(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third article in a five-part series focused on internationally known music and concert promoter Ashley Capps, a Knoxville native who maintained his passion for his hometown while building a national brand.)
By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA
The good and bad experiences that came from starting and later closing Ella Guru’s provided a number of lessons for Knoxville’s Ashley Capps but, probably most important, AC Entertainment was born from the ashes.
It was the latter half of the 1980s decade with Capps booking more and more groups into Knoxville venues. Peter Calandruccio had a vision of the Old City being the entertainment district in Knoxville.
“Peter said I want you to open a club,” Capps says. “It opened before it was ready to open. It was still a construction site.”
The opening act was The Neville Brothers, and Ella Guru’s quickly earned a reputation as a great music club. Yet, Capps said there were dark clouds on the horizon, starting with the fact that the financial numbers were based on a capacity of 250 people, but the venue was only approved for 209.
The Old City location, now the site of the Melting Pot, closed, and Ella Guru’s briefly moved to The Foundry. The last performance at that location featured the Goo Goo Dolls on December 18, 1990, a week before Christmas.
“Sadly, it (the Ella Guru’s concept) was beginning to work,” Capps says, yet two factors sealed the club’s fate. One was the First Gulf War, codenamed Operation Desert Shield. It caused acts to quit touring. The other was the financial condition that resulted from the smaller than expected capacity of the initial location. “It was too much of a hole to dig out of,” Capps explained.
From our interview with the legendary promoter, this was certainly one of the darkest times in his life. “I had no idea of anything to do,” he says. Fortunately, from those connections he had made over the past decade, Capps got an unexpected but fortuitous call from an agent who referred to him as Ash Man.
“Winton Marsalis needs a date on January 24,” the agent said. “Find him a place.”
Capps says he tried to explain that he was broke, but the agent was having none of those excuses, so Capps relented and started exploring options. The Bijou Theater was not available, but the Music Hall at the University of Tennessee was.
The ashes of a month earlier clearly took on a different color when the Marsalis concert was a sell-out, and Capps made nearly $3,000.
“That was the birth of AC Entertainment,” he says. Less than a month later, Capps had booked two bands – one named Widespread Panic – on successive dates into the Bijou, and the race was on. He incorporated his new company four months later.
The journey has clearly been driven by his passion for music and his love of working with artists and their agents.
Over the ensuing 26 years, Capps has been involved with some of the biggest names in music as well as many of the emerging acts. Take Bob Dylan for example.
“During the 1990s, we did 60 of his shows as he rebuilt his career,” Capps says proudly. “We seized the moment and built our reputation because we cared . . . for the music, the artists, and their teams.”
That philosophy has also produced reciprocal support. Widespread Panic was the first band to say “yes” when Capps decided to launch Bonnaroo.
NEXT: Promoting concerts in his hometown and other cities of similar size.