Hillel (Hilly) Kristal was a remarkable person, very unconventional and unique. He was a person with so many interests, but, ultimately, one passion: MUSIC. Music was his life.
He was born in 1931 during the Great Depression to Bertha and Shamai Kristal, who at that time were living in New York City. By the time he was six months old, Hilly’s life would center on a chicken farm in rural Hightstown, New Jersey. He studied violin, starting from a young age, and continued to play the instrument throughout his life.
In the early 1950s, Hilly served in the U.S. Marine Corps. Luckily, because of his background as a performer, he was assigned to special services in the entertainment division. He was stationed at Cherry Point Airbase in North Carolina, where he worked at the radio station WCPR. His friend, Dick Joseph, was the writer and producer, and Hilly was an all-purpose performer. They did comedy sketches and spoofs of old radio shows like The Shadow, where Hilly could put his deep voice to good use. Hilly also read the news and hosted classical music shows. Between announcing assignments, he would practice his violin, play the ukulele, and write and sing country songs.
After his stint in the U.S. Marine Corp., Hilly sang in the men’s chorus at Radio City Music Hall, sometimes as a soloist capable of hitting bass C. By his early to mid-twenties, he had taught himself to play guitar, piano, and many other instruments, surrounding himself with their presence.
At one point in the 1950s, Hilly was on the verge of being signed by Atlantic Records. The President of Atlantic, Herb “Doc” Abramson, took an interest in Hilly’s music. When Doc left Atlantic to form his own record label, he offered Hilly a deal. Atlantic also wanted him, but in true Hilly fashion, he decided to go with the independent, thinking that he would be one of the label’s first and most prominent artists. He recorded four songs for Abramson in the folk style he loved that was being popularized at the time by groups like the Brothers Four and the Kingston Trio. But within a few months, the fledgling label folded and thus ended a promising recording career before it even had a chance to begin. Hilly was devastated but stayed in music and never stopped writing and singing.
Hilly also has an unusual connection to Elvis Presley. Somehow, Hilly befriended the legendary songwriter Otis Blackwell, who penned many of Elvis’ signature songs, including “All Shook Up” and “Don’t Be Cruel.” Late in his life, Otis sent Hilly one of his songs, “Everybody’s Buddy,” which is a comical ditty about a man who is condemned to romantic purgatory because everyone thinks of him as just a buddy, women included. Hilly is the only artist to ever record and release the song, thus sharing a personal songwriter with Elvis Presley. (You may find him singing the song on his cd, Mad Mordecai).*
During the early 1960s, Hilly managed the Village Vanguard and booked many jazz artists of that time, including Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, and John Coltrane, who were all regular performers. While Hilly was working at the Vanguard, he became friendly with Lenny Bruce, one of the club’s top attractions.
After managing the Vanguard, Hilly produced a college folk and jazz tour for the Ford Motor Company when a young President, Lee Iacocca, was trying to market his car, the Mustang, to young people. The Ford Caravan of Music brought Jazz and Folk Artists such as Herbie Mann, Nina Simone, George Shearing, Roger Miller, The Serendipity Singers, as well as many others, to colleges and universities throughout the United States.
By the mid-1960s, married for several years now, and raising a family, Hilly, with Ron Delsner, founded the Rheingold Central Park Music Festival. At the same time, Hilly opened Hilly’s, a restaurant and bar at 62 West 9th Street that held a musical showcase every weekend. Bette Midler was one of many people who would perform at Hilly’s, running downtown from her performance on Broadway in Fiddler on the Roof. Following Hilly’s on 9th Street, he opened Hilly’s on the Bowery, where folk and country music could be heard. Hilly’s on 13th Street came next with more country, and finally, Hilly created CBGB. It, too, was supposed to be country, but as we all know, that didn’t quite work out.
