Hilly Kristal: 1931 to 2007
I first met Hilly Kristal in the summer of 1974, when the Ramones made their debut at his club, CBGB. At the time he was quite an imposing figure — tall, brawny, and dressed like a lumberjack — and I was a bit nervous talking to him. When I asked what he thought of us, he said that he liked the band and wanted us to come back.
Hilly opened the club to feature the music that he loved, which was country, bluegrass and blues, so he named the club CBGB. But he did not wish to limit himself so he added the name OMFUG, which stood for Other Music For Uplifting Gourmandizers. It was this other music that was to be the hallmark of the club since, at the time, there were not many country or bluegrass acts in the city.
Hilly was a unique person who appreciated original talent and innovative artists. He created a great environment for the nurture of upcoming acts. He knew which performers had something special to offer, and right away there was an eclectic blend of musical styles that were featured in the club. Groups such as Television, Blondie, Ramones, Talking Heads and Patti Smith all had their own individual sound.
In the early days, Hilly gave the place the feel of a small social club. There was a pool table next to the stage, and, up front there was a comfortable couch and a small, well-stocked bookshelf. Every now and then a song would come on the jukebox, a country ballad sung in a deep, bass voice, and we wondered who it was. It turned out to be Hilly himself. In the past he had been a professional singer and guitar player. We also found out that he had previously been involved with the New York folk music scene booking some famous folk clubs in the ’60s.
When Hilly realized that the bands he was booking had something special, he put on a festival. This event was so successful that soon the place was packed regularly, and as a result, there were changes. Hilly decided to refurbish the club, removing the pool table and replacing it with a tall stage. He also installed a first-rate sound system which, at the time, was the best in the city. This was when the club became world-famous and the testing ground for many renowned acts that passed through.
Whenever I visited the club, Hilly was always happy to see me. In an eager voice he would fill me in on the newest ideas he had for CBGB. Through the years he put in a 24-track recording studio, expanded next door to open the CBGB Gallery, and later furnished a third club in the basement of the original venue. He also discovered that the CBGB logo looked great on a T-shirt. I was glad to help him out when he was fighting his landlord to keep CBGB open, and it was a sad day when he lost the fight in October 2006. Hilly died less than a year later, on August 28, of lung cancer.
Hilly’s original idea has come full circle; many of the artists who played there in new wave, punk, and indie bands have gone on to play music of the genres he loved so much — country, bluegrass and blues. I am presently playing music steeped in old-time and bluegrass influences in my duo Uncle Monk. In the end, the music he encouraged lives on.