- NAME: Hilly Kristal
- OCCUPATION: Entrepreneur, Singer
- BIRTH DATE: September 23, 1931
- DEATH DATE: August 28, 2007
- Did You Know?: Patti Smith had an almost two-month residency at CBGB in 1975.
- EDUCATION: Settlement Music School
- PLACE OF BIRTH: New York, New York
- PLACE OF DEATH: New York, New York
- Full Name: Hillel Kristal
- AKA: Hilly Kristal
Best Known For
Hilly Kristal was a musician and vocalist who ran the legendary punk/rock venue CBGB, helping to launch the careers of acts like Patti Smith and Blondie.
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Born in New York City on September 23, 1931, Hilly Kristal was a violinist and vocalist who went on to found CBGB, a small venue in lower Manhattan that launched famous rock/punk acts like Television, Talking Heads, Blondie and Patti Smith. Kristal earned millions from T-shirt and merchandise revenue, though the club was closed in 2006 over back rent. He died on August 28, 2007.
"I grew up thinking I was going to be a concert violinist, and I played with the high school orchestra when I was eight or nine, but I kind of backed into folk music."
"CBGB stands for Country Bluegrass Bar, which is what I intended to do when I started this place. More folk-country than Nashville, but not the kind of music we became famous for."
"I found it, or it found me, or we found each other, this new music. And I got to love these people and what some of them were doing, and of course, hate what some of the others were doing. You get very involved in getting these people who are trying to do something, especially this creative music, a chance."
"Thirty-two and a half years, it's a home. It's more a home than my tiny little apartment. Everything revolved in my life around making it work and being there."
"When people play on the same stage, they don't care who they are. There's a certain respect they have for each other, and they enjoy playing the same stage. I think the music transcends a lot of things, especially as long as they're allowed to do their own thing."
"CBGBs wasn't just about Hilly or the people who played there or New York City, it represented freedom for young people. To me the name CBGBs could be a slang term at this point meaning freedom. Hilly offered us unconditional freedom."
Hillel Kristal was born on September 23, 1931, in New York City, with his family soon moving to Hightstown, New Jersey, where he grew up. Kristal developed a passion for music, studying the violin and going on to become a vocalist at Radio City Music Hall after a stint in the military, where he entertained via radio. He also dropped a single—"Man in Space"—in the early 1960s.
Kristal went into behind the scenes musical work as well, serving as manager of iconic jazz venue the Village Vanguard by 1959 and later producing college campus performances. By the mid-'60s, Kristal had launched the cabaret club and restaurant Hilly's in the West Village, housing performers like Bette Midler during her early years on Broadway. At the end of the decade he opened another club, Hilly's on the Bowery.
In late 1973, Kristal changed the Bowery Hilly's moniker to CBGB & OMFUG, which stood for "Country Bluegrass Blues" and "Other Music for Uplifting Gourmandizers." Despite the genre tilt of its title, the small venue went in a radical direction and become a crucial, career-making site for iconic rock, punk and poetry acts from the '70s and '80s, including Talking Heads, Television, Blondie, The Ramones and Patti Smith, who had a 1975 residency there for several weeks.
Kristal's former wife Karen worked at the club and was legal owner of the venue's parent company due to Kristal going bankrupt on a past business.
CBGB became famous not only for its performances, with Hilly Kristal maintaining that all acts had to do original material, but also for its décor, known for its heavily stickered, graffiti walls and cringe-worthy lavatories. Kristal, who didn't always care for the music from some of the acts he booked, nevertheless was renowned for giving artists a platform outside mainstream musical conventions.
Kristal eventually earned major revenues by copyrighting the CBGB logo and selling affiliated T-shirts and merchandise on a global scale. The club's physical site came to be owned by the Bowery Residents' Committee and, after significant conflict over issues of back rent, CBGB was closed in 2006, with Smith playing the last concert.
Hilly Kristal died on August 28, 2007, in New York City, after battling lung cancer. Many artists whose career he supported spoke about his legacy and CBGB's major influence in music. Controversy also ensued after his death as ex-wife Karen and son Dana charged that a lion's share of Kristal's estate, worth millions due to merchandise sales, was unfairly signed over to daughter Lisa Kristal Burgman.
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