The Long Goodbye

After thirty years, Barry Fey is stepping down. Sort of.

"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."

There was not much money in the Fey account after Barry's father expired. Hence, his mother, who is 91 and still living in Chicago, had to get a job for the first time in her life (she became an interior decorator), and Barry was forced to forgo college plans in favor of a stint in the Marines. He describes his time in uniform as a relentless hell. "I was seventeen, a useless seventeen--237 pounds, no skills. A real waste of skin. Nice kid, but they took care of that real fast. Of the four drill instructors that were there, three of them went to jail for brutality. One of them was an ex-boxer named Kowalski, and he would have me stand at attention and say, 'How's the drill instructor's left hand today?' And he would hit me in the stomach and say, 'Sir, Private Fey thinks the drill instructor's left hand is fine today.' And then it would be right, left, right, until I would collapse. One day he said to me, 'Your dad must have been a dumb son of a bitch to raise a pig like you.' And I just started crying."

After two years in the Corps, Fey got out and never looked back. But he recognizes that the military did him some good. "It had a tremendous effect on me. It's made me very successful, because I realized I had nowhere to go but up. Ain't nothing scared me since."

At nineteen, Fey won a scholarship to the business school at the University of Pennsylvania, where one of his roommates was talk-show host Maury Povitch. ("When he got big a few years ago I put in a call to him, but he never called me back," Fey reveals. "So I said, 'Fuck you,' and that was the end of it.") After a little over two years, though, he dropped out, winding up with a job working at a Robert Hall store in Chicago. Within a couple of weeks, he had been promoted to assistant manager at an outlet in Rockford, Illinois, and on a lark decided to put on a show there featuring Baby Huey and the Babysitters, a cover band that played a club near his mother's house called Thumb's Up. Says Fey: "It was Easter Sunday 1965, and my share was $92. And my reaction was, 'Wow, how long has this been going on?' I quit my job the next week."

A Rockford date Fey put together featuring the Byrds was considerably more profitable. But just as he was getting ready to branch out, he was stricken by a mysterious inner-ear disorder that laid him low for five months, until October 1965. He spent much of the time between then and the following summer "bumming," but that changed in July, when he and his future wife, Cindy--with whom he had three children, now in their twenties--were approached at a Chicago nightspot by two University of Denver students who had learned of his promoting efforts in Rockford. They asked him to find a band for a frat bash the next October, and Fey delivered, lining up the Association for gigs at DU, the University of Colorado-Boulder and the University of Montana. Because the act's biggest single, "Cherish," broke in advance of the shows, he wound up with three highly profitable sellouts. However, collecting the cash proved more difficult than he had anticipated.

"I remember when it came time to settle up, there was $2,100 missing," he notes. "So the housemother called a meeting and I set everybody down and said, 'I'm not going to put you motherfuckers in jail. I'll just have some construction workers come and build bars around your house if I don't get my money.'" In a sense, he was blowing smoke: "I could have sued them, but I didn't have any laywers back then. But by the way I talked to them, I made them think, 'Either this guy can do what he says or he's crazy. Either way, we better do what he says.' And I got most of my money."

By April 1967, Fey was looking for other worlds to conquer. He read an advertisement in Billboard magazine placed by Family Dog Productions in San Francisco soliciting tapes. Because he and Cindy had not enjoyed a proper honeymoon yet, they decided to travel to the Bay Area and pitch a cassette by a Denver band, the Eighth Penny Matter, while they were there. Fey was granted an audience with Chet Helms, the head of the Family Dog, and also met Bob Cohen, Helms's right-hand man--and while the pair didn't flip over the recording, they connected with the cocky kid from Colorado. Upon his return to Denver, Fey learned that the Byrd, a teen club, had closed and that the owner was looking for someone to take over the venue. He decided that it would be the perfect spot for a Family Dog spinoff and called Cohen to tell him so. Cohen promptly flew to Denver, and within a matter of weeks, Fey was the owner of a very trendy franchise. Successes with bands like the Doors followed, and after the establishment of his production company, Feyline (originally a misspelling of "Feline," Fey says), he started challenging promoters like the folks at KIMN-AM for live-music supremacy.

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