The stone building at the corner of West 4th and Mercer Streets in Greenwich Village is unremarkable now — and quiet. It contains a lecture hall and classrooms for New York University. Passersby don’t give the place a second glance.
But for nearly three decades, beginning on a February night in 1974, this was a vital center of music in New York — a 400-capacity nightclub where Bruce Springsteen sweated atop the piano, Stevie Wonder jammed with Dr. John and celebrities crowded the stage and tiny tables alike.
“If These Walls Could Talk: Remembering the Life and Times of the Bottom Line,” presented Oct. 13 and 14 at Pace University’s Schimmel Center, was put together by Allan Pepper, who co-owned the famed club with the late Stanley Snadowsky.
For two nights of music and memories, the performances reunited many musicians for whom the Bottom Line was the place to play in New York — David Bromberg, Nona Hendryx, Garland Jeffreys, Christine Lavin, Darlene Love, Terre Roche, Willie Nile, Sean Altman and more — backed by a crack house band led by Paul Shaffer. The ensemble included backing singers Ula Hedwig, who first gained notice as one of Bette Midler’s Harlettes; Curtis King, who has toured with Bruce Springsteen; Broadway drummer Clint de Ganon; Will Lee, longtime bassist in Shaffer’s band on Late Night With David Letterman; guitarist Jimmy Vivino and the Uptown Horns, who have backed everyone from Ray Charles to the Rolling Stones.
Reminiscing began before the music, as audience members gathered in the theater’s lobby which displayed vintage shots from photographers Peter Cunningham, Bob Gruen and Ebet Roberts. Among those images were several from Cunningham familiar to longtime club denizens, photos that lined the wall above the bar, showing performances by Billy Joel, Phoebe Snow, Bromberg, the Roches, Lou Reed, Kris Kristofferson and then-husband-and-wife duo of James Taylor and Carly Simon. “I was there,” one fan said as he looked at the photo of those two sharing a microphone.
Images projected above the performers added to the night’s atmosphere: a photo of Dr. John, Stevie Wonder and Johnny Winter from opening night on Feb. 12, 1974, when Mick Jagger was in the audience; crowds lining up outside the club, which presented two nights nightly, and even the bright yellow Bottom Line menu (“Shrimp Scampi: $6.50”).
“The club was like a second home,” said Shaffer, who emceed and bantered with the house band as the evening began. He talked with Will Lee about playing behind Barry Manilow during a multi-night stand in the first year of the club’s existence. What did he remember, Shaffer asked. “1974? Not a fucking thing,” quipped Lee.
For Darlene Love — the powerful voice behind Phil Spector’s hits of the early 1960s like “She’s a Rebel” — her long history with the New York club began in Los Angeles, she said, after Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Van Zandt came to see her perform and insisted she needed to sing in New York. “The first job Stevie got me was at the Bottom Line,” recalled Love, who later starred in the club’s revue Leader of the Pack, celebrating the hits of Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry. Shaffer brought David Letterman to the Bottom Line to hear Love perform her signature song, “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” from Phil Spector’s famed 1963 Christmas album — and Letterman featured Love on his show every Christmas for the next 29 years.
Springsteen recently told Jon Pareles of The New York Times that his current Broadway show, filled with storytelling, “goes back to our early days at the Bottom Line when you were in front of a couple of hundred people.” During Springsteen’s five-night stand at the Bottom Line in August 1975, he “climbed on every possible thing,” the late Stanley Snadowsky once said.
Other legends merely hung out. “Bob Dylan would stand at the bar and watch my show,” recalled Garland Jeffreys. “I showed him a trick or two,” Jeffreys joked. “He was friendly, from distance.”
Other superstars did not keep their distance. Nona Hendrxy told the audience about the night David Bowie showed up at her show. “He came to see me at the club — and then he took me home.”
Willie Nile described finding himself backstage with two other New York music legends. “It was me, Lou Reed and Joey Ramone,” he said. “One of those moments that I’ll never forget.”
Christine Lavin told of Pepper’s ability to inspire musicians, urging her to team up with like-minded singer-songwriters and to give the group “a snappy title.” The result was Four Bitchin Babes, an ensemble with a rotating membership that included, among others, Julie Gold — who came up from the audience to give a surprise and moving performance of her Grammy-winning song “From a Distance.”
The Bottom Line thrived during the free-spending heyday of the record industry. It was the see-and-be-seen center of the Manhattan music scene as defined — often, but not exclusively — by the promotion priorities of record labels who would buy tables in the club to showcase rising artists.
The club closed in 2004 after reaching an impasse with its landlord, New York University, over renewal of its lease. Snadowsky passed away in 2013. Several CDs in the Bottom Line Archive series, including nights hosted by radio personality and club champion Vin Scelsa, are still sold.
At the time of its closing, the club posted a statement on its website which read: ”The Bottom Line has always been about the music, and we find fulfillment in knowing that we have stayed the course and remained true to our vision.”
The vision burned bright once more onstage at the Schimmel Center as Shaffer led the full group of musicians into a finale of “River Deep Mountain High,” with Love’s inimitable, soaring, rock ‘n’ roll vocals.
As the house lights came up, the audience turned around toward the back of the theater and gave a standing ovation to the real star of the night, club co-owner Allan Pepper, who teared up as the applause continued.