Music News

RIP: Chuck E. Weiss, a "Character of All Characters"

Chuck E. Weiss, who grew up in Denver, died on July 20.
Chuck E. Weiss, who grew up in Denver, died on July 20. ANTI- Reords
Chuck E. Weiss, who was immortalized in song by friends Tom Waits and Rickie Lee Jones, died on July 20 at the age of 76 after a long battle with cancer.

While Weiss had been a fixture in Los Angeles’s music scene since the late ’70s, helping launch the Viper Room with Johnny Depp and having a booth named after him at Canter's Deli, he grew up in Denver. He wrestled for Smiley Junior High School, backed up blues greats like Lightnin’ Hopkins (who later took Weiss on tour) at Chuck Morris’s Tulagi in Boulder and Ebbets Field in Denver, and taught a music-business class at the University of Colorado. He was also a disc jockey on rock station KFML-FM in the early ’70s.

Morris, former president and CEO of AEG Presents Rocky Mountains and now chairman emeritus for the concert promoter, was managing the Sink in Boulder when he first met Weiss, nearly five decades ago. Morris says they hit it off immediately and became best friends. When Morris was running Ebbets Field from 1973 to 1977, he and Weiss lived across the hall from each other in an apartment building at East Ninth Avenue and Pennsylvania Street.

Morris credits Weiss with saving his life in 1974 while the two were neighbors. Morris had overdosed on "some bad drugs," he remembers. "Weiss came running in and tried to revive me, and then he called the ambulance. I was in bad shape. Back then, the ambulances were always followed by the police if it was an obvious drug overdose. The police came into my apartment while I was lying semi-unconscious in the bathtub.

“My girlfriend at the time was screaming hysterically," Morris continues, "and Chuck E. was trying to help me, which he could do very well. The EMTs came in and resuscitated me and took me to the hospital. And while the cops came crawling right behind them, they noticed Chuck E., stopped everything they were doing and said, ‘You're Chuck E. Weiss, we think we have a warrant for your arrest.’ It was some minor thing, too.”

While Morris and Weiss did their share of partying in the ’70s, Morris has been sober since 1988. Weiss got sober, too, and went on to become a popular lecturer at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in Los Angeles.

Weiss spent so much time at Ebbets Field in the ’70s, he became an unofficial partner of sorts. During a five-night, sold-out run with Lynyrd Skynyrd in February 1974, Morris was sitting with Weiss at the bar near the back of the club when a drunk guy banged on the door, demanding to be let in.

“So we argued with this drunk guy for ten minutes,” Morris recalls. “And he was mumbling and trying to get in. And then all of a sudden he said, ‘But you guys don't understand. I just got back from India.' I don’t know if it was true or not. It didn't matter. Chuck E. and I looked at each other and said, ‘Oh, why didn't you tell us that?’ And we let him in. That was a typical Chuck E. Weiss/Chuck Morris story. It made no sense to let him in, but we both thought it made sense to us.”

Weiss had a satirical sense of humor in the vein of “Weird Al” Yankovic or Sacha Baron Cohen, Morris says: “He had a sense of humor that was really funny and bizarre and absurd, but really clever and brilliant."

In a bio that Weiss wrote to get gigs for his band, Morris recalls, the first line was: “I always wanted to sing like a black man and do business like a Jew but always ended up doing business like a black man and singing like a Jew.”

Jones wrote “Chuck E.’s in Love” about Weiss, and Waits sings about him in “I Wish I Was in New Orleans.” While the three spent a lot of time together at the Tropicana Hotel in Los Angeles in the late ’70s, Morris thinks that Waits and Weiss first met at Ebbets Field when Waits was in town for a gig.

"I was house drummer for this nightclub in Denver called Ebbets Fields," Weiss said in an interview promoting his 2014 ANTI- Records album, Red Beans & Weiss, "and I was trying to get a bunch of different artists to play with me on tape. If I liked the way somebody played, I’d ask them to come into the studio and record some stuff with me. And I think what happened was I saw Waits do some finger-poppin’ stuff at Ebbets Fields one night, and I went up to him after the show. I was wearing some platform shoes and a chinchilla coat, and I was slipping on the ice on the street outside because I was so high, and asked if he wanted to do some recording with me. He looked at me like I was from outer space, man. Next night I saw him at the coffee shop next door. We started hanging out together. We’ve been friends ever since."

"Those guys hit it off big time," Morris says of Waits and Weiss.

The two would go on to co-write “Spare Parts I (A Nocturnal Emission)” for Waits’s 1975 live album, Nighthawks at the Diner, and later wrote material for Weiss’s 1999 album Extremely Cool, which Waits produced with guitarist Tony Gilkyson. On the jazzy cut “Sonny Could Lick All Them Cats,” which sounds like a distant cousin of Waits’s “Diamonds on My Windshield," Weiss pays homage to famed boxer Sonny Liston, who used to live on Monaco Parkway, two blocks from where Weiss grew up.

Weiss toured and recorded with Sunnyland Slim, Dr. John and Willie Dixon, while also being part of the band P (which included Depp and Gibby Haynes of the Butthole Surfers) and fronting his own band, the Goddamn Liars, which had been together off and on since 1982.

When Weiss spoke with Westword in 2002, he talked about his music, which some critics have mistakenly deemed a Tom Waits knockoff. "Well, if Tom wasn't my best friend, that would bother me," Weiss said. "As far as what we do, our friendship and musical relationship has rubbed off on each other. We've influenced each other quite a bit."

In that same interview, Weiss lamented the lost treasures of Denver’s past, including the intersection of 23rd and Stout Street, which he’d used as the title of his 2006 album, 23rd and Stout.

"I heard the greatest con ever heard down there," Weiss said. "He told me, 'You go down to 23rd and Stout with $5,000 in yo' pocket. You be high, dead drunk, layin' in the gutter — it don't matter. You'll wake up the next mornin' on a nice, clean leopard-skin pillowcase, wit dat same $5,000 in yo' pocket...if you tell 'em Pork Chop sent you.' Right! You'd see characters like that everywhere, man."

And Weiss himself was a character.

“He was a darling sweetheart,” Morris says. “A character of all characters. There was nobody like him.”

The memorial service for Chuck E. Weiss is set for 1:45 p.m.. Monday, July 26, at Emanuel Cemetery in Denver. It will be livestreamed on Feldman Mortuary's YouTube channel.
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Jon Solomon writes about music and nightlife for Westword, where he's been the Clubs Editor since 2006.
Contact: Jon Solomon