You could say Morey Davolt owes his big idea to a man who used goat glands to make guys horny.
The man was Doc John Brinkley, and he thought impotent men could rise to the occasion with transplanted goat testicles. It worked well--for Doc Brinkley, anyway--and the Kansas quack made enough money to build a few radio stations.
Doc, whose stations promoted various miracle cures, eventually ran into problems with the feds, so he moved to Villa Acuna, Mexico, and built the 500,000-watt XERF, the largest radio station of its time. On good nights, if the wind was right, Doc's signal reached Denver and beyond.
Morey tuned in whenever possible. He liked Doc's oddball advertisements and occasional songs; songs with a twang in the guitar and fire in the fiddle. Morey had played that music his entire life. What he didn't like, though, was the name it was known by: hillbilly music. That sounded corny as hell.
Doc apparently agreed. Whenever XERF spun records, Morey says, its DJs called them "country and Western."
That had a ring to it.
So Morey stole it.
When he started his own radio station in 1955, the first of its kind in Denver, he leaned into the microphone and said: "KLAK. The only one-horse radio station in town. Country-and-Western music all day and all night."
And that was that.
2. MOREY'S KITCHEN
This is where you can find him: in a corner chair beside a corner table, beneath a tool belt nailed to the wall, beside a tiny American flag stuck in the screen door, under a clipboard listing twenty guitar songs to limber his 83-year-old fingers.
This is his kitchen. But don't call it that. To Morey, it's an office, living room, saloon and sanctuary. It is where he lounges in a bathrobe, sips Diet Coke from a Coors glass, watches the digital weather contraption above his sink, offers unsolicited advice on tomato-growing, flips though his unpublished manuscript, The Autobiography of Maurice Jerome Davolt Detailing His Life Around the Many Many Jobs He Has Held From the Summer of 1920 to 1992.
This is his kitchen. But it's really a stage. Look at him. Cackling at his own jokes. Cursing like a sailor. Grinning like a gopher. This man is having fun.
3. WHAT HIS FRIEND SAYS ABOUT HIM
Ralph Clark: "He's one fascinating son of a bitch. Always in the right place at the right time. That guitar of his has taken him everywhere. He's had more jobs than I can count. He's got a memory sharp as a goddamn tack. Shit, he knows every song ever written. He's just one fascinating son of a bitch. I like the hell out of him."
Mom Davolt always said, "Try anything once. But be careful." Morey followed the first part of her advice. The second part he's not so sure about.
He was born on August 17, 1914, in the "godforsaken plains of west-central Kansas." On that sweltering day in the family's sod dugout, his mother, Ella Mae Davolt, turned to his father, Darwin Eli Davolt, and said: "I believe it's about that time. Guess I better head for the hospital."
So Darwin saddled up his only horse, helped his wife on top and rode seven long miles into town. An hour later she gave birth to her only child. Then they saddled up the horse and rode back to the dugout.
Not long after, Morey went to work.
He got his first job when he was six, delivering drugs for two Denver pharmacies. His parents had moved to Colorado and divorced. Morey hustled deliveries all over town, barefoot and grubby, working customers for tips. By the time he entered first grade, he made more than Mom Davolt, who earned 75 cents a day selling cosmetics.
"Hell, everyone worked back then," he says. "It didn't matter how old you were. If you wanted to eat, you worked."
He milked cows, gathered eggs at a chicken ranch, delivered groceries, cooked hot dogs, patched mausoleums, grew tomatoes, read parking meters, pulled nails from concrete walls, sold peanuts, repaired oil trucks, ordered vegetables for a grocery store, pumped gasoline from a railroad tanker, sold Hoover vacuum cleaners and unloaded boxcars.
"I made a game out of everything I did," he says. "Even pumping shit. I used to see how many strokes it would take to get the cesspool cleaned. Hell, I had fun."
One night, while answering phones during the graveyard shift at a mortuary, Morey took a call. A woman had died on South Logan Street. The man said, "Come quick." So Morey called the embalmer, collected his gear, and off they went.
When they arrived at the house, the woman's husband pointed to the attic. "She's up there," he said. Morey and the embalmer climbed a set of narrow steps, wiggled through a narrow entrance and stood in a narrow room. There she was, dead as a doornail, all 250 pounds of her. The embalmer turned to Morey. "We have a problem," he said.
The mortuary owner and his wife arrived a few minutes later. The boss climbed into the attic, assessed the situation and told his wife to usher the woman's family outside. Morey fetched a tarpaulin from the hearse (actually a covered pickup) and several leather straps. Then he and the other men unrolled the tarp, pushed the dead woman onto it and cinched the bundle tight.
The owner said: "I'll climb down, and you lower her to me feet first."
Morey and the embalmer did as they were told. Slowly, carefully, they dragged the woman to the stairs. Grunting, straining, they lowered her down.
"Be careful, will you?"
"Not so damn fast!"
"Wait a minute! I'm losing my grip."
No one said a word.
The family glanced toward the house.
Morey and the others scooped up the dead woman, hauled her to the hearse and hit the gas. Four back-breaking hours later, they sagged into chairs in the mortuary, the big woman lying on the embalming table.
That night, Morey made six bucks.
5. SEVEN CHORDS AND A GLASS OF BEER
Mom Davolt had a beautiful voice. Music came to her as easily as opening the window and letting the breeze blow in. She loved hymns, especially "The Old Rugged Cross." She picked up a few songs on piano, organ and mouth harp and taught Morey to sing harmony.
"I was born with perfect pitch," he recalls. "I wouldn't have to sound a note to sing in a certain key. I probably got that from her."
When he was eleven he joined a band. At the time, he and Mom Davolt lived near Bennett, thirty miles east of Denver, among coyotes, jackrabbits and rattlesnakes. She taught school for a living, and he chopped wood.
One night there was a dance. People came from miles around, on horseback, in buggies, in Studebakers--however they could. In Bennett, dances were big business. The band, which consisted of a drummer, saxophone player and organist, played until dawn. On this particular evening, the band leader had bad news: "The organist is sick. Does anyone out there know how to play?"
Mom Davolt raised her hand. "My boy knows a few chords."
Faster than you could say "grab yer partner," Morey took the stage. That night, and for every dance thereafter for several months, he played until 4 a.m., milked the cows at 5 a.m., then scrambled to school by 8 a.m.
"You knew you had been somewhere when you tromped on that damn pump organ for four or five hours," he says.
When he was sixteen he bought his first guitar. It was a fluke, really. Back in Denver again, he wandered into a Montgomery Ward, where he picked out a no-name acoustic for $6.25 and also a 25-cent book of instructions.
"I took to it like a duck to water," he says. "I had been playing sax and piano, but nothing felt right. After I picked up that guitar, I drove Mom crazy playing 'My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean.'"
A year later he stood on the stage again. Prohi-bition had just been lifted, and beer gardens were popping up like weeds. Among them was Hart's Corner, which featured a drive-in bar and outdoor orchestra of fiddler, banjo, guitarist and singer.
Morey pulled his Model T coupe into Hart's every Saturday night. He wasn't old enough to drink beer, but he did anyway.
One time the fiddler saw Morey's guitar sticking up in the seat (he carried the damn thing everywhere) and said, "Can you play that thing?"
"I know a few chords."
"Well, get on up here."
It turned out the fiddler was Bruzz "Andy" Anderson, Colorado's old-time fiddle champion, and his guitar player was too drunk to play. He recruited Morey on the spot, taught him chords for the next song and winked at him during the changes.
A few hours later, Morey had seven new chords and a new career.
"That was the best job I ever had," Morey recalls. "I got one dollar a night, a cut from the kitty jar, a hamburger and a glass of beer."
6. COUNTRY BOY
Then Morey got really lucky.
He was just out of high school, working for a Forest Service warehouse unloading everything from razor blades to Caterpillar tractors. One afternoon he got a postcard from the federal government: He'd just been approved as a skilled helper for the Bureau of Printing and Engraving in Washington, D.C.
Morey was stunned. He'd applied for a messenger's job five years earlier, but he'd misspelled "bureau" and figured that was that. But there it was in writing: a real job. For a whopping $1,377 a year. Morey drove to Washington in 46 hours flat.
On his first day, shuttling printing supplies at the mint, he met Julia, the woman who would become his wife. Then he climbed the civil-service ranks in record time, moving from supply clerk to draftsman to designer of underwater torpedo tubes, pancake machine guns and various other wartime implements.
"In Washington, everything just clicked," Morey recalls. "But I worked like hell and had some common sense. And I knew some pretty secretaries, too."
Then he met the president.
