Inducted: November 9, 2019

Walt Conley

Born on May 20, 1929, the year of the great stock market crash, Billy Robinson was adopted by Wallace and Ethel Conley, who raised him in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, as Walter Bell Conley. After his adoptive father died in 1944, Walt and his mother moved to Denver, where he graduated from Manual High School, one of the first integrated high schools in Colorado, in 1949.

He went to college on a football scholarship and spent his summers in the saddle, working on a ranch in northern New Mexico.

There he met Jenny Vincent, a local folksinger and activist who performed with the likes of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie; she also worked for Native American and Chicano rights causes. While working on the ranch, Conley met Seeger and other members of the Weavers, and it was Seeger who helped Conley get his first guitar and adapt his deep baritone voice to interpret the folk songs of the day.

Conley served in the Navy during the Korean War. According to biographer Tim Fritz, “Walt was one of almost 100,000 African-Americans who were on active duty in the U.S. armed forces during that time.” While stationed in New York City, Conley made it a point to see and meet such folk artists as Cisco Houston, Josh White and Woody Guthrie.

Building on his earlier ranch experience, Conley returned to New Mexico shortly after leaving the Navy in 1953 to get a job working on the film Salt of the Earth, which was based on the 1950 Mine-Mill Strike. That New Mexico labor action was led by wives of the miners, who fought for improved working conditions and basic rights for their husbands. (It may have been that exposure to the art of filmmaking, along with his study of drama in college, that influenced Conley’s move to Hollywood in the 1980s to build an acting and voiceover career.)

Conley went back to college at what would become the University of Northern Colorado, graduating with a degree in physical education and drama.

He taught junior high for a time until his music career forced him to make a decision between the two paths in the late 1950s.

He started as a Harry Belafonte-style calypso singer at the Windsor Hotel. “I’d sing a few songs in one [bar]. Then I’d race up the stairs to another and do a show there; then on to the third bar. It was the Belafonte era,” Conley remembered. “I was barefooted and wearing cut-off pants. It was a crazy way to perform, but I sure learned a lot of calypso songs” (Walt Conley & Company website). By 1958, Conley was appearing at various clubs and Colorado venues, including the Red Ram in Georgetown and in Denver at Little Bohemia, where he met Judy Collins. Collins suggested that he come and play at Michael’s Pub in Boulder.

In 1959, Hal Neustaedter opened the Exodus in the Raylane Hotel in downtown Denver, bringing the premier folk acts of the day to Colorado, including Josh White, Bob Gibson and Jimmy Driftwood.

According to Fritz, “On October 16, 1959, the Exodus hosted the Folk Festival…Denver’s first Folk Music Festival. Josh White was the headliner. The line-up included Walt Conley, Judy Collins, the Harlin Trio, George Downing, The Travelers, and Dave Wood among others.” A recording of the event, called Folk Festival at the Exodus, is still available as a hard-to-find LP, but it includes Conley singing “900 Miles,” “Worried Man Blues,” “Passing Through” and “John Henry.”

Around this time, Conley was asked to take over the booking at another Denver folk music venue, the Satire Lounge, where he reportedly booked the Smothers Brothers for their first Denver appearance and gave Bob Dylan a place to stay at his house near the club. As Denver folk legend Dick Weissman recalls, “It was a 24/7 running party.” According to Fritz, Dylan was not too keen on Conley’s more polished approach to performing, and he reported Conley as saying, “Dylan was thoroughly disappointed in me. Because I was black, he expected me to be a young Bill Broonzy or a young Leadbelly. Instead, he encountered a singing actor who knew his on-stage commercial worth. It was obvious to me that Bob thought I had sold out.”

Walt Conley Portraits

Conley Album Art

Conley’s first album, Passin’ Through, came out in 1961 on Premiere Records, a small Denver label.

It featured ballads, blues and traditional folk standards, including the title track, “Passin’ Through,” which became Conley’s ode to his life on the road.

In 1963, his second album, Listen What He’s Sayin’, was released on Studio City Records, another independent label, this one out of Minneapolis. Conley had been part of the Minnesota folk scene as far back as 1960, and actually played the Padded Cell, a folk venue in Minneapolis, the day after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Between 1966 and 1970, Conley played the Ice House in Pasadena with various folk acts and even a young comedian by the name of Steve Martin. During those years, he played clubs from California to New York, including the Bitter End, and at colleges across the Midwest.

Conley’s dual love of music and acting shifted toward drama as the folk revival of the 1960s ended. In Hollywood, he found work in television series like The Rockford Files and The Six Million Dollar Man and appeared in such movies as Prison for Children with John Ritter and Flashback with Dennis Hopper and Kiefer Sutherland. Because of his rich baritone voice, he was a sought-after voiceover actor in films like The Longest Yard and various TV and radio settings.

Back in Colorado, Conley opened the music venue Conley’s Nostalgia on South Broadway in 1983; he’d played the room back in 1958, when it was the Last Resort.

While the times had changed, Conley believed there was a place for the songs of the past. “Everyone in Denver is serving food, but no one else is serving folk music,” he said. “I’m looking for an era, a time. I don’t think that folk music is coming back. There aren’t going to be more ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone?’ All I want to do is eulogize the era. I love folk music. I know one thing: You can’t go back to stay. I can take you back for an hour. I can take you back for a night. I can sing the old songs, but I can’t make you young again.”

Conley closed the venue in 1987 and released his third and final album, After All These Years, under the name Walt Conley & Company.

Throughout his life, Conley was a champion for various causes, and in 1995 he celebrated 35 years as an actor and musician by holding a fundraiser for the Rocky Mountain Music Association (now the Colorado Music Business Association), a nonprofit group that promotes original music, at the Mercury Cafe. From that and other connections, Conley reinvented himself one more time by creating a music group dedicated to traditional Irish music. Asked why he had turned to that music, he replied, “What made a black man become a singer of Irish rebel songs? If the band U2 from Ireland can sing American blues, then I sure as hell can sing Irish folk songs!”

Conley record art

Walt Conley died on November 16, 2003; he was 74 years old.

His legend lived on in the annual “Waltfest” at Sheabeen Irish Pub, which raised money for the American Diabetes Association; that ended its run in 2017.

There are very few musician/actor/venue owners in the world, and we were blessed to have one of those rare individuals here in Colorado. The Colorado Music Hall of Fame was proud to induct Walt Conley as part of the Class of 2019.

“I know one thing — you can’t go back to stay. I can take you back for an hour. I can take you back for a night. I can sing the old songs, but I can’t make you young again.”

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