While he was a semi-pro singer, managed several rock bands, ran a record label, and headed up a small but very profitable merchandising empire, Hilly Kristal will always be best remembered as the owner and proprietor of CBGB, the rock club on New York City's Bowery that became home to the first wave of punk rock and launched the careers of the Ramones, Talking Heads, Patti Smith, Blondie, and dozens of other trailblazing acts. Kristal was born in New York City on September 23, 1931, though his family moved to Hightstown, NJ, when he was young, and he spent most of his youth there. Kristal fell in love with music when he was a boy, and studied at the Settlement Music School in Philadelphia, PA. In the '50s and '60s, Kristal pursued a career as a singer; he met his wife when they were taking lessons from the same vocal coach, he regularly performed with a choral group that once appeared at Carnegie Hall, and in 1962 cut a novelty single called "Man in Space" that was unfortunately released just as the Cuban missile crisis was dominating the minds of America. Eventually, Kristal moved into the business side of music, helping to manage the legendary New York jazz club the Village Vanguard, and when he developed a passion for acoustic music, he opened a club called Hilly's on the Bowery devoted to country, bluegrass, and blues; in late 1973 the club was renamed for his initial booking policy -- CBGB. However, when an offbeat guitar band called Television who rehearsed nearby stopped by the club in early 1974 and asked for a gig, Kristal gave them a shot, and soon a number of other maverick rock & roll acts followed them to the tiny Bowery dive. As punk rock became a media sensation, CBGB was hailed as its home base in New York, and Kristal earned the loyalty of the bands he featured by paying them fairly, maintaining one of New York's best sound systems, and offering encouragement even when he didn't quite understand (or even enjoy) what the new bands were up to. Kristal became manager of two of the club's regular attractions, the Dead Boys and the Shirts, and created a production company that put together the flawed but well-intended album Live at CBGB's. Over the years, Kristal would expand his Bowery empire to include an art gallery, a secondary venue for poetry and experimental music, an Internet radio outlet, an independent record label, and even a pizza joint, but CBGB itself changed little, maintaining a funky atmosphere, keeping the cover charge low, and booking acts both well-known and thoroughly obscure. In 1999, Kristal took another stab at music, recording an amiably eccentric independent album of original songs called Mad Mordechai. After the turn of the century, Kristal launched a successful business selling CBGB T-shirts and trinkets that earned him a small fortune after many years of financial struggle, but despite this his club was nearing the end of its run. In 1993, the Bowery Residents' Committee, a non-profit firm, bought the building housing CBGB (Kristal had been unable to raise the cash to buy it himself), and by many accounts the relationship between BRC and Kristal was not cordial. After a rent dispute brought the two parties to court, BRC opted not to renew Kristal's lease on the space, and CBGB hosted its final shows in October 2006. By that time, Kristal had been diagnosed with lung cancer, and while he had pledged to reopen CBGB in a new location -- possibly in Las Vegas -- he didn't live long enough to see it happen; cancer claimed his life on August 28, 2007. ~ Mark DemingPortions of Content Provided by Rovi Corporation.
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