It was a routine shift at the Naval Gun Factory. Morey sat at his drafting table designing some anti-Nazi device when a man in a wheelchair burst into the office flanked by two Secret Servicemen and several armed Marines.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
When the president tired of his White House duties, he apparently liked to visit munitions factories. On this particular afternoon, he wanted a tour.
"Well," Morey's boss said. "I have a young fella right here."
"Fine," he said. "That's fine."
For the rest of the day and during several visits afterward, Morey became Roosevelt's guide.
"He was just a big ol' country boy," Morey recalls. "We got along just like two peas in a pod. He could tell a dirty joke as good as anyone."
During a meeting of Washington brass, Morey was assigned to run a projector. Everyone was there, including a lieutenant who had been a famous Irish tenor. When Roosevelt found that out, he asked the man to sing. The tenor balked. How could he sing without musical accompaniment?
Morey's boss thought a minute.
"The guy in the projection booth plays guitar," he said.
Next thing he knew, Morey stood before the president and his staff playing "Wild Irish Rose."
"Roosevelt just ate it up," Morey recalls. "Loved us."
A few days later Morey got a call from the White House inviting him to perform during an informal dinner. That evening, an Arkansas senator asked Morey and his wife, who joined him on violin, if they knew any square-dance numbers.
He and Julia were invited back to the White House to perform.
7. A SONG
(Clears his throat)
"Oh what a time I had with Minny the mermaid/Down at the bottom of the sea/There among the corals/I forgot my morals/Boy, she was awful nice to me..."
Morey returned to Denver in 1950 to deactivate fire bombs at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal. But what he really wanted was to be a DJ.
At the time, only one station in town played hillbilly music, Englewood's KGMC, and then for only a few hours each day.
Morey and Julia had a regular slot on Channel 9's Barn Dance program. Morey thought people deserved more.
When the 6 a.m. slot opened at KGMC, he applied. He figured he could spin records and make it to the plant by 8 a.m.
During his audition, Morey played his favorite songs, read commercials, even whipped out his guitar and warbled off a few live tunes.
Afterward, owner Grady Franklin Maples said, "Get lost!"
He'd been around hillbilly music all his life. He'd performed for the President of the United States. He knew more about hillbilly music than most hillbillies.
"I'm going to be a disc jockey or else!" he vowed.
"Go ahead," Maples smirked. "Build your own station. Maybe you can sing then."
So Morey did.
First, though, he scoured the phone book, called every radio station in Denver (except KGMC), took copious notes, hired a first-class engineer, bought a 75-year-old farm house, located a frequency at the end of the dial (1580), rigged an 85-foot-tall tower, waded through yards of FCC red tape, bought a bargain-basement transmitter, assembled a crack staff of salespeople, auditioned disc jockeys, bought records, spent $12,500 of his own money, sat back and crossed his fingers.
On January 8, 1955, Morey put "This Old House" on the turntable and KLAK crackled to life.
"Driving home that night and listening to my car radio was one of the great, great satisfactions of my life," he recalls.
Taking a lesson from the Doc Brinkley school of radio, KLAK (Morey liked the sound of the call letters) featured "country-and-Western" music exclusively, except for an hour on Sundays, when it played Hawaiian melodies.
"Why Hawaiian music?" Morey asks. "Because I liked it, that's why."
The station had burlap soundproofing on the walls, a front porch that sagged, floorboards that creaked, a radio tower that leaned, clapboard walls that whistled in the wind, stray cats that wandered into the control room, and dogs that barked in the background.
Employees wore cowboy hats, cowboy boots, fringed jackets and bolo ties. The station had titles like "Ranch Hands" for the DJs, "Blacksmith" for the radio engineer and "Range Riders" for the sales staff. Morey was "Boss Man."
The control-room door was left open during broadcasts so listeners could hear office chitchat. Microphones were left on when the noon train rumbled by.
"People loved that country feeling," Morey remembers. "There were no formalities whatsoever."
Instead of offering trips to Las Vegas or Hawaii, KLAK gave away a hundred pounds of potatoes, ten pounds of hamburger, twenty-pound watermelons and gallons of ice cream. During weather reports, DJs glanced out the windows and announced, "Looks pretty hot out there. Might rain later."
"We did everything ass-backwards," Morey says. "But it worked. It worked."
At noon, Morey's band, The Ranch Hands, performed live for fifteen minutes. On Sundays Morey opened the station to the public. Everyone left with a candy sucker.
