By Patrick Prince
The Colorado Music Hall of Fame, a non-profit organization that celebrates the history of Colorado music, will exhibit over 60 never-before-seen photographs of Elvis Presley, Patsy Cline, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash and others through March 2017. The exhibit, “Backstage Past: The Photos of George Kealiher, Jr.,” focuses on the late Kealiher’s images mostly taken backstage at the Denver Coliseum during rock ‘n’ roll’s infancy. Before his death in January 2016, Kealiher bequeathed his photos to his caregiver, Lisa Ferreira, who donated the collection to the Colorado Music Hall of Fame, which is located at the Trading Post at Red Rocks in Morrison, Colorado.
“Among the stars that George photographed are Elvis Presley, Patsy Cline, Roy Orbison and a young Johnny Cash before he became the Man in Black,” CMHOF director G. Brown says. “The Rocky Mountain states had never witnessed live rock ‘n’ roll when they performed in the region.” Others represented in the exhibit include Faron Young, Wanda Jackson, Don Gibson, Ernest Tubb, Minnie Pearl, Cowboy Copas, Hawkshaw Hawkins, Ray Price, Kitty Wells and Little Jimmy Dickens.
The following is a brief interview with CMHOF director G. Brown.
How did Colorado Music Hall of Fame get involved exhibiting George Kealiher, Jr.’s photos?
G. Brown: Lisa Ferriera and her husband John delivered Meals on Wheels to George for several years, and when he eventually went into assisted living they volunteered as his caregivers, given that he had no surviving family and was all alone in the world. Before he passed last January, he gave them a shoebox filled with these amazing photos that no one has ever seen. Lisa contacted me, figuring — correctly — that the Colorado Music Hall of Fame was the proper home for the images to be shared.
Is there a specific photo that you’d like to share that has moved you personally, and why?
Brown: I have several favorites. The shot of Patsy Cline signing an autograph book outside of the tour bus captures her in her unadorned pre-stardom greatness, wearing a simple cowgirl dress. Love seeing Roy Orbison before he donned the trademark sunglasses, or a young Johnny Cash (with a equally young George Jones) in a white suit, before he became the Man in Black. The Elvis photo is the prize, though. What 21-year-old has ever looked cooler?
George Kealiher worked at the Rainbow Ballroom in Denver — what was the Ballroom scene like during the time George took photos?
Brown: I’m not an authority on the Rainbow. At 3,000 capacity, it was the biggest indoor dance hall in Denver and one of the best-known west of the Mississippi, according to Billboard. I don’t know that George took photos there, only that he hung out/worked the door as a teen. But his relationship with management allowed him — and his camera —backstage when they booked national acts at the newly constructed Denver Coliseum, which started operation in 1952.
What makes these photos so special for their place in both rock ’n’ roll history and Colorado history?
Brown: Country music was transitioning to rockabilly between 1956 and 1958, spearheaded by a young Elvis Presley. The national acts booked into the Denver Coliseum mirrored this trend, as performers from the Louisiana Hayride, the Grand Ole Opry and Ozark Jubilee showcased their talents in the Mile High City. Among them: the Louvin Brothers, Faron Young, Wanda Jackson, Don Gibson, Ernest Tubb, Minnie Pearl, Cowboy Copas, Hawkshaw Hawkins, Ray Price, Kitty Wells and Little Jimmy Dickens, along with the aforementioned Patsy Cline, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash…and, of course, Elvis.
Elvis exploded onto the American entertainment scene in 1956, after two years of recording blues and country songs in a small Memphis studio and playing backwater Southern towns. Colorado and the Rocky Mountain states had never witnessed live rock ‘n’ roll, but the newly crowned “king of rock ‘n’ roll” performed in every region of the United States. On April 8 in his breakout year, Presley played two shows at the Denver Coliseum, getting $4,000 for the gig.
For those who might not know, talk about the origins of The Colorado Music Hall of Fame. Is there a significance tied in with the Red Rocks Amphitheatre?
Brown: The Colorado Music Hall of Fame presented by Comfort Dental honors those individuals who have made outstanding contributions, preserves and protects historical artifacts, and educates the public on everything that makes our state’s music great.
A 501(c)(3) non-profit organization currently located at the Trading Post at Red Rocks, CMHOF provides a dynamic, hands-on environment designed for thousands of visitors to learn about Colorado music history. Colorful and entertaining exhibits are devoted to dozens of Colorado acts that have contributed to the regional music scene since 1900, with bios, photos, audio/video and memorabilia.
Each year, the Colorado Music Hall of Fame fetes newly inducted legends with an induction concert to celebrate in our musical community. These gala affairs are major fundraising events. All events to date have been sold-out. Past inductees include John Denver and Red Rocks Amphitheatre (at 1stBank Center); concert promoter Barry Fey and Harry Tuft of the Denver Folklore Center (at the Stadium Club at Folsom Field); KIMN radio, the Astronauts, Sugarloaf and Flash Cadillac (at the Boulder Theater); and Judy Collins, the Serendipity Singers, Bob Lind and Chris Daniels (at the Paramount Theater).
CMHOF’s 2015 induction event at the Paramount Theater honored the class of Stephen Stills/Manassas, Firefall, Poco and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Highlights included a tribute to Manassas featuring Nathaniel Rateliff; a gathering of the original members of Firefall; the assemblage of Poco’s classic Colorado lineup with Timothy B. Schmit returning from the Eagles; and Jimmy Ibbotson’s reunion with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. AXS TV filmed the evening; it premiered in the North American broadcast market on March 20, 2016.
A “20th Century Pioneers” class of 2016 pays tribute to legendary bandleader Glenn Miller, Paul Whiteman (“the King of Jazz”), Max Morath (“Mr. Ragtime”) and two more Colorado performers ranked as the biggest record-sellers of the period 1900-1920, Billy Murray (“the Denver Nightingale”) and soprano Elizabeth Spencer. The Glenn Miller Orchestra and the incomparable Lannie Garrett performed at the induction event at the Glenn Miller Ballroom on the University of Colorado-Boulder.
The Hall’s merchandise area includes branded apparel and three coffee-table books published under the CMHOF imprint. More info at the CMHOF website (cmhof.org), which features upcoming events and on-demand listening.
Will there be more rock exhibits like this one?
Yes, there will be a special exhibit on the Grateful Dead’s history in Colorado, coming next summer. Another current exhibition is “Luthiers of Colorado,” which explores handmade guitars by Colorado’s finest builders (Harry Fleishman, Larry Pogreba, Chuck Ogsbury, Michael Bashkin, Max Krimmel, DW Stevens and NBN) as well as a tribute to Woodsong’s Lutherie and the art of repair and restoration, plus the Ripple Creek acoustic guitar (built entirely out of native wood).