← Back

Hilly Kristal’s Long Road to the Bowery and Rock and Roll Legend

Hillel (Hilly) Kristal, founder of legendary rock club CBGB, was born on September 23, 1931 in New York City. His early life, well into adulthood, might not have given any hint of the legendary status he would earn in the Pantheon of rock and roll, and particularly as one of the prime forces behind the punk revolution of the 1970s.

The son of Russian Jewish immigrants Bertha and Shamai, Kristal grew up in Hightstown, New Jersey, where he studied music from a young age. He later attended the Settlement Music School in Philadelphia and joined the Marines. He then moved back to New York City where he was a singer in the men’s choral group at Radio City Music Hall. From there, he become the manager of the Village Vanguard, where he booked artists including Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, and John Coltrane. In the mid-1960s he co-founded the Rheingold Central Park Music Festival and opened Hilly’s, a restaurant and bar at 62 West 9th Street. In 1969, he headed to the Bowery.

Hilly Kristal in front of his venue CBGB’s in 1991

The Venue

Kristal opened a biker and dive bar at 313-315 Bowery called “Hilly’s on the Bowery”.  In 1972, Bill Page and Rusty McKenna persuaded Krystal to allow them to book gigs, and the concept of the venue shifted. Renamed CBGB in 1973, “Country, Bluegrass, and Blues,” the bands booked turned out to be not very country, bluegrass, or blues. The music they played was something brand new, so Kristal added the OMFUG “& Other Music for Uplifting Gormandizers.” Kristal noted that gourmandizer is a voracious eater. In this case, a voracious eater of music.

CBGB After Joey Ramone’s Death in 2001, via our Historic Image Archive www.archive.gvshp.org

Kristal had two very DIY rules for the bands that played at CBGB. 1) they must carry their own equipment, and 2) they must play mostly original songs. The precursor-to-punk music being played at CBGB in its early days varied greatly from the disco, pop and bloated corporate “arena” or “album-oriented rock” (AOR) music of the day. Kristal said “The height of the Disco era brought an increasing dissatisfaction among rock musicians and their fans. The formula-driven disco music and the long drawn out solos and other complexities in much of the rock of the late sixties and early seventies encouraged a lot of disgruntled rock enthusiasts to seek the refreshing rhythms and sounds of simple (BACK TO BASICS) high energy rock and roll, which seemed to take shape right here at CBGB. We called this music ‘street rock’ and later ‘PUNK’- ‘come as you are and do your own thing’ rock and roll…..I certainly didn’t love every band that played CBGB’s but I did love to encourage them to do their own thing, to challenge the establishment. I’ve always felt the stronger you are about yourself and your own ideas, (in this case musical ideals) the more satisfying your success, hopefully, the more rewarding your future.”

Hilly Kristal, founder of CBGB’s

This music gave CBGB a reputation as a sanctuary for counterculture misfits and underground rock. CBGB became the epicenter of the punk music genre and launched the careers of The Ramones, the Talking Heads, Blondie, Television, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, The Cramps, and many other legendary bands. In the 1980s it became known as a hardcore punk venue. Village Preservation recognized CBGB’s with an annual Village Award in 2004 as part of a tribute to five Bowery theaters. The award cited the extraordinary contributions the theaters made to the artistic history of the neighborhood.

The Neighborhood

Throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s, the Bowery was a much different place. According to Kristal, “Having a rock club on the Bowery, under a flophouse (believe it or not), does have some advantages. (1) the rent is (was) reasonable (2) Most of our neighbors dressed worse than, or more weird than our rock and rollers (3) The surrounding buildings were mostly industrial and the people who did live close by, didn’t seem to care about having a little rock and roll sound seeping into their lives….The Bowery was, to repeat, a drab ugly and unsavory place. But it was good enough for rock and rollers. The people who frequented CBGB didn’t seem to mind staggering drunks and stepping over a few bodies.

A view of the Bowery in the 1970s – gas stations and industrial buildings. Image via archive.gvshp.org

For over 100 years the Bowery was infamous for flophouses, drug and alcohol abuse, gambling, and other pursuits of the rough and lowbrow. But by the late 1990s and early 2000s changes were going on in the neighborhood, eventually leading to the closure of CBGB on October 15, 2006. Kristal passed away on August 28, 2007. While some Bowery blocks are still a little rough around the edges, the street is also now the home to luxury brands, high rise condos and hotels, and still some wonderful architecture.

CBGB after they closed in 2011.

In 2013, the 313-315 Bowery (the former location of CBGB) was added to the National Register of Historic Places as part of the Bowery Historic District.

Click here to take our historic tour of the Bowery. 

Click here to read about the history of the building on our East Village Building Blocks website.

Click here to read more about the extensive history of CBGB.

Click here to see all the images in our Historic Image Archive of CBGB.

3 responses to “Hilly Kristal’s Long Road to the Bowery and Rock and Roll Legend

  1. The article should have put some effort into talking about the different eras of CBGBs and how each was cutting edge in different ways. I feel that these articles almost always just talk about the relevance of the first decade there with old NY Punk and gloss over all the really important stuff that happened later on with other genres like Hardcore, Rockabilly and Goth.

  2. I was the original Lighting Director at CBGB 1976-1980.
    I also designed the CBGB Classic T-Shirt. And ICONIC Logo on the TShirts that adorns some many articles, shirts, books, hats shopping bags and other memorabilia. I never received recognition or any money for my effort. I still own the original artwork and workups that led to the Logo and TShirt designs. I lit most of the acts that graced that legendary stage from 1976-1980. I trained two protégés during my tenure there, Cherri Heim, and Dennis Dunn.
    It was exciting and fulfilling to be a part of and contribute to the legend of CBGB, along with the great acts which had their beginnings on the worlds’
    most famous club. It was an honor to be a part of this period of New Yorks culture and a music scene that is still stimulating new acts to join together and create.
    What an adventure “ROCKin’ on the Bowery” was. I salute Hilly Kristal for his work and turning his dream into reality and the stuff that Legends are made of. He helped many achieve their dreams And begin their careers, yours truly included.

    1. I only heard of you Cosmo, but when I played there the first time early 80s Dennis Dunn said “God didn’t say Let There be noise! He said Let there be light!” Followed by “Now I’m gonna burn that silly makeup off your face”! Luckily we never wore make-up or he would have. I stayed friends with Hilly for many years after I moved away from NY when I would come back with different bands. I miss him dearly.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *