History p. 2
Working with limited capital, a store location without a lot of foot-traffic, and no advertising budget to speak of, the pair faced a formidable challenge: how to get the word out about their new venture. Soon, however, an opportunity presented itself. Walt was disgusted with the poor sound quality of a local radio station’s regular weekend concert broadcasts from Ebbets Field, a downtown Denver nightclub. “I called Don Zucker, KFML’s general manager, and told him that I could dramatically improve the quality of the broadcasts, and I would do it in exchange for advertising — he wouldn’t have to pay us. Well, he thought that was a great idea – especially the part about not having to pay us. We tagged all the shows with the line ‘Sound by ListenUp’ and they ran a ton of radio spots for us.”
Eventually the strategy worked wonders. The live concert broadcasts became a radio mainstay in the area, generating much-needed exposure for the fledgling firm (as well as Ebbets Field, which was named Billboard magazine’s “Club of the Year” in 1975 and 1976), and the phrase “Sound by ListenUp” became a badge of honor for both commercial venues and residential systems. In the short term, however, there was a lot of sweat-equity contributed by the young entrepreneurs.“We were open from 10 ’til 10 seven days a week,” says Steven, “and when we got the Ebbets Field gig we either traded off going down there or we had to close early. We’d broadcast and tape the show, then go back to the shop and listen to the tape, because we were so busy during the actual show we didn’t have a chance to enjoy it. It was a pretty hectic schedule.”
This treasure trove of tapes also provided source material that was much more sonically advanced than LPs of the day. “Although there’s a lot to love about LPs,” says Walt, “they have a tendency to get noisy and they have a fairly limited dynamic range. They couldn’t match the fidelity of reel to reel. Those tapes fed our passion for trying to get closer to the performance, and they gave us a better source that allowed us to evaluate equipment – they helped us hone our views about exactly what equipment was audiophile-quality and what was just run of the mill. We had been at the live performance and we made the tapes ourselves, so we knew exactly what they were supposed to sound like.”
As you can imagine, these “salad days” are remembered pretty fondly. “We worked with a whole bunch of crazy musicians, their sound guys and roadies, so there was a certain amount of hijinks that went on,” recalls Walt.
Ebbets Field: a Denver legend
Ebbets Field, located on the first level of Brooks Towers near 15th and Curtis streets, was Denver’s premier music venue of the seventies. Founded by concert promoter Chuck Morris, the tiny club’s four-year run saw an amazing array of star power–J.J. Cale, Ry Cooder, Dr. John, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Peter Frampton, Dan Hicks, Kraftwerk, Little Feat, Taj Mahal, Don McLean, John Prine, Bob Seger, Robin Trower, Tom Waits, Jerry Jeff Walker, Muddy Waters and scores more. ListenUp has dug deep into its archive of tapes to create a series of Live From Ebbets Field CDs. Volume 3 and Volume 4 are available from our online store.
Custom installation and big-time commercial systems
ListenUp did one of its first true custom installations at Tante Louise restaurant in East Denver in 1975. “Corky Douglas wanted to have a great sound system that fit into his upscale décor,” remembers Steven. “So we pre-wired the place and then hung some wall-mounted flat-panel speakers – an idea that was pretty advanced for its time. We added a Crown professional open-reel tape machine, and I even recorded some tapes so he’d have something to play.”
Other custom systems followed, both in commercial establishments (including quite a few discos and fern bars, one suspects) and homes, and a number of them included the then novel product category of on-wall speakers. By 1978 ListenUp had opened a full-fledged commercial/professional sound division, which eventually created large-scale systems at such well-known venues as the old Mile High Stadium, Folsom Field at the University of Colorado, Hughes Stadium at Colorado State University, Fiddler’s Green Amphitheater, and the National Western Stock Show Complex, to name just a few.
Several years after Ebbets Field ended its glorious run in 1976, concert promoters Barry Fey and Chuck Morris were looking for a new, bigger room. They finally decided on a location at Monaco and Evans in Southeast Denver and named their new 1,300-seat venue the Rainbow Music Hall. ListenUp installed the sound system, as well as an on-location recording studio for more live broadcasts and taping.
“We created a pretty amazing system – it still gets talked about,” says Walt. “We were doing more live broadcasting than had ever been done in Denver’s history. We worked with KADX, KHOW, KBPI, KFML and several others. The stations covered a lot of ground – jazz, country, rock, free-form. And we worked with some of the legends of the music industry, such as Bob Dylan, Miles Davis and U2. It really was a heady time, with a lot of exposure for ListenUp and the Rainbow, which was, like Ebbets, named Billboard magazine’s ‘Club of the Year.’ Then we branched out into classical, recording the Denver [now Colorado] Symphony Orchestra, and the National Repertory Orchestra, too.”
By the early eighties, having made a name for itself in both professional and residential systems (how often do you get to buy equipment from an outfit that has worked with Bob Dylan?), ListenUp was uniquely positioned to take advantage of the seismic change about to hit the audio world.