CHEROKEE, Iowa | Wayne Morris sang two solos and received a rousing standing ovation during his funeral March 5 at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Cherokee.
Morris, 62, a member of the Iowa Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame, recorded “Unchained Melody” years ago. His widow, Mary Morris, had it piped through the sound system as the family processed at the start of the service. As the family departed, Wayne’s rendition again filled the sanctuary.
In between, Andrew Linn, a member of the Cherokee Community Theatre, joined the Rev. Magrey R. deVega in describing the many ways Morris kept lights shining and sound streaming for speakers, musicians, singers and actors in and around the Cherokee County seat.
You can add politicians and President George W. Bush to the list. Morris set up the sound system for Bush’s campaign stop at Le Mars Community High School in 2004.
Linn capped his funeral tribute by asking everyone in attendance to shower their praise on Morris, the sound man who toiled in silence as the dozens of performers he served took their bows. A raucous standing ovation would follow.
“Cherokee and Cherokee’s Jazz & Blues Festival lost a great friend in Wayne Morris’ passing,” Jim Adamson said on Friday. “I don’t know how we’ll replace him.”
Morris, it turns out, served his final Jazz & Blues Festival here on Jan. 16 and 17. He experienced shortness of breath on Jan. 19 as he and Mary loaded sound equipment into their truck, readying to return it to Omaha after another successful festival.
“Wayne wanted to go to the doctor the next day, after we got back from Omaha,” Mary said. “I told him we were going to the doctor right away.”
Wayne Morris was admitted immediately to the Cherokee Regional Medical Center. He spent nine days there before coming home for two weeks, a time in which he returned to work at R.J. Thomas Manufacturing in Cherokee, oxygen tank at his side.
Pneumonia then set in and 17 days later, Morris was taken by ambulance to UnityPoint Health -- St. Luke’s in Sioux City, where he stayed for 17 days. He died on Feb. 28, falling victim to pulmonary fibrosis and pneumonia.
“His lungs were scarred,” Adamson said. Mary added that it was likely the result of Wayne’s smoking for 15 years, his welding work for 28 years and the 25 years he spent entertaining the public in smoke-filled bars and dance halls.
Oh, he had a good time along the way. A tribute night at The Gathering Place in Cherokee became a memorial event as organizers Jomi Anderson and Jimmy Davis learned of Morris’ death minutes before the music began. Folks raised money that night and gave it to the sound man’s family.
Those performers and more came together on Thursday to do it again, playing at both The Gathering Place and Loft 101 in downtown Cherokee in a “Jammin’ for Wayne Morris Benefit” that featured food, music and dozens of auction items.
“Thursday was happy, healing and enjoyable,” Adamson said. “I just don’t know how we’ll get along without Wayne’s help.”
They’re saying the same thing at a number of venues in town, all served frequently by Morris. When a fire on Feb. 28, 2012, damaged St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, services were moved to the Cherokee Community Center for about seven months. Morris ran the sound system for the church each week as parishioners worshipped in their home away from home.
It was common to see him race from site to site during the Jazz Fest, making sure all sound systems were in working order.
While I knew of his work as a master sound technician, I didn’t know much about his performance days. Adamson laughed on Friday, recalling how Wayne, in his younger rock 'n' roll days, stood on tables and bars all across Cherokee to take his music from the stage to fans of The Senders and Phoenix, two bands he served.
“When the bands got together for reunions, Wayne would have hopped up on the bar to play, but he wasn’t sure how he’d get down,” Mary said with a laugh. She found a photo of their wedding reception. It’s not your typical bride-and-groom pose. Instead, the couple is dancing and Wayne has his arms wrapped behind Mary’s head as he plays guitar.
“He played guitar at his own wedding dance at the Cherokee VFW in 1997,” she said.
I’m sure he also had a shot of tequila that night, the vice he enjoyed at all sorts of shows. Cherokee bars stock tequila as performers sometimes seek a “Wayne Shot” after a show. It’s tequila, straight. No lime, no salt. Just tequila and a glass of iced water.
Many of those attending Wayne Morris’ visitation on the night of March 4 headed to the Gasthaus in downtown Cherokee for a “Wayne Shot.” His ashes, Mary pointed out, are now in their living room on the east side of Cherokee.
“Right up there,” she said, pointing to a shelf. “His ashes are in that tequila bottle.”
The show will go on, Adamson said, as it always does in Cherokee. But it will never sound the same.