?"

"You try to hit the ball as far as you can," Fey explains. "They have signs: ten yards, twenty yards, thirty yards. The further it goes, the better you did. That's how you win."

Winning is still important to Barry Fey. These days, he soft-pedals his fiercesome reputation, referring to himself as "a wimp" and noting, "I'm all mouth. I've got nothing to back myself up anymore." Likewise, his preferred conversational volume (while reminiscing, anyhow) is surprisingly low, and he smiles and laughs easily. But every once in a while, a testier Fey can be located beneath the surface. When a photographer takes a little longer than he likes in getting the expression he wants for a shot, Fey asks him, "Would you like to see my irritated look?"

Today, such a phrase would strike fear into many of Fey's colleagues. But if his account of his childhood is accurate, he was not always such an intimidating presence. He was born in New York City; his father wholesaled steel pipe while his mother stayed home and looked after Barry and his sister. Before long, the family moved to East Orange, New Jersey, and Fey describes the years that followed as idyllic. Unfortunately, the good times would not last forever. "When I was eleven years old, the world was my oyster," he says. "I was going into sixth grade, I was going to be president of the class at Nassau School in East Orange, and my baseball team was really great. I played third base and was captain of the team, and we were playing for the city championship when a very significant thing happened. We were ahead 9-0 and there were two outs in the ninth inning, and the other team was batting when the guy hit it to me. And I just held it. Everyone was yelling, 'Throw it! Throw it!' But I didn't throw the ball.

"Now, if the other team had scored ten runs, this would have been a disaster. But the next guy made an out, so everything turned out fine. But when I look back on that, I think what happened was that I had a premonition that things were going to change and I would never be that happy again. I didn't want it to end. But two weeks later, my dad came in and said, 'We're moving.' And things took a turn for the worse."

The Feys settled in Pittsburgh for two years before heading west to Chicago. For Barry, the result was "culture shock." He never felt that he fit in and began to gain weight at a dizzying rate. Then, when he was sixteen, his father died. "It hit just like that," he remembers. "He had bronchial pneumonia and asthma. I came home one night and he was in an oxygen tent, and the next day he died."

Continue for more of our feature article about Barry Fey, who died this weekend.

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