People commonly note that Bleecker Street is a far cry from what it was half a century ago, with high-end retail chains replacing its bohemian past. But, thankfully, a few stars of that era have stayed alive, including the well-known music venue The Bitter End at 147 Bleecker Street. Since its opening in 1961, The Bitter End has remained a vital, iconic music club, providing a showcase for yet-undiscovered artists and an affordable, authentic Village experience for locals and visitors alike. And this year, that nearly sixty-year history will be honored with a Village Award at Village Preservation’s Annual Meeting and Village Awards on June 12th!
The Bitter End began as a coffee shop opened by impresario Fred Weintraub, who was able to attract artists and inspire audiences of all ages because the shop didn’t have a liquor license. 147 Bleecker previously housed a performance space called the Cock and Bull. Over time, The Bitter End evolved into a launching pad for new talent. And launch them they certainly did. Some of the artists who have performed there include Stevie Wonder, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Billy Joel, Patti Smith, Neil Diamond, Linda Ronstadt, Etta James, Simon and Garfunkel, and, most recently, Lady Gaga (then as Stefani Germanotta Band). Clearly, sixty years has in no way slowed this venue’s success.
Fred hired Paul Colby and Kenny Gorka from the band The Critters to help run the venue until Fred moved on in 1970 to oversee movie theaters. The two brought Paul Rizzo on board, having already known him as a local bartender involved in the music scene. Sadly, The Bitter End lost Paul Colby in 2014 and Kenny Gorka in 2015, and Paul Rizzo took over. Paul explains that the venue still attracts new up-and-coming talent through their long-standing open mic nights. Not only do so many of these artists rocket to stardom after their time at The Bitter End, but they often come back to perform after they’ve hit the big time. Andy Gibb, who broke around the time he had already scheduled gigs there, was determined to keep his commitment even though he was already booked at stadiums. And Lady Gaga still thinks fondly of The Bitter End as the place she got her start and in 2016 gave a special, free, late-night gig on the balcony to show her appreciation.
Paul says that the rapidly changing nature of today’s music industry poses a challenge for the venue. Thanks to YouTube and shows like The Voice or America’s Got Talent, some artists just come ready to sing over pre-recorded tracks. But his philosophy holds true to the methods Fred and Paul lived by. It’s all about maintaining an identity as a venue and supporting live music for all. They intentionally keep the admission and drink prices affordable so that their audiences can remain diverse. They feature about 5 performers a night, all encouraged to bring their own followers around for their shows, in order to continuously expose the venue to new admirers. Some patrons are returnee local fans and some are tourists, but everyone comes for the experience of a well-respected, legendary musical landmark.
Paul acknowledges that the neighborhood has also changed from its bohemian roots, but people still flock for its rich history, thankful that he works to keep the music alive. The venue’s owners have done exceptional work in keeping it an active, influential, and vibrant cornerstone of not only the Village but the whole New York City music scene, as it has been for decades.
Read more posts about The Bitter End here.