Hilly’s masterpiece was CBGB. He was the heart, soul, brain, and muscle of the club. In December 1973, after numerous forays into varied aspects of music, Hilly decided to open a club that would highlight the kind of music he loved, country, bluegrass, and blues. CBGB (Country BlueGrass Blues) was born. OMFUG (Other Music for Uplifting Gormandizers), the letters under the famous logo, was later described by Hilly as “what we do”. When Hilly wrote the letters OMFUG, it is clear he had no idea just exactly how “other” this other music would be. In his own words, Hilly described CBGB as “a place where [they] could express frustrations, desires, anxieties, and maybe even dreams”. He sacrificed all he had to make his dream a reality, living in the back of the club and doing art and household moving jobs on the side.
Life and music took an unexpected turn, and CBGB became the birthplace of American punk and the launching pad for scores of bands. Anyone could play, even if they couldn’t really play, as long as they performed original material. Determined to book only original bands, Hilly’s first year at CBGB tested his patience and persistence. He continued to encourage the bands to do their own thing. By 1976, Hilly’s prominence as the Father of Punk Rock and Punk Rock music itself was well on its way to becoming the newest and hottest revolution in music to date. His incomparable love of originality created an atmosphere of safe chaos, where musicians and artists felt free to break all the rules, an infectious feeling that rippled through a generation of individuals and is still very much alive today. So the Ramones played, and Patti Smith, and the Talking Heads, and Blondie, and so, so many more. And over time, this place became world known.
People in Japan, Holland, Britain, and all over would know of CBGB and Hilly Kristal. Hilly was one of many icons in Swindle Magazine’s first Icon Issue. The last paragraph of the article about Hilly sums him up the best: “There are few people who have been on hand for so much of the history of 20th-century music, and it’s more remarkable still that Hilly Kristal has never been interested in cashing in on his legacy. The club never made very much money, always booked plenty of unknown acts that stayed unknown, and at least of late, has been supported largely by T-shirt sales. It doesn’t bother Kristal.” Quoting Hilly in the last paragraph, “I’m sitting here looking out on the Bowery and what it’s been for 33 years. I don’t know if it’s greed and wanting more money – and in this city, people always want more — but I never did. My main purpose was to find new bands and new artists. I say, ‘I,’ but it was ‘we,’ everyone here at CBGB. That’s what it’s about.” -SWINDLE Magazine First Annual ICONS Issue [Paperback], Roger Gastman (Editor) 2006.
Hilly created CBGB because of his passion for music and then created CBGB Fashions to keep that music going. Hilly absolutely adored his grandchildren, Jenny and Adam, who were his truest sources of joy, especially in his final years. Nothing gave him more pleasure than hearing about their lives and accomplishments. Both of them were a great support to him when he became sick, and being with them was his most effective tonic. In the end, the only things he wanted to talk about were Jenny, Adam, and the club.
In a letter that Jenny, his granddaughter, wrote to her friends and family, she included the following. ”I have a lifetime of memories, starting back from before I can remember. And I know, even as the lights go out tonight and as the last of patrons have left the club, and as the doorman locks up, those memories won’t go away. And I treasure that. I treasure the fact that I can say my grandfather has done something for this world and that I had this amazing opportunity my whole life to be, in the smallest way, a part of that.” Don’t we all feel like that? Anyone who played, worked, or patronized the club.
On August 28, 2007, Hilly passed away after battling lung cancer for more than a year. Many tributes were paid to him in addition to those of his family, including those by Tina Weymouth, Chris Franz, Debbie Harry, Patti Smith, and Steven Van Zandt.**
“He was the most genuine of men, but Hilly was also a paradox. He never really liked loud music or crowds, yet he was always in the center of both. He was a pioneer of punk rock who loved classical, folk, country, and jazz. He was a gentle giant with a temper and a soft side. He could be extremely quiet and very, very loud. He was an accomplished violinist and a skilled carpenter. He was a soldier who spent a war helping soldiers to take their minds off the war. He was a visionary businessman with no real care for making money. He dressed like a lumberjack but had the mind and passion for books of a college professor. He was a great film buff and loved the classics and foreign films, but he also had a taste for true trash. Hilly represented what was best about New York, artistic, unique, tough, strong, with a huge heart. He was un-pasteurized, un-homogenized, and totally original, and we will miss him.” Robert Sharenow, 2007.