MANHATTAN, NY—The Bitter End was established in 1961 as a small music club on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village, but it was the launching pad for the careers of hundreds of musicians and comedians. In its heydays in the 1960s and 1970s, the late Paul Colby provided a stage and an audience for the likes of Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead, Stevie Wonder, Billy Joel, Jackson Browne, Neil Diamond, Hall & Oates, Simon & Garfunkel, James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Bette Midler, Curtis Mayfield, Joan Baez, Sam & Dave, The Chambers Brothers, Phil Ochs, Peter, Paul & Mary, Randy Newman, Tommy James and Donny Hathaway. He also booked many up-an-coming comedians, including Woody Allen, Bill Cosby, Billy Crystal, Cheech & Chong, Ray Romano, Richard Pryor, Andy Kaufman and Lily Tomlin. Later acts included Patti Smith, Blues Traveler, Rusted Root, Gavin DeGraw, Norah Jones, Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga, Ingrid Michaelson and Jon Stewart.
I have many memories of Colby and the club. Colby was much older than I when I started frequenting his club in the 1970s. I remember him clearly, a short man with a fuzzy, oversized moustache, often wearing a kerchief or ascot around his neck and turquoise jewelry on his wrists, and often by a German shepherd in one hand and a young and beautiful woman in the other. Colby was very present to the artists, and was able to rebook them because he built relationships with them. It was never for me to really understand why he attracted so many model-beautiful women, however.
The Bitter End was and is an iconic music club thanks to Colby. Before I started writing for The Aquarian Weekly 40 years ago, I was a broke teenager that used to sneak into the club by going through the apartment building next door. Back then, the seating in the club was made of what looked like church pews with a narrow ledge where you could place the monstrous ice cream concoction you had to order to meet the table minimum; the club had no liquor license. I saw dozens of Colby’s shows there. I saw Chaka Khan performing to a fairly empty room as her band Rufus was trying to gain a following. I saw Carly Simon opening for Kris Kristofferson when both were fledgling artists, and then saw Kristofferson romancing her at the Dugout next door between the early and late shows; she came back a year later and sang a song called “Kris.”
A larger venue, The Bottom Line, opened nearby in 1974 and stole The Bitter End’s thunder. Colby struggled to get name acts. Today, The Bottom Line is gone but The Bitter End continues to rock Bleecker Street on a block now full of music venues.
Colby died in his home in Montclair, New Jersey, at age 96 on February 13, 2014. The club hosted a musical tribute to him on June 23 that featured performances by John Sebastian, Peter Yarrow, Guy Davis, Josh White, Jr., Ronee Blakley, Eric Andersen, Willie Nile, The Persuasions, Tom Chapin and the Chapin Sisters.
(Pictured: Tom Chapin & The Chapin Sisters)