Jack Boyle, a self-described “tone deaf” concert promoter who turned Washington, D.C.’s tiny Cellar Door music club into a venue that hosted the likes of Neil Young and Miles Davis, and who went on to build a lucrative production and promotion empire that booked hundreds of acts across the country, died Dec. 10 at his son’s home in Rancho Santa Fe, California. He was 83.
The cause was complications from dementia, said his son, also named Jack Boyle.
Boyle was known less for his musical taste than for his no-nonsense business style. Still, he developed close relationships with musicians including Kris Kristofferson, with whom he drank (and sometimes fought) in the balcony of the Cellar Door, and members of the Mamas & the Papas vocal group, for whom he bought new instruments when the band was starting out.
“Jack was one of the original powerhouse architects of the concert industry,” said Seth Hurwitz, the owner of the 9:30 Club and the Anthem in Washington, who as chairman of the Washington-based promotion and production company I.M.P. has largely succeeded Boyle as chief impresario of the region’s music scene.
Boyle made perhaps his greatest impact in Washington but was based for many years in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where he oversaw a company that booked venues throughout the East Coast and Midwest.
Cellar Door Productions, named for Boyle’s flagship venue, produced more than 500 events each year and reportedly grossed up to $100 million annually, booking acts such as the Rolling Stones, Madonna, Pink Floyd, the Dave Matthews Band, U2 and The Who, as well as overseeing high-profile events including Fourth of July concerts on the National Mall and entertainment for President Ronald Reagan’s second inauguration.
The entire business, Boyle said, was the result of a few lucky hands in poker in the early 1960s. He invested his $1,100 winnings in some of the Washington bars he had frequented as a student at Georgetown University, and he quit his day job - working as a systems analyst for the federal government - after he realized he was “paying somebody twice as much to run the bars as I was making working for the government.”
Boyle purchased the Cellar Door, then known as the Shadows, in 1963 and sold it the same year before buying it back in 1970. His interest was piqued after he scheduled a Fats Domino concert in 1965.
The Cellar Door was considered one of the finest music venues in the country in the 1960s and ’70s, renowned for its intimate seating arrangements and strict no-talking policy. Several acclaimed live albums were recorded at the club, including “Live-Evil” (1971) by the jazz trumpeter Davis and “Live at the Cellar Door” (2013), made by the singer-songwriter Young during a six-night residency in 1970.
The venue’s small size — Washington’s fire marshals eventually limited its capacity to 125 — led Boyle and his business partner, Dave Williams, to sell the club in 1981. (Re-christened the Door, it was shuttered one year later.)
In addition to the Cellar Door, Boyle and his company owned Washington-area venues including the Bayou and the Crazy Horse in Georgetown and the country-focused Stardust Inn in Waldorf, Maryland.
Booking and producing events became the company’s priority in the early 1970s, after Boyle scored six nights’ worth of Cellar Door revenue from a single Gordon Lightfoot concert he had arranged at Constitution Hall. Cellar Door Productions soon secured exclusive booking rights to the Capital Centre sports arena in Landover, Maryland, the first of several large venues overseen by Boyle and his team.
Boyle went on to build the Nissan Pavilion, a 25,000-person amphitheater that opened in Bristow, Virginia, in 1995 and is now known as Jiffy Lube Live. The venue made Cellar Door Productions the only production company to own a major amphitheater without partners, The Washington Post reported at the time.
When Boyle sold his company in 1998 to the entertainment conglomerate SFX for more than $100 million, he was considered the last major independent concert promoter in the country. Staying on for several years with SFX, a precursor to what is now known as Live Nation, he chaired the music division and received an honorary title: Commissioner of concerts.
John Joseph Boyle Jr. was born in Warren, Ohio, on March 20, 1934, and grew up in nearby Youngstown. His father was a lawyer who died when Jack was about 13, leading the younger Boyle to work as a gas station attendant, golf caddie and overnight factory worker to support the family, according to an account in Washington radio broadcaster Cerphe Colwell’s memoir “Cerphe’s Up.”
He served in the Air Force and reportedly received two bachelor’s degrees simultaneously in 1959, from Georgetown and what is now Youngstown State University.
His marriage to Judy Boyle ended in divorce. The former Janet Arnold, his wife of several decades, died in 2013. In addition to his son from his first marriage, survivors include two sisters and three grandchildren.
Boyle gave few interviews, but when he did speak publicly, he often noted the volatile nature of his profession.
“Basically, a promoter is a banker who gives non-recourse loans at high interest rates. If the show wins, he collects money at a high interest rate for what he risked, and if it loses, he has no recourse to get his money back. So our only inventory besides goodwill is cash,” he once told Pollstar, a trade magazine for the concert industry.
“I can’t think of any of us who would want our children to do it.”