"I must have handed out 150,000 of them," he says.
There were a million stories, like the time a bed across the street picked up the radio signal and broadcast KLAK in its springs. Then there was the big snowstorm of 1957, when two DJs got stranded at the station for two days, broadcast a plea for food and watched Wild Bill Stephenson, who owned a grocery store, show up on skis with a stalk of bananas. Another time a skunk crawled under the station floor and stayed there until a game warden smoked it out with car exhaust.
"We hooked a mike to a cord and broadcast the whole thing live," Morey says. "Everyone loved it."
KLAK made number one within three years. Advertisers lined up, mail poured in, stars like Hank Williams visited on their way through town.
At the height of its success, in 1961, Morey sold KLAK to Ed "Sheriff Scotty" Scott, who hosted a kiddie show.
Morey made a pile of money with that station and a thousand friends. Funny thing, though, he never became a DJ.
9. MOREY'S GUITAR
A 1957 Martin D-28. The color of maple syrup and pancakes. Weighs more than other guitars. Has more volume, too, especially on the base strings. Hold it close to the microphone, that's all you need. The neck is straight and true; frets 100 percent accurate. When you give it a tune, it holds for months.
Elvis had one like it. When the King died, the guitar went for $125,000. Morey got his for free, from Happy Logan Music Co. as a trade for KLAK advertising time.
It doesn't have a nickname, but it should. It slides into Morey's hand like it's part of his body. After forty years, nothing else feels right.
10. JULIA'S VIOLIN
Julia studied classical violin at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio. She was a trained concert violinist and played with symphonies in Cleveland. After her parents divorced, she followed her mother to Washington, D.C. When she met Morey, she kept her violin under her bed. He taught her to play honky-tonk; she taught him to perform the classics. He couldn't read sheet music; she couldn't play without it.
Match made in heaven.
Morey and Julia worked up ten country-and-Western numbers and played the best lounges in D.C. and the worst bars in Denver. People paid good money to hear them sing.
Julia died six years ago. Morey kept her 220-year-old violin for a few years, then sold it for $20,500. When he closes his eyes, he can still hear it.
11. THE JUKEBOX IN HIS LIVING ROOM
Aw, hell, he doesn't know all the records in the damn thing. He picked it up somewhere in 1960 and hasn't changed it since. It's a Wurlitzer Centennial: bubble top, orange neon trim, chrome grill.
He plays it when he has company. He'd prefer to play live, but most of his bandmates have died. The instruments in the music room all have dust on them.
What do we have here..."Oklahoma Hills," by Hank Williams. "Slippin' Around," by Margaret Whiting and Jimmy Whitefield. "Daddy Played Bass," by Johnny Cash. "Indescribably Blue," by Elvis. "For the Good Times," by Ray Price. "Crying Time," by Dinah Shore.
Listen to that. Sure sounds pretty. Steel guitar dripping tears. Close your eyes. Let it soak in.
12. BLENDED WHISKEY AND LADIES' CIGARETTES
Morey owns two Cadillac DeVilles, one red and one white, the biggest models they make, the only cars he drives.
He built a pool in his backyard a while back. Poured some concrete.
He got a great auction deal on a mermaid coffee table. A deer trophy, too.
You know, his eyes don't work as good as they used to, but after he had his cataracts fixed, he sees 20/20. With his specs on, of course.
He has a nervous condition, ataxia. It makes him take itty-bitty shuffling steps. Frustrates the hell out of him.
Still smokes, though. Couple of packs a day. Misty extra longs. Ladies' cigarettes.
"I don't know how I got hooked on them," he says. "I think they were giving them away. I've been smoking since I was four years old. Used to sneak puffs from granddaddy's pipe when he set it down. I'm not quitting now."
He's still drinking, too. Seagram's Seven, blended whiskey.
"I've drank enough whiskey in my life to float a battleship," he grumbles. "But I'm down to a drink a day now."
He built another radio station in Estes Park, KKEP, then sold it.
He grows tomatoes with his buddy Ralph Clark, who's a master gardener.
He has lady friends, too. About four of them. The main one drops off little gifts now and then.
This makes Morey smile.
"I've always got along with women," he says. "I pat them on the butt and they like it just fine. I might walk like a drunk, but above the knees I'm raring to go. And I do, too."
Contact Harrison Fletcher at his online address, firstname.lastname@example.org, or by phone at 303-293-3553.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Denver, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.