John Boylan made music in Buffalo — and music history around the globe.
The trajectory of his extraordinary career begins at the old Limelight Gallery on Edward Street, where he sang folk tunes circa 1960-63. Just a few years later he was producing albums for heartthrob Ricky Nelson. And by now he’s produced more than 50 albums that have sold more than 40 million records.
On New Year’s night you can see Boylan in the documentary "Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice," which will air on CNN at 9 p.m. The documentarians included him in their film for the simple reason that you can’t fully appreciate her voice without hearing from his: Boylan is her longtime manager and confidante.
His place in American music history is assured by this fact alone: When Ronstadt asked him to put together a backup band for her circa 1970-71, he recruited four talented but relatively unknown musicians who would work with her for a year and then strike out on their own.
You may have heard of them. The Eagles are one of history’s best-selling rock bands.
Among the acts Boylan has worked with over the years are a sort of who’s who of the industry: Charlie Daniels Band, Little River Band, KBC Band, Boston — not to mention the Muppets.
“I got extremely lucky getting great artists,” Boylan says. “Let’s face it, that’s the secret. Get a great artist and you’ll be fine, unless you screw it up. I guess I was professional enough not to screw it up.”
Boylan, 78, saw his first Bills game in 1949; he was 7 and they played in the old All-America Football Conference. “I’m a lifelong fan,” he says. “This (current version) is a team to get excited about.”
On trips home he makes pilgrimages to Ted’s for hot dogs, Anderson’s for frozen custard, Charlie the Butcher or Coles for beef on weck – and Anchor Bar for wings. (He sometimes played guitar at the Anchor Bar when his girlfriend sang there in the era when wings were invented.)
Boylan took up the accordion as a boy after seeing Dick Contino on the Milton Berle Show. He was a paper boy delivering The Buffalo Evening News in his Snyder neighborhood when he saw a story about Contino getting busted for draft evasion.
“That kind of soured me on the accordion,” Boylan says. “Stupid reason, of course, as I can see now.” So he switched to a Gibson LG-O guitar that he got at Kubera’s Music Store on Fillmore.
Boylan figures his earliest music influence came when he was age 5 and his father was stationed at an Army hospital in Tacoma, Wash. He got the measles while his mother was pregnant with his brother Terence so his father put him in the hospital. That’s where African American orderlies introduced Boylan to rhythm and blues.
“They taught me the big R&B hit of the day called, ‘Open the Door, Richard,’ ” he says. “They’d bring me my lunch and knock on the door and I’d say, ‘Open the door, Richard!’ — and they’d laugh.”
A later influence was WKBW radio, where he’d listen to George “Hound Dog” Lorenz spin records. “He was the first to play rock and R&B and soul,” Boylan says, then slips into his DJ voice: “WKBW – 1520 on your dial.”
Boylan’s father, who taught at the University at Buffalo med school, owned an extensive collection of folk albums, introducing Boylan to Burl Ives. His father’s best friend was John Dwyer, music critic of the Evening News, who would get them backstage passes to jazz concerts, memorably including Miles Davis.
Boylan spent the eighth and ninth grades in England when his father taught there, and 10th grade at St. Joe’s when the family returned. He spent 11th grade in England again and 12th grade at Amherst Central. Then he enrolled at UB before dropping out to pursue acting.
Boylan got drafted and served in the Air Force Reserves and then enrolled at Bard College, where he majored in theater. He moved to New York, looking for acting jobs by day and playing music by night with his brother in a Greenwich Village joint called the Night Owl.
“That was my day job,” Boylan says. “My day job was a night job.”
His brother got them gigs writing songs for a publishing house. Soon Boylan stopped performing; his brother would go on to write and record a top-10 hit called “Shake It.”
“Making the publishing demos and working in the studios really fired me up and then I became a record producer,” Boylan says. “My first break came in 1967 when I was hired by Ricky Nelson to do an album. I put together a group for him called the Stone Canyon Band.”
Boylan moved to Los Angeles in 1967 and began working with Ronstadt in 1970. They were reunited in 1999, at first for him to produce a Christmas album for her and then to be her manager. Ronstadt retired in 2009; she was losing her singing voice to Parkinson’s.
“It was awful,” Boylan says. “She said, ‘I can’t sing anymore.’ I was tasked with a couple of things. First, what can she do instead? She was still active. She didn’t want to sit down and die or anything, you know. The first thing I did was get her a book deal with Simon and Schuster.”
“Simple Dreams, A Musical Memoir” was a bestseller that would become the basis for the documentary that will air New Year’s night. Boylan is the documentary’s music supervisor.
“Believe me, that’s a job,” he says. “A movie might have eight or 10 songs. This one had 75. It was a fricking nightmare. I’m talking about the paperwork and the clearances.”
Next, he says, will come a Ronstadt biopic along the lines of “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Rocket Man.”
“The odd truth,” Boylan says, “is I’ve been busier since she retired.”
Ronstadt was elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013. President Barack Obama awarded her the National Medal of Arts in 2014. And she was awarded Kennedy Center Honors this year.
Boylan earned his own honors in 2004 when he was elected to the Buffalo Music Hall of Fame.
“The musicians coming out of Buffalo need to get more attention paid to them,” he says. “That’s why the Buffalo Music Hall of Fame is such a good idea. I’m not just talking about Ani DiFranco, the Goo Goo Dolls and Rick James. I’m talking about people like Eric Andersen, and John Kay from Steppenwolf, like Mel Lewis — probably the greatest big band drummer of all time — just great musicians who have come out of there who are unsung.”
Boylan is unsure why Buffalo is an incubator for music greatness. He just knows it is.
“There’s something about the atmosphere,” he says. “Maybe because it’s a border town. Maybe that it’s a college town. Maybe that it’s blue-collar. Who knows why? But it’s the spirit of the people of Buffalo. That’s a good thing and I’m totally glad I grew up there.”