Even though it’s been a good two decades since Paul Colby was actively involved in the running of The Bitter End, one of Greenwich Village’s premiere music and comedy showcases, he was still a presence in the room — and not just because his name is on the awning and a banner at the back of the stage.
“There was an aura about him,” Paul Rizzo, one of Colby’s partners in the club, tells Billboard. “He hasn’t been a part of the daily running of the club for a couple decades, but he would still come out, and when certain people would play at the club he’d come and introduce them.”
“He was one of those guys that when he walked in the room, everybody wanted to talk to him.”
Colby’s death on Feb. 13, of natural causes at the age of 96 in a New Jersey hospital, was made public on Tuesday. Under his direction the Bitter End became a legendary spot where a who’s who of entertainers launched their career, including comedians (Woody Allen, Billy Crystal, Cheech & Chong, Ray Romano, Richard Pryer, Cheech & Chong, Andy Kaufman) and musicians from America to Frank Zappa. The late Dave Van Ronk described it as “New York’s closest thing to a mainstream folk showcase,” and it was home to Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Simon & Garfunkel, Peter, Paul & Mary, Kris Kristofferson, James Taylor and more. But Colby’s Bitter End boasted a broader stylistic reach that included the Grateful Dead, Stevie Wonder, Billy Joel, Curtis Mayfield, Sam & Dave, Hall & Oates, the Chambers Brothers and, later on, acts such as Patti Smith, Blues Traveler, Rusted Root and even more contemporary artists like Taylor Swift and Ingrid Michaelson.
“You had to be a big name just to get third billing there,” Emmylou Harris told Greenwich Village historian Robbie Woliver.
“I was more than a nightclub owner,” Colby told NorthJersey.com in 2011. “I developed all these artists. They were unknowns at the time… I helped them achieve stardom. I found my way finding talent. I got creative.”
Colby came to the Bitter End as club manager and talent booker in 1965 after plugging songs for Benny Goodman, Irving Berlin and Guy Lombardo and promoting records by Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Charlie Barnet. Colby took over ownership in 1974, and the following year Dylan held some of the initial discussions to that led to the Rolling Thunder Revue tour at the Bitter End. A number of acts recorded live albums on the Bitter End stage, including Mayfield, Peter, Paul & Mary, Bill Cosby, Randy Newman, Pete Seeger, Donny Hathaway, Arlo Guthrie, the Isley Brothers and others. He also had an interior design firm, Colby Associates, whose clients included Tony Bennett, Miles Davis, Diahann Caroll and Cy Coleman.
Colby also promoted shows at larger venues such as Carnegie Hall, and he wrote a memoir about his club experiences titled “The Bitter End: Hanging Out in America’s Nightclub.” The Bitter End became an official New York City Landmark in 1992, and a tribute concert for Colby with Peter Yarrow, Paul Stookey, Garland Jeffreys and others was held on Nov. 4, 2011. In later years Colby, who resided in Montclair, N.J., spent his time painting and building furniture.
Colby is survived by his wife, Pamela, and a brother, Morty. Memorial arrangements are pending, and Rizzo — who’s placed a photo of Colby in the club’s window — says he and co-owner Kenny Gorka hope to stage an all-star tribute in the near future.